America's northernmost distillery, Far North Spirits, recently released a groundbreaking study showing that rye variety determines the flavor of whiskey—not just the aging process.

By Cinnamon Janzer
May 14, 2021
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Just shy of the Canadian border by 25 miles, Far North Spirits sits under a sprawling sky that fades deep into the horizon, uninterrupted save for fields of windswept grain. As micro-distilleries across the U.S. coalesce around cities, Far North owners Cheri Reese and Mike Swanson have made nearby Hallock, Minnesota, population 908, their base for the distillery, which is the northernmost in the contiguous United States.

Far North Fields
Credit: Courtesy of Far North Spirits

The distillery's pastoral location doesn't just set it apart geographically—its rural setting has enabled Reese and Swanson to make a groundbreaking discovery about the impact of rye variety on whiskey flavor.

In mid-April, Far North released the results of a study that Swanson conducted in conjunction with Jochum Wiersma, a renowned small grains specialist at the University of Minnesota. After five years of research that involved planting, harvesting, fermenting, and distilling 15 varieties of rye, which were then blind taste-tested, results show that rye variety determines the flavor of whiskey.

Far North Distillery
Credit: Courtesy of Far North Spirits

"The great wines of the world are tied to the variety of the grapes from which they are made," Swanson said. "However, for whiskeys, which are fermented and distilled from grains, that varietal information and the tie to the agriculture behind it is often lost."

Modern grain trading is to blame. Bought and sold as a commodity, rye varieties grown by dozens of farmers are readied for sale by mixing them together in one grain elevator marked with VNS—variety not stated. The process is efficient, but it loses the flavor distinctions between varieties. While some craft distillers pride themselves on sourcing grains directly from farmers, it's more of a statement on the value of buying local rather than an exploration of flavor.

In a refreshing change of pace, Far North distills their whiskey on site from rye grown on Swanson's family farm. This allows them to trace how grain varieties influence the flavor of the final product—information that is otherwise long lost to grain elevators.

Swanson began thinking about rye varietal after a Maine farmer asked him about the availability of the seed (AC Hazlet) that Swanson planted when he began in 2013. While Swanson chose it primarily for its winter hardiness and projected yield, the farmer had heard that Hazlet offered less peppery, vanilla notes. This got Swanson thinking. 

Rye seed inspection
Credit: Courtesy of Far North Spirits

"There are all these different rye varieties out there and nobody really thought to take a look at whether or not they taste different," he says. While the flavor of barley had been considered, "rye and corn didn't really have that. When I looked into this in terms of rye varieties, I came up with just nothing everywhere I looked."

He connected with Wiersma to see if he was missing something, but Wiersma confirmed that he, too, had never heard of anyone looking into how rye varieties impact whiskey flavor. So, the duo teamed up on a first-of-its-kind, multi-year crop study.

Wiersma helped Swanson identify varieties that were likely to grow well in far north Minnesota, sourcing rye near and far—from Minnesota's Rymin to Germany's Triticale. Each variety was planted in a 44,100-square-foot plot with similar soil between 2015 and 2017. The plots were distanced at least 66 feet from the others to prevent contamination from pollen drift.

Once harvested, the various ryes were processed identically through towering copper stills into separate white whiskey distillates. Finally funneled into clear glass bottles with a simple cork top and labeled with only a number scribed on green masking tape, the distillates were blind taste tested by 190 participants ranging from industry experts and agricultural professors to bartenders and the general public.

Far North Distillery
Credit: Courtesy of Far North Spirits

Through sensory questionnaires, participants evaluated the flavor of the distillate across characteristics like chocolate, mint, earth, wood, and more. Aggregated and presented in flavor wheels, the graphic demonstrated enormous differences among the distillates. Varieties like Aroostook and Dylan were found to be floral and vegetal with notes of grass reigning supreme, while Hazlet featured toasted nut flavors and Prima evoked nut, fruit, and vegetable.

The study is far from comprehensive—it was limited to varieties likely to be successful in Minnesota's notoriously harsh climate. But the results bring into question the commonly held notions that age alone is whiskey's metric of merit, and that rye is a simple commodity.

"I think that when something is bought and sold as a commodity, a lot of assumptions are made," Swanson says. "For the better part of 90 years, we've been talking about age and proof and we haven't necessarily been talking about the sourcing of raw materials." For Swanson, this gives farmers an important and valuable voice in the whiskey world: "Distilleries that are based on farms really have something to offer the industry."