There’s an experiment underway on one of the islands in Lake Michigan near Sleeping Bear Dunes. This story involves a Russian exile, a rare seed… and booze.
On a National Park Service boat headed out into Lake Michigan the deck is filled with hand tools for gardening and a bunch of guys who make whiskey for a living. We’re traveling to South Manitou Island.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. We need to go back a couple of years.
Ari Sussman is the head distiller for Mammoth Distilling. He's a key figure in distilling in Michigan, but you’re just as likely to find him in a library doing research.
He was looking through a 1934 Christmas issue of Vanity Fair, searching for whiskey ads. He wanted to see what was popular right after the end of Prohibition. That’s when he found a full-page ad for Old Schenley Rye. The ad claimed:
“Only Wisconsin and Michigan Rosen Rye –the most compact and flavorful rye kernels Mother Earth produces- were used for this luxurious brand.”
“A light bulb went off. I said, I have I never heard about this, it's here in Michigan,” Sussman said.
He did some more research.
“We went back through the history books and found, okay, what are the varietals of rye that used to be cultivated 100 years ago when rye was sourced locally, domestically for whiskey? And at the top of every list, you'll find Rosen rye was the preferred rye for distillers,” he explained.
This variety of rye began with a Russian Jew being exiled by the Czar. Joseph Rosen ended up at the Michigan Agricultural College, now Michigan State University. While there, Rosen took some Russian rye seed to a Professor Frank Spragg, a plant breeding genius. He came up with a hybrid he named Rosen rye.
But, there was one flaw.
“The problem with Rosen Rye was it would start off when it was genetically pure. You would have amazing flavor and very high yields and all kinds of very good attributes. But as it cross pollinated with local rye, it lost those positive attributes,” Sussman said.
That meant the seed crop of rye needed to be raised somewhere isolated from other rye crops.
Farmers on South Manitou Island agreed to grow the rye for seed.
They did that until about 1970 and then stopped. That’s because cheaper Kentucky and Tennessee corn whiskey had become popular during Prohibition. The demand for rye fell away.
Today, rye whiskey is becoming popular again, but most of the rye grain is imported.
Sussman wanted to bring back Rosen rye back to South Manitou. It was an audacious idea considering the obstacles.
He had to convince the National Park Service which now owns the island. And he had to get his hand on some seed.
The only source of certified Rosen rye was in one of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s seed banks. Ari Sussman’s boss, Mammoth Distilling CEO Chad Munger started chasing that down.
“I called Michigan State first, actually. I didn't approach the USDA directly. I figured Michigan State probably had a better relationship than most of us would at least,” Munger said.
The USDA gave MSU a palm full of rye seeds. The school raised the crop in greenhouses to create more seed.
And that’s why we’re on South Manitou Island on this day. After sod was skimmed off, Mammoth Distilling agronomist Doug Burke and crew started work on the soil for the rye.
“What we're gonna do is just dig up some of the roots with our old school digging forks and broad forks and seed some rye. We'll see how far we get,” Burke said.
Now, this is not the first time Rosen rye has been planted in recent years. In 2015, Penn State and some distillers planted the rare rye. Ari Sussman says the first crops were good, but...
“I think they're going to run into the same issue that we ran into one hundred years ago, which is as long as you're growing the seed on the mainland. It's going to cross pollinate and you're going to lose that character. So here on the island, we're keeping the pure seed stock,” he said.
On South Manitou Island, each of the distilling crew got a chance to sprinkle a little of the seed on the dirt. There was only a small Tupperware container of the seed.
Chad Munger says the late night phone call he got from an excited Ari Sussman two years before was kind of typical Ari. He's enthusiastic.
“But now that our tiny little strip of dirt has some rye in it. I see the possibilities for a lot more, it's more than I thought two years ago and the first idea popped up. I’m super excited,” Munger said, smiling.
Eventually, the distillers want some Michigan farmers to plant Rosen rye – for whiskey, of course. But also for bread. Meanwhile, they’ve got 18 acres on South Manitou to grow the crop and keep the seed stock pure.