New Riff Distilling is putting the spotlight on our roots and what makes us distinctly unique – Ah Ryes! Our Co-Founder, Jay Erisman, also known to many as “the whiskey man,” shares how New Riff started down the Rye House path and what that means for the bourbon tastebuds.
At New Riff, we always wanted an identity as a Rye House, a rye-centric Bourbon distillery. Personally we quite enjoyed the flavor of rye, that panoply of spices pounding through the whiskey. But more than that, we thought rye was one path, or part of the path, leading to the big, fat, rich and full-flavored Bourbon we desired to make. The last thing we wanted to make was some lighter bodied, delicate whiskey; we had zero desire to be Loretto North, with a gentle wheated Bourbon. Would New Riff ever make a wheated Bourbon? Sure! And we have done so. But this is a rye-led distillery, all the way. We make big, spicy rye-centric whiskeys and we don’t apologize for it.
Nor did we see the need to make something lighter to please some average Everyperson’s palate. We recognize and acknowledge, and appreciate, the shift in America’s palate that has occurred since the 1960s, and which really accelerated from the 1990s into the 21st century. America is never, ever going back to a world without hoppy IPA and habanero peppers, never going back to a time when ketchup outsold salsa and we didn’t have espressos and lattes on seemingly every corner. And we are certainly never going back to a selection on the liquor store shelf of three rye whiskeys.
New Riff Co-Founder Jay Erisman says, “When I started at The Party Source in 2001, we had, count ‘em, just three rye whiskeys: Jim Beam, Wild Turkey, and Old Overholt. And I had to beg the distributor to send us Heaven Hill’s Rittenhouse! Nobody wanted rye back in those days.”
So, we absolutely were going to make not only Rye whiskey, but Bourbon whiskey with a strong rye backbone. How fortunate, then, that the master distiller consultant we brought on to help with this project was none other than the high priest of high rye, arguably the greatest rye distiller in modern times and, in the words of Jim Rutledge, “the best master distiller alive.” That would be Larry Ebersold. Along with the well that provides our water source, the single most serendipitous finding in the whole project was that the best master distiller in the country (for a Kentucky regimen sour mash distillation process) was living in Hebron, Kentucky, recently retired and looking for consulting work. Larry wound up serving as a sort of “construction czar” on the New Riff project, the one person who could oversee the entire construction, tie all the loose ends together, and ensure that the New Riff distilling plant was impeccably constructed, flawlessly balanced, flexible and reliable and safe all at once.
Larry Ebersold’s career at Seagram’s plant in Lawrenceburg, Indiana (today’s MGP, the site has been in constant production since 1847, save for Prohibition) spanned about 35 years. He was master distiller at that plant, and was tapped by Seagram’s for many projects. The Seagram’s company was unique in its tremendous commitment to research and development. They were obsessed with technical faculty in the distilling process and doubled down on being the best, most technically accomplished distilling company. They made straight whiskeys at Indiana (and at the Four Roses plants in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky) that were intended largely for blending; hence the high rye content and generally powerful flavor of the Indiana whiskeys.
In the 1990s, Seagram’s tasked Larry and his team with developing a new rye, a rye whiskey so powerful, so potently spicy that a small amount of it would carry through in a blended whiskey. Larry set as a target the impossibly high figure of a 95% rye content mashbill, with no corn and a minimum of malted barley. To understand the magnitude of Larry’s task, one has to recall that rye is probably the trickiest grain in the world to work with—it foams up in the fermenter, clogs up the still, it’s slimy and messy and generally gums up the works. (Many of the old time distillers hated making rye and put as much corn in it as they possibly could.)
The first whiskey Larry and his team distilled was a mashbill of 100% malted rye. To this day, Larry says it was the best he ever made. (We’ve tasted some of that batch, at 12+ years old, from Larry’s personal stash, and we can attest it is hauntingly good.) The beancounters at Seagram’s came back and said, “Don’t ever make that again, it costs way too much.” Larry then attempted the now-classic 95% rye/5% malted barley. After many trials and tribulations and adjustments, the famed Indiana rye began to round into form. Today produced by MGP, Larry’s rye forms the basis for very many rye whiskey brands in America, from the vatted ryes of High West to the omnipresent Bulleit Rye of Diageo, to a huge swath of smaller names in the craft universe. Many younger drinkers have grown up drinking it and thinking rye is meant to taste like this and always did.
Larry Ebersold trained the New Riff staff in the black arts of this rye, teaching us all the secrets and tricks of the trade. (And to this day, we call him Master, as if we are a crew of kung fu students. He comes around once in a while, maybe to taste some aged New Riff or a new product, chew the fat about the Bourbon industry and tell war stories about the old days at Seagram’s. We cautiously think he is proud of us.) Today we make ultra-high rye content whiskeys with aplomb—and, inspired by Larry’s story, we even make a monthly distillation of New Riff 100% Malted Rye which debuted in 2021 at six years of age.
Next Up: How the mash up bill continues to change and evolve with New Riff and why the results are driven by bourbon drinkers that appreciate quality and taste – not by the bean counters.