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The Oxford Artisan Distillery – Pure Rye Spirit

There is pretty much one reason I’m writing this review, and that’s to wind up Adam.

You see, Adam has visited more English distilleries than most, and is becoming probably Britain’s leading expert. And he’s also a massive rye bore. So the fact that I am reviewing an English rye spirit should cause him all sorts of anguish.

Yet, I have a fair interest in The Oxford Artisan Distillery (TOAD), for they are grain nerds, or so the press material leads me to believe. And for someone who bangs on about grain all the time – you know, the thing whisky’s actually made from, the thing that makes whisky taste like whisky and not the eau de vie of plums or something.

There’s an interesting page on Heritage grains on TOAD’s website.

“TOAD, the only distillery in the world using ancient populations of heritage grain to create spirits!”

A pretty bold claim, that one, but one might argue that Bere barley, which Bruichladdich have been distilling for years now and have put out several whiskies, or by Arran distillery, is an ancient heritage grain? It’s certainly an ancient landrace, brought to Britain by the Vikings? Or are we talking about some other sort of heritage grain? But if we are getting into semantics, then I would certainly like to know some more information, especially about what grains were used for this whisky, to back up these sorts of claims.

And that’s kind of the problem – I could easily get in touch if I wanted to know, but I want to be able to see this information like any other interested drinker might be – like you lot, the handsome and wise Malt reader. If you’re going to bang on about some detail like grain, which I heartily welcome, then we need to have some detail to go with that. Personally, I can’t be so easily sold by a photo of a (quite possibly very chirpy) botanist posing with some grain.

For a start… what grain made this whisky?

Okay, rye, but what rye? Where from? Local, fine, but the bottle only says local populations of “ancient heritage Oxford grain”. Were they individually distilled, with a focus on terroir? Or was it lots of different farms all brought together? No problem in that. But where did the grain come from – why did you chose to use that particular one? Why was it important?

And why can’t I – the one who bangs on about its importance – see any of it?! If it’s there, somewhere, I’ll absolutely eat my words. But it ain’t on the product page, and it ain’t on the grain page.

So I think that’s my point here: it’s one borne from frustration. Here I am, someone who laps up this information, and I’m just being teased about it. I suppose the mild danger is, their fantastic-sounding unique proposition becomes reduced to some tarted-up marketing pitch, or reduces grain to some kind of ye olde tourist information sidenote, which I absolutely don’t want it to be. I’m genuinely interested! I want to know!

So my challenge to the folks at TOAD is this: I’ll edit this review the moment I get some information about the grain, what made this whisky, why you chose it and why it was important, and place it right here:

EDIT: Now with Grain Wonkery. The guys from TOAD finally got back – with distiller Cory Mason and botanist John Letts filling in the missing details… Here’s a slightly trimmed down version, but if anyone wants the full email just ask.

Cory Mason: Early on in our journey in putting together The Oxford Artisan Distillery, we were looking into organic local grain, and had the good luck to meet John Letts. John Letts is an archaeobotonist, who has spent his life researching and resurrecting ancient polycultures of grain. John’s goal is to start a new Green Revolution, growing genetically diverse fields, with zero inputs.

So, we pay local farms, by the acre, to grow landraces of  polycultures of grain that John has spent his life developing. By polyculture, I mean many genetically different types of grain, grown in the field at the same time. All of the grain is also grown organicawithouth out the addition of any fertilizer or pesticides of any kind. By landrace, I mean that we replant the fields with grain from the previous harvest, allowing the grain to adapt to the different fields and conditions that it is growing in.

John Letts: To create the rye I started with rye I collected from the following sources… 

1) Some Scandinavian landraces from a plant breeder named Hans Larson

2) Seed from Turkey I collected myself from traditional farmers’ fields, some sort of land race

3) Seed from a couple of sources in Canada – including some from an old uncle

4) Various European gene banks

5) Small farmers from the Aran Islands off the West coast of Ireland, said to be an ancient land race

6) Some weird rye I bought in a health food shop in Donegal; another lot from an old boy in Fermanagh who’d been growing it for 70 years to thatch his roof (cut with a scythe) – I have a great photo of him.

