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Rye Is Coming Back to Kentucky with the Help of Woodford Reserve

Rye Is Coming Back to Kentucky with the Help of Woodford Reserve

One of my college professors, Dr. McKay Jenkins, has a TEDx Talk on the abstraction of American food. He covers a few different angles in the talk, all of them revolving around his thesis that we have no idea where our food comes from. After the Second World War, we sacrificed local food production for the good of suburbia, then flattened the bulk of our farming into corn, soybeans, and wheat. Through this change, the nutritional value of our food has drastically reduced, farms are unhealthier than ever from mono crop practices and pesticides, the resiliency of our supply chain is hurting, and the environment is negatively impacted. And while food production is the biggest issue, whiskey isn’t immune to contributing to these problems.

When considering the history of rye whiskey in the United States, the style once had a stranglehold on American drinkers. It was the whiskey that drove American distilling for roughly 200 years and birthed the initial craze for cocktails in the 1800s, until Prohibition, among other factors, drove rye whiskey off the shelves. Then, a federal corn subsidy and the postwar decimation of small American farmers drove rye grain off farmland.

It wasn’t a complete eradication, but it was near enough. Most rye is planted as a winter cover crop meant to protect the field, as opposed to a crop to be harvested and consumed. In 2021, American farmers planted 2.1 million acres of rye, compared with 37.2 million acres of wheat and 93.6 million acres of corn. Not only is it dwarfed in acreage, but only about 14 percent of those acres, about 294,000, were harvested for grain. That means many American distilleries have to look to Europe for their rye.

Elizabeth McCall, master distiller at Woodford Reserve, isn’t satisfied with the current state of rye and is helping lead a push to bring rye farming back to Kentucky. The two of us had a wide ranging conversation about American rye, bouncing from the environmental and economic benefits of local production, to rye’s natural ability to improve a farm’s soil health and naturally sequester carbon, to the reception she and her nonprofit partners have gotten from Kentucky farmers and what changing suppliers means to a company as big as Woodford.

Though, I should say, I’m the one with an ax to grind with the suburbs and the flattening of agriculture, not her.

This interview has been edited for space and clarity.

What first inspired you to look into using domestic rye at Woodford?

It was 2019 when I started to get curious about wanting to source rye locally, or just source all of our grains locally, because I had done some heirloom corn—red corn, blue corn—with one of our local farmers. It was a farmer who is literally five minutes from the distillery. It started out as more of, how can we partner with him more to focus on grain that’s grown on basically the same terroir as Woodford Reserve Distillery and see if that has an impact? It goes back to that concept historically of farm to production facility for our small releases.

Can you talk about the first steps to making that exploration turn into a Woodford whiskey?

We are a big brand and we can’t deny that. Scale is challenging. But I wanted to explore [locally sourced grains] for some of our smaller releases and to understand that environment of sustainability more.

Then the conversation started to evolve. I met with one of our partners with the DendriFund. DendriFund is a nonprofit organization that supports wood, water, and grain for the distilling industry. It is predominantly family members of Brown-Forman [Woodford Reserve’s parent company] that support it, but it’s for the entire industry to benefit. It’s not like we’re withholding what we find in our research of sustainability to just Brown-Forman.

I started having the conversation with DendriFund board members about different grains, and we started talking about rye. They’d been doing some small work on that, but nothing major. I was like, well, I’m really interested in figuring this out because it’s a challenging grain to grow to go to seed. Here in Kentucky, we’re very damp in the summer, and that leaves the rye susceptible to head scab and different kinds of fungus-related issues. There were challenges involved and no farmers were growing rye to have it go to seed.

It was interesting because my journey with it has evolved from, I want to source this locally to minimize our carbon footprint. Then you start getting more into the conversation and you learn that there’s a lot of benefits, not just locally in that you’re no longer having that large carbon footprint from shipping it over from Europe or parts of Canada or northern growing regions in the U.S. But also that you can sequester carbon from the air. The root system is incredibly long and it can stabilize soil and help with erosion and water runoff.

That’s where we really sunk our teeth into this project. It’s become a true initiative and has expanded beyond just our Woodford Reserve reach. The Kentucky Agricultural Department is involved, so it’s become a real thing with some meat to it.

How have you experimented with the local rye so far?

2019 was the first time we purchased rye grown in Kentucky, then we committed to the next five years. We did it on an experimental [basis] trying to understand, does this fold into our regular bourbon so we could use it on a regular basis and it’s not going to give us any flavor issues? We have found no issues. No significant flavor differences, no issues from a production standpoint, it doesn’t do anything in our cooks, fermentation, none of that. We are able to now purchase from our Kentucky growers on a regular basis, just folding it into our regular supply.

There are also small distillation trials with many different varieties trying to figure out are there flavor differences or if one is better than the other. And then we have kind of the larger scale side where we’re trying to figure out the agronomics, like how does it grow?

