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By Fred Siggins, Contributor

An Heirloom Australian Rye Returns For Our Latest Whisky

In the dusty marginal farmlands of Western NSW, a farm auction takes place. This is the last ditch effort of a farmer to sell off what’s left of the closing-down farm, piece by piece. In amongst the bales of fencing wire and rusted tools, a bag of scrappy, mismatched grains sits slumped against the wall. Picking through the detritus, Stu Whytcross finds the old grain bag and runs his hands through the wild-looking seed.

Australia is not the only place where rye grains are grown. Rye is planted extensively in Europe, where it’s used to make beer, vodka and schnapps (among other non-boozy things), and in North America where it’s used to make rye whiskey. But Australian rye is different. Overseas, rye has been selectively bred for countless generations to produce higher yield. Here, the spicy little grain is mostly used as a feed supplement for stock animals or as a standby crop to help revive tapped-out fields in between plantings of other, higher-yield grains.

“The variety of rye we have here in Australia tends to grow out in the marginal farming areas where it’s hot and dry,” says Whycross, owner of Voyager Malt who produces the Sandigo rye used at Archie Rose. “What we tend to see is quite a small grain size and the yields aren’t massive. I’ve been farming since I was 12 and in that time with barley, for example, there’s been 50-100 new varieties bred for yield and tolerance, but a lot of that has been at the sacrifice of flavour and aroma. But with rye, most farmers are still planting 60 year old strains that haven’t had the flavour bred out of them.”

Stu explains how the mandarins he remembers growing in his backyard as a kid show how lower yield can result in more flavour. “Mum used to knock the green fruit off the tree so it would put its energy into the other ones,” he says. “When we finally picked and ate those left to mature fully, they were just packed full of flavour and intensity. That’s what we see in this Sandigo rye.”

At Archie Rose, we believe great whisky starts in the field, which in Australia means we have access to some of the best soil, growers and malts in the world. In 2020, we set out to prove it with our very first Trials & Exceptions release, Sandigo Heritage Rye Malt, which served as a window to the unique strains of heritage rye found right here in NSW. Through our collaboration with local farmers and maltsters like Stu, we’re able to access these exceptional grains that have never before seen the inside of a whisky bottle and literally distill them to their very essence for you to drink.

The Sandigo grain we use for our Heritage Rye releases (#1 and #15 in our Trials & Exceptions series), is a malted landrace rye that has been grown continuously near Sandigo, NSW for over 60 years by fourth-generation farmers. Adapting to droughts, floods and storms over the decades, this incredible grain evolved into its own distinct strain found nowhere else on earth, and offering a unique character available only to Archie Rose. Stu found these grains at a farm auction a few years back and has been carefully cultivating them, first from a greenhouse, then to a small plot and finally to a whole paddock so we could harvest enough to use. “We found the Sandigo rye at a clearing sale from a farmer up the road and thought it was just a mess,” he says. “But after a bit of consideration, we thought ‘what we have here is a unique product with a real provenance.’”

The whiskies we have created from this unique local grain, to put it simply, just taste more like rye than their foreign counterparts. Because our local rye has evolved and adapted to its (often harsh) local environment, it contains more protein, more fibre, more variation and finally, more flavour than the heavily cultivated strains common in Europe and America. “This truly unique heirloom rye variety has become one of the workhorse strains we use to create our Rye Malt Whisky,” says Archie Rose Head Distiller Dave Withers. “It’s so special to see this strain on its own and see the powerful spice, eucalypt and nutty flavours we love shining through.”

Our most recent release, Return to Sandigo, is a continuation of our exploration of heritage rye and a perfect example of why our Trials and Exceptions series exists. The first ever Trials & Exceptions, Sandigo Heritage Rye Malt, was designed to showcase the flavour and character of Sandigo rye in all its glory - powerful, wild and undiluted. We wanted to see and taste what we were working with. Now, we’re incredibly excited to be at a point where we can look back on earlier whiskies to refine and adapt.

Releases as #15 is our Trials & Exceptions series, Return to Sandigo is designed to be a more refined evolution of heritage rye. For this whisky, we have used shorter fermentation times to create a lighter flavour profile, and have matured the whisky for significantly longer in larger casks to allow it to slowly mellow while supporting the Sandigo rye’s unique character with the flavours of heavily charred American oak.

“It is so exciting to be able to showcase this unique malt once again. This product marks yet another big step we’re taking on the road to 100% Australian grown malted rye in our rye whisky,” says Withers.

This is the nature of research and development; to try, refine and try again, and we couldn’t be prouder to be sharing this process with you as we continue to innovate and move towards a truly Australian whisky.