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Kentucky’s New Riff Distillery Goes All-in on Malt

You’re likely familiar with the concept of malt. We’re not talking milkshakes here. If you have even a passing interest in whiskey, you know malted barley is the key ingredient in most bourbons and ryes, as well as the singular grain found in a single malt mashbill. Well, Kentucky’s New Riff Distillery has gone all-in on malted barley, as well as other malted grains, to truly define a whiskey’s character.

What is malted barley?

Malted barley usually makes up the smallest percentage of an American whiskey’s recipe and, generally speaking, its role is more functional than flavorful. That’s because, when barley is malted, it produces enzymes that help convert starches to sugar, and ultimately to alcohol when yeast is added during fermentation.

How New Riff Distillery is experimenting with malted grains

New Riff released two new limited-edition experimental releases this fall: The Maltster T50 Crystal Malt Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey and Aroostook Malted Rye Whiskey. Both are tasty, unique expressions that aren’t chill filtered and are bottled in bond (at least four years old and exactly 100 proof). They’re absolutely worth looking at a bit more in-depth.

“We are always searching for the next new riff,” New Riff co-founder Jay Erisman said in a statement that is ham-handedly on-brand. “These two releases are a celebration of the ancient tradition of malted grains that are united by their six years in the warehouse and by their shared embrace of the glory of malt.”

Both whiskeys are continuations of previous Maltster releases. The bourbon is made using a T50 crystal malted barley in the recipe, something the distillery notes is typically used for making pale ales and bitters. This makes sense, given head distiller Brian Sprance’s background as a brewer.

Bottles of Aroostook Malted Rye Whiskey and Maltster T50 Crystal Malt Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey

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“The secret to the Maltster T50 is that two exceptional malts are at play, creating a dance of gentle rye spice and molten toffee,” Erisman says.

Maltster T50 Crystal Malt Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey tasting notes

The exact mashbill is 65 percent corn, 20 percent malted rye, and 15 percent T50 Crystal Malt. Notice the use of malted rye here instead of the more common un-malted rye. We got to sample this whiskey, and it stands out with notes of spice, milk and dark chocolate, pecan, and some cherry on the palate. Try this against the core New Riff bourbon, or any bourbon for that matter, and you’ll find the malted grains really do affect the flavor.

Aroostook Malted Rye Whiskey tasting notes

The Aroostook Malted Rye Whiskey is the more unusual of this pair, made from a mashbill of 100 percent Aroostook Kentucky-grown malted rye. New Riff’s rye grain usually comes from Germany, but this whiskey was produced using Kentucky rye that was malted by Sugar Creek Malt Co. in Lebanon, Indiana.

According to Erisman, this resulted in a profound difference in flavor from the whiskey made with German malted rye previously released by the distillery. We got to try this as well, and noticed a surprisingly minimal amount of spice on the palate, with intense fruit and chocolate notes that really kick in as you sip followed by big biscuit and shortbread flavors. This is altogether a unique rye whiskey.

New Riff was founded in 2014, but in less than a decade has proven itself over and over again to be one of the most interesting new-school Kentucky distilleries on the scene. These two new releases continue that trajectory.

Both are priced at $59.99 and can be found at select retailers or through the New Riff Whiskey Club.

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