Recently I was asked why we chose to distil rye whiskey over single malt. Not being prepared for the question, I answered it simply: it’s what I drink, so it makes sense to make what I drink. However, the actual answer isn’t as simple as that.
Firstly, I am a firm believer that decisions are not instantaneous just the announcement of them is. I think of it like dots in a puzzle, connect enough of them and they form a picture. Same goes with events and learnings, collect enough of them and they will form an opinion which becomes the basis of a decision. Ben and I have made the decisions that have guided our business mostly based on the heuristic technique. This is a fancy way of saying our decisions may not always be optimal but they are made to the best of our knowledge at the time.
Set out below are the series of events (or dots in the puzzle) that led to the decision to focus on making rye whiskey, one of our few decisions that actually turned out to be optimal.
The First Dot - Tools of the Trade
In 2016, soon after Ben and I launched Melbourne Moonshine we started talking about making whiskey on a larger scale. Our original distillery and production site in South Melbourne was a lot smaller and ‘agricultural’ than what we now have in Brunswick (which is still small) but this meant it was very hands on and at times difficult. We used milk vats for fermenters and our stills were direct fired. We had no mash tun or chiller. Almost all the pipework Ben fabricated himself and the facility was barebones to say the least – when I used to host tours, people could not help but giggle at what we were doing. Our first step in making whiskey was to be able to separate the wort from the grain. Ben built a lauter pipe system that we installed in the bottom of one of the milk vat fermenters. It’s a relatively simple concept where you drill lots of small holes in copper tube that has been joined in a grid layout. It ends up looking like some kind of weird wind instrument.
Andrew hosting a tour at the Melbourne Moonshine distillery in South Melbourne
First cab off the rank was single malt. It’s the easiest style of whiskey to distil and Ben and I were very pleased with the results. However, we both have a greater love for American style whiskeys and we soon progressed to distilling a four-grain whiskey which consisted of corn, rye, wheat and barley. This is where things got interesting. Unlike the easily lautered malt, the four-grain did not drain well and this was certainly a leading indicator of what was to come when we finally attempted a 100% rye grain mash bill. We had no option at the time but to hand filter the mash by pressing the mash through a screen. It took Ben and I 8 hours per mash to filter it. It was a nightmare. The reason we wanted to separate the mash was because we had direct fired stills, meaning when the grain went into the wash still it would scorch, leaving a slightly ‘burnt’ flavour in the whiskey. There are distilleries out there that don’t mind this flavour but to us, it’s a fault and not something we wanted.
Not long after our hand filtering marathon, we started to plot how we would re-design the site.
The screen used to hand filter the rye mash at the South Melbourne distillery, lovingly know as 'the chicken coop'
The Second Dot – The Bartender and the Drink
The second dot that has contributed to why we make rye whiskey today was when it was served to me in a great bar in Melbourne – Nieuw Amsterdam – which is unfortunately no longer there. Sean McGuire, the beautiful human and amazing bartender that is, introduced me to the Rye Old Fashioned. Up to this point I had consumed many Old Fashioneds, always using bourbon as the base. Sean served up either a High West or Rittenhouse Old Fashioned which, unlike the bourbon-based versions, balanced out the sweet addition of the sugar better with a little rye spice. After that moment – Rye Old Fashioned (and mostly Rittenhouse versions) became my go to drink. I have not had a bourbon one since. Depending on who you ask or what text you read, rye has often been claimed as the original whiskey of choice for the Old Fashioned but none of that really matters, all that matters is that it tastes like a match made in heaven.
Third Dot – The Stranger and the Proposition
In early 2016 sometime, a friend of a friend came to see Ben and I as he wanted to invest in or start his own booze brand. Being 100% self-funded, the idea sounded favourable to us. We met with this person several times and one thing he proposed is the distillation of rye whiskey. Still nursing the scars from weeks of filtering by hand, we were less than excited about the idea. Long story short, he went his way, and we went ours. But the idea of a rye whiskey from Australia resonated. Although, it resonated deep in the back of my mind.
Fourth Dot – Reconnaissance
Mid 2016, Ben and I took two weeks off from the day-to-day of making and selling moonshine and headed to the USA. We had two objectives of the trip - visit a number of distilleries and look at how they designed and built certain elements (we aspired to build a bigger and better distillery), and visit as many bars as possible to assess what people were drinking and how. It’s a trip we should have actually done prior to starting our distillery, but hindsight is 20/20.
