Scotland’s rye whisky: How new malts are going against the grain

The global reputation of the Scottish whisky industry is built on the quality of single malts made with barley but that isn't stopping distillers from rediscovering the qualities of rye. Lee Connor explores the space for spicing up whisky in Scotland

Words by Lee Connor

At Borders Distillery, rye spirit goes on to be matured in fresh-fill bourbon casks

If you’ve ever been lucky enough to take a tour of a Scottish single malt whisky distillery, the phrase ‘we only use the finest malted barley’ will be a familiar one. But in some corners of Scotland, distillers are turning to different grains as a counterpoint to traditional barley malt.

Drinkers are increasingly enamoured with the deep, spicy, peppery flavours of rye whiskey, both neat and as a cocktail ingredient. The steady growth in the popularity of American rye over the past decade has provided inspiration to distillers across the world. Be it in Europe, with Zuidam in the Netherlands, for example, to Australia and the Archie Rose Distilling Co., rye whisky is becoming a force to be reckoned with.

Rye had been used in Scotch production for centuries but it fell out of favour more recently as barley spirit came to dominate

Naturally, Scottish distillers are also entering the fray. As Loch Lomond distillery manager John Buchanan explains, ‘Looking into rye to create flavourful spirit makes a lot of sense for us. More Scottish distilleries are embracing this approach and that’s bolstering the movement.’

Consumers can expect a wide variety of approaches, with individual distillers looking to put their own signature on the category. One example is InchDairnie Distillery’s Ryelaw, which adheres to the traditional American approach of a minimum of 51% rye in their mash. By contrast, the decision taken at Arbikie Distillery was to showcase as much of the rye grain they grow on their farm as possible. ‘The individual flavour profile of the grain is very different and exciting,’ explains John Stirling, Arbikie’s co-founder. ‘We’ve also developed our single grain heritage varieties that give us even more diversity in the finished whisky.’

Johnnie Walker’s master blender, Emma Walker, is using rye spirit as an ingredient in Johnnie Walker High Rye, noting the role it has played throughout history in blended Scotch whisky. ‘Records of its use go back to 1784 – it’s great to resurrect and take part in its newfound and ongoing success.’

InchDairnie made its first rye whisky in 2017

In historical terms, Emma raises a pertinent point. The use of rye in Scotch had died out completely, and malted barley has risen to play an integral and internationally recognised role, not only in the whisky industry but in the culture and history of Scotland itself. Detractors could argue that a step away from its use could threaten Scottish whisky’s reputation. Bruichladdich head distiller Adam Hannett recognises this but remains philosophical, seeing the use of rye as a positive step. ‘There was a lovely moment in our still room back in 2017. We were running rye spirit for the first time and I realised that the guy stood next to me was a chap called Budgie. He was the person who taught me how to run a still when I first started at the distillery. It was nice to feel we’d come full circle [in learning and adapting to something new] and we’re still helping move the industry forward.’

The mash filter at the InchDairnie Distillery was installed before the roof and walls were built

The story of modern Scottish rye whisky has now well and truly begun. Trials with rye mash bills are taking place at Loch Lomond and Lone Wolf Distilleries, and there are unconfirmed rumours of experiments at multiple other distilleries. At the time of writing, these are the five producers in Scotland with notable whiskies containing rye spirit.

Scotch rye whisky: Five to try

Arbikie, Highland Rye Single Grain

Arbikies Rye spirit is made with only the minimum amount of malted barley required to efficiently convert starches into fermentable sugars. Notable flavours include black tea, caraway, and clove.
From £95 for 70cl, arbikie.com

Johnnie Walker, High Rye

Johnnie Walker High Rye consists of a blend of whiskies, including spirit from Cameronbridge and Teaninich distilleries containing 60% rye mash bills. The result is a balance of sweet vanilla notes and the spiciness of rye that is revealed through subtle wisps of warm smoke.

£149.95 for 75cl, htfw.com

Bruichladdich, The Regeneration Project

Initial conversations about the use of rye at Islay’s Bruichladdich distillery occurred back in 2016 with a view to improving biodiversity on the island through crop rotation. The Regeneration Project contains 55% rye and 45% malted barley, all grown locally. Tasting notes include liquorice, pepper, vanilla and chocolate.

£125 for 70cl, bruichladdich.com


borders malt and rye (1)

The Borders Distillery, WS:01 Borders Malt & Rye

A blend comprised of 63.8% Single Grain 36.2% Single Malt. Rye spirit is matured in the same fresh-fill bourbon casks as the malt to create an aromatic whisky.

£40 for 70cl, thebordersdistillery.com


rye law bottle

Inchdairnie, Ryelaw

The mash bill consists of 53% malted rye and 47% malted barley, and this whisky delivers flavours of spice, berries, cereal and bread.

£114.99 for 70cl, inchdairniedistillery.com