The bourbon producer is partnering with the University of Kentucky and a local trade group to find an economically and environmentally viable strain to support one of its key ingredient needs.
Although by law, bourbon recipes must contain at least 51 percent corn, rye is often the next-largest component of the mashbill. In the case of Woodford Reserve, one of the country’s largest and most distributed bourbon brands, rye makes up 18 percent — with much of that rye coming from outside Kentucky; and often, outside the country.
As the distillery and its parent company, Brown-Forman, consider how to build climate resilience across both businesses, finding new sources for those grains closer to home could serve to make a big impact.
“While we are not farmers, we are members of our local agricultural communities,” Woodford Reserve Master Distiller Emeritus Chris Morris told Sustainable Brands®.
One step Woodford is taking to support those communities is embarking on a five-year pilot program to not only purchase grain from Kentucky farmers, but work with the University of Kentucky to better understand the potential of a long-term solution for scalable rye growth in the state.
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“A handful of farmers have been growing (small amounts of) rye in the state, but some aren’t happy with the yields, and this program would help rye move from an experimental to a regular crop,” says Chad Lee — professor at the University of Kentucky, Director of the Grain and Forage Center of Excellence, and a key member of the rye research team.
The program is relatively straightforward: Beginning later this summer, Woodford will begin small distillation trials on 10 varieties of rye to determine how the different strains affect bourbon production.
Morris explains that Woodford is substituting the test ryes in its standard bourbon recipe and comparing those batches to those crafted with the current rye strain.
“Since bourbon is our primary production focus, we can create a good number of data points over the course of each year’s production schedule,” he adds. “Once new make — or freshly made distillate — is produced from a test batch, it is compared to our gold standard or reference sample; this is done in our sensory evaluations. The other test is based on determining the amount of alcohol that is produced in the trial batches vs the standard recipe batches; this is conducted using several analytical tools.”
While, of course, the main goal is to find a strain that can grow in Kentucky at scale; there’s much larger potential to add another dimension to the state’s grain-growing capacity, and do so with a crop that has certain regenerative qualities.
Rye's role in regenerative ag
According to Lee, Rye has a fibrous root system that handles cold winters really well; and the system also holds soil in place. This kind of durability makes it a great candidate to be a cover crop (as Kansas City distiller J. Rieger & Co recently showcased with its limited-edition, Cover Crop rye whiskey). Once a rye plant is terminated, its roots decompose and create channels for other roots to grow. This all contributes to ongoing soil health — a key tenet of regenerative agriculture.
“We’re still doing a lot of experiments on rye as a cover crop,” he notes. “If we take rye to a grain crop (for sale and distribution, like to Woodford Reserve), we end up with a much bigger rye root system in the field and biomass from rye itself. It elevates yields of other crops in rotation and contributes to less rain runoff.”
Sam Halcomb, President of the Kentucky Small Grain Growers Association and managing partner at Walnut Grove Farms, is the main advocate for the farmers experimenting with the various versions of rye involved in the trials. He says that rye varieties evolve over time, typically staying in circulation for 5-10 years before either man-made evolution or another interference comes along and changes the crop.
“There are 2-3 areas in Kentucky well-suited to grow winter grains like wheat, barley and rye,” he says. “Hopefully, rye can be a new addition.”
Halcomb thinks that rye as a crop fits the baseline definition of regenerative agriculture, because there’s minimal to no tillage required in wintertime; these areas within the state have well-drained soils for good winter growth; and rye can be easily swapped out for the traditional summer crop of soybeans. The farmers are an important part of the success of this project, helping University of Kentucky measure soil analysis and water retention.
So, while there’s little discussion of adhering to one of the recognized standards for regeneratively farmed crops, the agricultural result would align with the formal definition of the practice.
Then, there's the economics
Halcomb would like to see at least three different outlets developed for any rye that comes out of the pilot — the likely trio being the bourbon industry; cover crop; and potentially; livestock feed. Having three healthy marketplaces would be crucial to making the numbers work for the farmers.
“The bourbon industry is a premium customer, and that’s probably where the best price for rye is; but the quality has to be really good,” he notes. “But that’s not always the case. Some of it will be top grade; some of it won’t.”
Morris echoes that need for top quality.
“Ideally, the chosen rye would produce the same amount of alcohol during fermentation as the current strain does. That is important from an economic standpoint. If it produces more that would be a bonus,” he says. “However, the quality or taste it produces is even more important. If the flavor of Woodford Reserve were to change from our current gold standard, then the entire exercise would be a moot point.”
Having a stable, productive rye market closer to home would also cut transportation costs for a big consumer like Woodford — which only adds to the allure of the pilot. (Morris says Woodford’s existing cost models include the price of transportation energy in their equations. A calculation of potential environmental benefits will be made when determining the cost of the locally produced rye compared to the outsourced product.)
However, just because it’s a five-year program doesn’t mean that there are plans to have a scalable rye strain ready to grow in that time frame.
“I don’t know that we’ll have a Kentucky-specific variety in five years,” Lee says.
He notes that when “everything is clicking just right,” developing and introducing a new crop can take a decade. In five years, he thinks there could be a small-scale crop to buy locally — but looking more towards 10 years to have a rye in place that could really make a difference.
By then, that glass of bourbon could be made from grain that’s sourced much closer to — and enriching both the land and economy around — the final production point.