During that trip we visited distilleries from Kentucky all the way to Washington and went to 70+ bars. A tough time but we struggled through (either drunk or hungover). At each bar, I would ask the same question of the bartenders at every location we visited – what are people drinking the most and what do you think is next in the drinking world. The answers were very consistent; people were mostly drinking bourbon, and the next big thing was either mezcal or rye whiskey. You could call this a qualitative assessment as we were drinking so much. But still we learnt a lot.
One of the distilleries we visited, based just outside of Seattle, really stood out as a great distillery in regards to layout/design, quality of whiskey and quality of branding. They also happened to make a 100% rye whiskey with 10% malted and 90% unmalted rye. It was one of the best tasting whiskeys I had during my travels and considering I had just spent a week in Kentucky and Tennessee, that’s saying something. There it was again – rye whiskey popping up. Now I really started to think about it as a potential focus of ours.
Fifth Dot - Search and Discovery
After our return from the US in mid-2016, I was compelled to look into rye whiskey further. I mean, I was drinking rye whiskey, people were talking about rye whiskey, and we were trying to work out what whiskey to make – it made sense to investigate it. So, I started to do a little research. I discovered the history of rye whiskey and the benefits of using rye grain in farming practices. I am not going to lie – I also drank a lot more rye whiskey, all for research purposes, obviously.
The three things that resonated the most was that rye grew where other grains wouldn’t. Rye whiskey was the hardest of all whiskeys to distil and rye whiskey was also the basis of a lot of classic cocktail recipes as it was the most prominent whiskey in the early years of US settlement.
Rye as a crop has a deep root system and is often used in areas of sandy soil or those that lack nutrients. It’s naturally drought resistant and as someone that has witnessed firsthand the impact of Australia’s drought over the past 20 years, this really impressed me. Although the first rye crops are said to have been grown in Tasmania, the cereal grain was soon adopted to the areas of Australia that suffered from harsher climates.
Rye made sense as an Australian ingredient. It survives where other grains won’t. Our stubbornness also made us feel that although rye whiskey was damn hard to make, we could do it.
Rye fermentation trials
Sixth Dot – Trial and Error
During our first trial runs of rye, Ben and I made every attempt to avoid hand filtering again. We even leased access to another distillery to run a trial batch, however, the cleanliness and overall condition of that distillery left not only a bad taste in our mouths (and noses) but in the actual whiskey as well, so that idea was quickly discarded. I then had an idea to use our spirit still as a boiler (fill with water and boil to make steam) to direct inject steam into our wash still. Ben recalls this as the time I almost killed him, as the spirit still almost exploded under pressure – an incredibly close call (sorry Ben!). Sooner or later, we decided enough was enough, we had to buy a boiler. Being the cheap buggers we are and seeing as we had no space in South Melbourne, we decided we would buy a small electric boiler which we found on Gumtree. The lady selling it used to make jams with it and had since decided to retire. We drove out to her place located on the Mornington Peninsula in a Go-Get rental van, made the deal and loaded up the boiler (along with some homemade jams). We were off! Boiler was soon installed, some dodgy steam piping assembled and a power feed that was right on the limit supported the whole operation. But it worked. Just.
From there we ran trials on different grain bills (always over 51% Rye) but the idea of reflecting the Australian climate and the terroir of where we sourced the grain really resonated with Ben and I so we soon settled on focusing on unmalted rye from a single farm in the Murray Mallee. The taste of the new make was so oily and rich, we could not wait until it was matured.
Early smoker trials to dry out our malted grain - it caught fire
Seventh Dot – The Full Picture
Whilst we commenced the distilling in South Melbourne, we also started plans on our new distillery in Brunswick. Here we would learn from all our mistakes and challenges. We designed the distillery specifically to handle the punishment of rye. From our hammer mill to our mash vessel, all the way through to our in-house bespoke column still, our distillery is now designed and built to bring out the best in rye grain. That’s not to say we constructed it without the constraints of a budget. Our construction team (who handled 99% of the build) consisted of Ben and myself, my 70-year-old father (who slept on my couch for 3 months), some backpackers found on Gumtree and a great local tradesman called Andy. But regardless of our restraints, we built a distillery that would no longer fight us at every attempt to make whiskey. We could finally focus on the quality of spirit, the curation of barrels and the finished product that is now reaching markets around the world. It’s a dream come true.
Our obsession and dedication to making our ideal of rye whiskey work has paid off and although whiskey is our religion, rye is The Gospel.
Andrew installing the bespoke column still using a forklift, a pulley and some straps - don't try it at home
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