Demand for rye whisky and new hybrids create opportunity for growers

When it comes to whisky, Canada is a little different. Whisky ingredients, brewing, distilling and aging rules are steeped in tradition in many countries, but Canadian whisky makers like Windsor, Ontario-based Hiram Walker & Sons Limited have very few restrictions.

Canada is the most flexible and innovative whisky production market in the world, explains Hiram Walker category manager John Malott. That means the company is free to experiment with whisky ingredients and blends that appeal to the eclectic palates of Canadians. It’s also good news for Ontario rye growers who are riding both a surge in demand for rye whisky, as well as the availability of new rye hybrids that deliver higher yield and better agronomics.

Speaking at the recent C&M Seeds Industry Day, Malott explained that rye has been traditionally used as a flavouring ingredient in whisky, with ingredient buyers maintaining a strong focus on price. For growers, rye has tended to be a poor sister to other grain crops with lower yields, poor agronomics and generally considered a cover crop.

Hiram Walker’s John Malott says the company is looking forward to telling a local story when whisky made from hybrid rye grown in Ontario hits the market.

But that began to change around 2012, explains Malott. That’s when Hiram Walker noticed a burgeoning consumer market demand for more flavoured whisky. It opened the door for distillers to increase the amount of rye, and its pepper, herb and fruit flavours, in its whisky products. The timing also marked the arrival of new hybrid rye cultivars that delivered more consistent taste, yield and agronomics, Malott adds.

In Ontario, C&M Seeds offered Brasetto, the first hybrid winter rye, in 2015. Stronger agronomics and yields as high as 70 bushels per acre created an immediate appeal for growers. An IP premium contract to grow the variety for Hiram Walker was also offered.

In this interview, Malott notes it’s important for growers to have higher yields and consistent agronomics to justify their faith in growing the crop. The IP program now contracts around 5,000 acres of Brasetto and he hopes the program will continue to grow. Hiram Walker has enjoyed considerable success with its rye whiskies in recent years, including its award-winning Lot No. 40.

Malott adds that whisky produced from the first crop of Ontario Brasetto has yet to reach the market, but Hiram Walker is excited about telling consumers about the Ontario connection and its ability to use locally grown rye in its whisky.

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