Caol Ila is one of a number of distilleries on the isle of Islay.

The Australian whisky boom has to date been spearheaded by single malts – whiskies distilled exclusively from malted barley. Now a small but growing number of distillers are championing other grains; most notably rye, which has long played an important role in American whiskies.

The results have been increasingly impressive. In March this year, Sydney’s Archie Rose Distilling Company beat the Americans at their own game, with its Rye Malt Whisky named World’s Best Rye at the prestigious World Whiskies Awards in London.

As with most of the proponents of Australian rye, Archie Rose’s differs considerably from the classic American expressions. Its Rye Malt Whisky is distilled from 100% malted rye; most American distillers use raw, unmalted rye, and tame its spicy intensity by supplementing with other grains.

Andrew Fitzgerald is co-founder of Melbourne’s The Gospel Distillers, the country’s only other rye-focused whisky distillery, next to Tasmanian paddock-to-bottle distiller Belgrove. Located in Brunswick, Gospel is modelled on those of American whiskey producers.

“Our distillery really is designed to make rye and bourbon-style whiskies, that’s what we’re set up for – to make rye and make it well,” Fitzgerald says.

The most common grain bill for an American rye is a 50/30/20 split of unmalted rye, corn and malted barley, respectively. “But we wanted to make a rye whiskey that was quite grain-driven in style,” he says.

The Gospel Straight Rye Whiskey takes its cues from the US by using unmalted rye, but unlike American whiskey, it accounts for 100% of the grain bill.

The ‘Australianness’ of Gospel’s rye is underlined by its selection of grain from a single farm in Murray Mallee, South Australia’s renowned grain-growing region.

“We cut out the middle man of a grain broker and buy direct from a farmer,” says Fitzgerald. “It’s cheaper and if there’s any issues with the grain – for example, if it’s not clean enough – I can talk directly to the farmer. I’ve got more quality control.”

Leigh and Bree Attwood of Blackwoods Distilling.
Leigh and Bree Attwood of Backwoods Distilling.

Also in Victoria, Leigh and Bree Attwood – the husband-and-wife team behind Yackandandah start-up Backwoods Distilling – are poised to launch their debut rye whisky.

“It’s a vatting of a couple of casks that we’re really happy with,” says Leigh.

He says the temperature in Yackandandah ranges from a low of -5° in winter, to 45° in summer, drives plenty of interaction between the spirit and the cask.

“We measure age in years of course, but we also talk in Australia about measuring summers,” Leigh says. “The casks we’ve selected have had three summers here in Yack, so they’ve progressed really well.”

Backwoods’ rye is a 60/30/10 split respectively between malted rye – sourced from Voyager Craft Malt in Riverina, NSW – barley and wheat.

“The rye we sourced from Voyager was a bit of a hybrid that was growing wild on their neighbours’ property,” he says.

“They reclaimed it and got a crop out of it, so it’s this kind of beasty little grain that has a very unusual flavour.

“We initially experimented with making a 100% rye, but we found it to be a little bit too punchy. We wanted to make our rye as accessible as possible, so we dialled it back.”

Where possible, Backwoods is maturing its rye in barrels sourced from local wineries, such as Sorrenberg in Beechworth and Scion in Rutherglen.

“It’s part of our story that we are based in the north-east, which is home to some of Victoria’s celebrated wine regions,” Leigh says. “We wanted to try and use the resources we had available around us.”

Cameron Syme of Tiger Snake.
Cameron Syme of Tiger Snake.

One of Australia’s earliest proponents of rye is based in Porongurup, Western Australia. Tiger Snake, is the offshoot of renowned Albany single malt producer, Limeburners.

“As for many Australians, bourbon was my starter spirit in my late teens,” says founder Cameron Syme. “And if I was entirely honest, at that stage it would have been mixed with a bit of the black stuff… In time, my palate became more refined.”

Tiger Snake Rye of the Tiger is distilled from a 60/40 mix of unmalted rye and malted barley. Syme says he set out very deliberately to create a different style of rye to those he had sampled in America, which he says often have a distinct dill pickle character.

“I haven’t wanted to copy whiskies that are made elsewhere. I’ve been very much about making a unique Australian spirit,” Syme says. “Our rye seems to have a tamer spiciness and a lighter floral component than the heavy pickle flavour of American ryes.”

Robust and spicy at its extremes, rye whisky can be something of an acquired taste. However, those who cross the breach often become ardent enthusiasts for this unique and characterful grain.

The diversity of production approaches taken by distillers ensure this emerging genre of Australian whisky is exciting and diverse. Take the time to sample their wares and find the rye whisky style that best appeals to you.