We’re going to have basically three to four identified farmers who I always say want to “do the dishes.” We want to work with farmers who want to go out there and do the hard work because it’s a lot of data collection and we have no guarantee that it’s going to be successful. There’s a lot of risk involved for our farmers that are taking this on. They could grow it and it could not do anything, and they could have no benefit of selling the grain. So how do we mitigate that risk? And so that’s something that DendriFund and Brown-Forman are helping to navigate, making sure [the farmers] are paid.

It’s also just the soil health aspect. So we’re going to study that as well, get a good baseline of what is the soil health currently and then after you have rye on it, because we have seen farmers that have planted rye and then the following season planted corn on that field and seen improvements in corn yield because they planted rye. So there are little gains that we’re seeing. But we need more data to have a conclusive, “If you plant rye, it’s going to have these benefits.”

What are some of the ways that Woodford is planning to use the rye?

We have one that we’ve isolated as a Master’s Collection that you’ll see in, I don’t know, 10 years from now. We’re seeing some flavor differences with that. But that’s also been very isolated. It was in our traditional rye grain recipe and it was using three different types of rye.

Then we folded [the rye grain] into our bourbon recipe. At 18 percent rye, we’ve seen no significant flavor flavor differences. We’re able to feel confident that we can pull this into our regular production.

Are you happier to maintain Woodford’s current taste? What are your personal feelings on getting that Kentucky flavor back into the whiskey?

I go back and forth because I think the real win in order to make an economic and commercial success would be that we find a variety that doesn’t have a flavor difference. But I would also love to find a variety that has a slightly different flavor profile that we could then promote as Kentucky proud and something that’s unique to Kentucky. Both would be supporting Kentucky farmers.

But I think ultimately, if I had to choose, the bigger win would be to have one that could be folded into a recipe for any of our distillers, whether they’re big or small, and they could say, this is working for us.

You don’t want to disrupt too much of your own flavor because you have the customers that expect the same whiskey over and over. That’s why they come to you.

Exactly. That’s the big challenge when you’re dealing with a brand like Woodford. I always say that doing the Master’s Collection or a distillery series is always so easy because the promise is to not repeat. When you don’t have to repeat that flavor profile, that makes making the next iteration easy because you’re not trying to hit the same target.

But another thing to think about with this project is that everybody is growing. We’re in a great, great time for bourbon, and we have to think beyond just our facilities being able to meet that demand. Farmers have to meet that demand as well. All of the supply chain has to be able to grow and support it. It’s great for the entire bourbon industry if we have a win on this. We could then have another source for rye. We’re not relying just on Europe and northern regions.

When you talk to farmers about introducing a new grain, what kind of reception are you getting?

We have farming partners that are working closely with us on this project to make sure that we are not coming at this as a corporation that doesn’t know a thing about farming. One of them is Sam Halcomb with Walnut Grove. Halcomb and his family have been a tremendous partner in offering us a great lens to look at how a farmer approaches this.

When I first started, I was like, why wouldn’t a farmer want to do this? This is beneficial. We see that it has sustainable benefits. It’s helping the environment. It’s part of a crop rotation. But it is labor intensive. It’s expensive to purchase grain and to have it go to seed. You have to have all the equipment to harvest it. You have to have a way to store it. You have to have a way to dry it, get it to a grain elevator. There’s a lot of pieces to that puzzle that you don’t always think about.

We’ve just started the Ohio Valley Grain Exchange. It’s modeled after the Maine Grain Exchange. They have a wonderful grain exchange [in Maine] that they’ve developed. We’re modeling that for our Ohio Valley region to get farmers and end users involved so that we can get more of these resources. Because a grain elevator or just a place for farmers to bring their grain is a big challenge. If you’re a small farmer, you may not have a large volume. What do you do and how do you harvest that? You may not have the equipment. Bringing these groups together, they can say, “I can share some of my harvesting equipment with you, and we can work on this together.” That’s where the Ohio Valley Grain Exchange has been really helpful.

Are you aiming to completely end shipments from Europe and Canada, at least for Woodford?

I wouldn’t say total pivot. I don’t want to limit us to that. I want more diversity in supply. It’s not all or nothing either way. It is still having the option for our European suppliers, our northern suppliers. We need that because it’s like when people ask about oak: Is it all from one area? I’m like, no, that would be terrible. You can’t just source from [one place], you have to be open to all areas of growth because that’s how the oak will thrive.

It’s the same with our agriculture. My biggest win with this would be that the farmers see the benefit. That their farms, the soil health are thriving so much that they couldn’t think of not growing rye and we’ve done our part to give them a rye that they can then sell for commercial use. It’s not just a cover crop practice, it has an economic benefit to our farmer. That is where I want us to be, and where we will be in 30 years. I’m very confident we’ll be there.