News of a potential new crop, or new crop use, is always welcome in the Irish tillage sector and Irish Distillers may shortly add rye to our on-farm options.

Don McLean’s 1971 song, American Pie, had a line that went: “And them good ole boys were drinking whiskey ‘n’ rye,” but I doubt that this was inspired by John Jameson’s activities 100 years earlier.

However, a current initiative by Irish Distillers is heavily influenced by the Jameson archives.

It seems that John Jameson II was a good man to write things down and his records recall many of his thoughts about making whiskey at that time.

All Irish whiskeys have enjoyed considerable growth in export markets over the past decade, but continuous innovation is required to keep this happening. In an effort to continue to excite the palate of ever-curious consumers, Irish Distillers recently introduced Jameson Caskmates, which might best be described as a craft beer-influenced whiskey.

This venture resulted from a partnership between themselves and the Franciscan Well Brewery in Cork.

This involved the unusual practice of leaving stout to mature in used oak whiskey casks, followed by whiskey next time around.

Each was infused with flavours and aromas from the previous and both appear to be attractive to consumers.

The rye mash

Carol Quinn is the archivist in Midleton Distillery and a few years ago she found a whiskey mash bill which used rye as a raw material in the handwritten notebook of John Jameson II.

A mash bill is basically a recipe of ingredients and procedure for making a whiskey. This record appears to be from the late 1890s and rye was relatively common back then – widely used for straw for thatching.

The conversation that followed asked if this rye-based whiskey could be repeated? It is not known if this was actually produced or if it was successful at the time but it was decided to try to produce the original mashes. Innovation remains essential – even in a primarily traditional drinks industry.

Further exploration of the archives revealed that Andrew Jameson – a son of the founder whose wife had 16 children – had established a distillery in Fairfield, near Enniscorthy, in the 1820s. This helped trigger the decision to attempt to try to produce a rye whiskey and it was decided to grow it in the Enniscorthy area. Rye whiskey is not a novel concept and it is widely produced in other areas of the world, especially in the US where it must be distilled from at least 51% rye.

Paul Wickham from Irish Distillers explained this history to me and told me that about 160 acres of winter rye is now being grown for the project. This is mainly of the variety Brasetto (a Canadian Distilling type), but there is also about 15% Magnifico. This is being grown and handled by Cooney Furlong Ltd and will then be sent to Midleton for distilling.

It is envisaged that rye will be a significant component of the mash but the exact information is sensitive. While this is very much on a look-see basis, it could become a modest market for Irish product if it proves to be successful commercially.

At Midleton, the rye will be ground, and mixed with a proportion of malt to provide the necessary enzymes for the conversion of starch to alcohol. The resultant spirit will be put in oak barrels and left to mature for at least three years.

This maturation process adds flavour and colour to the initially clear spirit. The length of time in storage will be decided by continuous checks conducted during the storage period.

Asked what differences can be expected, Paul stated that the addition of rye normally adds boldness and spice flavours. Such a change might provide novelty for existing customers or perhaps even bring new audiences.