What Happens When A Winemaker Makes Whiskey?

Straight rye is all the rage these days. The onetime underdog of a grain has long been used rather judiciously as part of whiskey's mash bill to add a little spice to the flavor profile. Lately, thanks in large part to the craft cocktail recipes that call for them, rye-forward whiskeys are in greater demand. But a whiskey made from 100 percent rye can be a rather wild animal to tame. The grain is hardy, spicy, intense. It takes an experienced distiller to turn it into something that doesn't bite you right back or in this case, an experienced winemaker.

Austin Hope, whose family has grown grapes in Paso Robles, California, since 1978, long dreamed of making whiskey. This summer, that dream was realized when he introduced Highspire. Made in Kentucky bourbon country and named for a now-defunct 19th-century whiskey, Highspire has raised more than a couple eyebrows since its launch. According to U.S. law, rye whiskey must be made from at least 51 percent rye grain and aged in charred new oak barrels. Hope's whiskey is made from 100 percent rye and aged in his own used red wine barrels. By law, it can't be called rye whiskey.

"I'm a dreamer," Hope says by way of explanation. "I wanted to make a rye whiskey, but I didn't want to make it the traditional way. I wanted to make it my way."

Before getting started, Hope went to Kentucky to research the process. He toured distillery after distillery, asking questions. The longtime whiskey makers he met with were happy to share their knowledge about how things are done in their industry. But when he pressed them on why, they clammed up. "Because that's how things have always been done" was the only answer he got. Rather than trying to emulate the great distillers of Kentucky, Hope decided he would let his experience as a winemaker guide him. He started like all good winemakers start: with the raw material.

"With wine, it's always about the grape. With whiskey, it's always about the barrel," says Hope. "I thought, 'Hey, why not showcase the grains?'"

It turns out that, as in-your-face as rye can be, it's actually quite delicate and aromatic when it first comes off the still. It's the wood of a barrel that helps intensify it. Hope's approach revolves around protecting and showcasing the spirit's natural essence. He ferments the grains at cooler-than-normal temperatures to preserve their aromatics. Most surprisingly, in this era when it seems everyone aims to age his spirit longer than the next guy, Hope only ages his for 130 days. The result is a rye with plenty of spice but also fruit. With less barrel influence, it shows its softer, prettier side. Call it rye au naturel.

"I'm not a classically trained winemaker, and I'm not a classically trained whiskey maker," Hope admits. "In essence, I've created my own category."

He not only makes his whiskey like a winemaker, relying on yeasts and enzymes commonly used in winemaking to ferment the grains, but also sources his grains the way a winemaker sources grapes. He found a farmer near the distillery who was willing to grow rye for him. Hope chose an heirloom variety of rye, called Rhymin, which makes his whiskey single-estate and single-variety.

It might seem unfair that a 100 percent rye whiskey can't be called "rye whiskey" when a whiskey made with less rye can, but Hope is not too concerned with what ends up on the label. On his own label, which contains the words "pure rye" and "whiskey," albeit separately, the law requires him to cite the number of days the whiskey is aged.

"It's funny. Some people get pretty defensive about [age statements]," says Hope. "I'm not afraid to say how young Highspire is. This is how I wanted to make my whiskey."