7) grain from a few English farmers that had been growing rye from farm saved seed for a long time 

8) A little commercial grain, but I think this has mostly disappeared

9) Some commercial ‘spring’ rye, not a lot, from an organic farmer (most rye is winter sown)

10) Some ‘mountain rye’ (Berg-roggen) from Austria

11) some traditional Svedjebruk ‘slash and burn’ rye with small seed from Sweden

12) some ‘perennial’ rye, but I have no idea if the genes have crossed into the main crop or not.

13) probably some other sources I can’t remember

It’s been cross pollinating and evolving for about 15 years now. Because I started with already genetically diverse grain, it didn’t actually start with pure line ‘varieties’. And a lot of the parental stock was unique and especially interesting, which makes the current population even more interesting.

Cory: From a distilling point of view, I love the grain. No rye can be called “easy” to work with, but ours preforms very well. We get consistently efficient fermentations, and a flavour that I haven’t ever gotten from commercial grain. There is a signature maltiness, and almost honey flavour that comes through on our products. The other exciting thing about our grain that I look forward to, is its evolution. Every year, and from every field, our grain will be a little different. This means, that every year, we have the possibility of new and unique flavours. It may be a stretch, but I  think it would be really amazing to be able to look back on our years of whiskey, and taste the change like a vintage for wine.

Mark again. Well, there we go. Pretty comprehensive stuff. What we have is a distillation of something quite unique indeed – a polyculture mix of unusual rye specimens, grown organically, left to do its thing; far away from commercial grain, far away from anything. Sounds a bit nuts if you ask me, but I can certainly appreciate that approach and will, somehow, and at some point, have to revisit. Back to the original content.

My only other beef is the fact that this is bottled at 40% ABV – which is just a sin these days. £40 sounds about fine for something where the grain will likely cost a lot more money – two, three times the price of conventional grain.

Oxford Rye Spirit

The Oxford Artisan Distillery – Pure Rye Spirit – Review

Colour: pale straw.

On the nose: very pleasant, very aromatic. That toasted note is there, but actually quite gentle. Toasted almonds. Some vanilla sweetness. Caramel. Some tropical notes, coconut, mango. Greenhouses. Then the cereal notes come through, full of huskiness and haybarns. Then burnt sugar, right at the end.

In the mouth: voluptuous texture, always a good sign. The spiciness is gentle, just starting to creep in, but lots of cereal qualities. Not too fruity, mind you – this hangs about more in the farmyard than the orchard, and is very much about the bass notes. Sourdough bread, walnuts, plenty of sourness; nutmeg. A touch of liquorice.

Conclusions

It’s still a bit new make spirty, as you would obviously expect for something quite young and only in ex-bourbon wood as opposed to the virgin oak one tends to get with ‘Merican whiskies. And the 40% ABV – there’s just no need for that these days, is there? If you’re making a serious product, why bottle it at the strength commonly associated with chill-filtered whiskies?

I want to like these people. There’s the potential for some very good stuff. I believe the rye, of a bit more age – and a bit more ABV – will be very good. For now it’s very much a ‘watch this space’. And preferably, that space up there, which I will fill with grain wonkery.

And I am left teased and mildly disappointed, which I suppose makes for a very English experience.

Score: 6/10

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  1. Avatar
    Welsh Toro says:

    Yep, well said Mark. What grain is it and why? That’s a pretty important question isn’t it. Why? The boss of Anchor Brewery has a fine video out there explaining why his company created the Old Potrero 18th Century Style Spirit made with rye. He explains the reason ‘why’, apart from making a few quid. The back story and the evocative Americana made me appreciate it. 6/10 nevertheless. It was young, like this one, but at least it was bottled at a punchy 50.1% and matured in toasted oak (not charred) barrels. No start up distillery are doing themselves any favours by bottling at 40%. It’s embarrassingly retro to think to think 40% is acceptable these days. Seriously, if they mean business as a whisky why have they bottled it at such a disappointing strength? It’s what a gin maker would do (and I see they have been doing just that). Finally, as you say, why release this at this age? Give it some more time and have a product that’s ready. It’s good to see a British company having a go and I wish them success. I doubt I’ll buy a bottle of this though. Cheers. WT

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