The push to bring back Michigan’s storied agricultural heritage at Mammoth Distilling Company in Torch Lake
Written by Maggie Kimberl
In 1909 a parcel containing 2,000 bluish-green kernels of improved rye seed stock arrived at Michigan Agricultural College’s Experiment Station. The researcher in charge, Dr Frank Spragg, had requested it from a student who had graduated the previous year, Joseph Rosen. Rosen had come to the United States from Russia after being imprisoned there for being a student protestor. At the urging of Dr Spragg he had asked his father to send a sample of rye grains that grew well back home, which they both believed would do well in Michigan’s climate. Rosen had already moved on to a graduate program elsewhere when the seeds arrived, but Spragg decided to name the unknown varietal Rosen rye after the student who made it possible. Spragg painstakingly cultivated the new rye varietal and right away he knew it was something special. Rosen rye would rise to prominence in the American whiskey industry before dying out for decades. Now, there are organized efforts to bring it back.
“By the powers vested in me by Nicholas II, Czar of all the Russias, I hereby sentence you, Joseph Rosen, to five years’ imprisonment in Siberia.” This is the opening line of a radio play that aired on Cincinnati’s WLW in November of 1940, dramatizing the harrowing story of a student sent to the gulag but who escaped to the United States.
“Joseph Rosen was exiled by the Czar,” recalls Mammoth Distilling whiskey maker Ari Sussman. “He was an agronomy student in Moscow who was exiled for anti-Czarist activities as a student protester, as a student dissident. He came to the United States, and at that time, if you were studying agriculture, there were only a small handful of places you would want to end up, and Michigan Agricultural College would have been at the top of the list. At the time, Michigan Agricultural College was the first land grant university in the United States. It had a mission of agricultural innovation, scientific-based innovation in agriculture.
When he showed up, Dr Frank Spragg, who was the head plant breeder, must have been excited that a Russian student had arrived at Michigan Agricultural College, because Michigan had already heavily invested in rye production. Spragg would have known that the Russian empire had done more research on landrace ryes than just about any other center of knowledge. So, it was Dr Frank Spragg who asked Joseph Rosen to have his father send a sample of what they called pedigreed rye, which is improved or premium rye from Russia.”
By 1912 the first bushel of Rosen rye was cultivated on a private farm in Jackson County, away from other rye varietals to protect its pedigree. This yielded 35 bushels during the harvest in 1913. By 1917 there were about 15,000 acres of Rosen rye being grown in the state of Michigan; by that fall Michigan farmers were growing 250,000 acres of Rosen rye. By 1920 Michigan’s rye production was the highest in the nation, according to a report by Dr Spragg.
“The growing of Rosen Rye in other states began commercially as early as there was supply,” Spragg writes in his 1921 MAC report. “It has gone from farm-to-farm across the state line, into Indiana and Ohio, until the upper two rows of counties in Indiana have as much Rosen Rye as the southern row of counties in Michigan.”
Keeping the supply pedigreed would prove to be a challenge. Rye is open-pollinated and prone to crossing easily with other rye varietals, particularly common rye. Spragg wrote about this, concluding that, “Rye does now belong on every farm. It should be avoided by the wheat grower as it gets into the manure and requires a great deal of pulling to rid the wheat fields of it… rye can be used to advantage on hundreds of Michigan farms to follow crops of corn and beans.”
By the time Spragg’s report was published in 1921, all the crop acres being grown on isolated South Manitou Island were Rosen rye, and the farmers who lived on the island had formed a chapter of the Michigan Crop Improvement Association. The Hutzlers and the Becks, two of South Manitou Island’s farming families, would win numerous awards for their Rosen rye. Protecting the genetic integrity of this prized rye varietal was vital; it is rumored that the farming families on South Manitou Island had a pact to never grow any other rye varietal on the island, under penalty of being shot.
“Off Sleeping Bear Point on the Leelanau Peninsula, 10 miles out in Lake Michigan, is South Manitou Island – home of Rosen rye,” says the transcript from the 1940 radio play. “Here is an island of woodsmen and farmers, a self-contained and self-sustaining agricultural society. America grows millions of acres of rye in many varieties – but in Michigan, Rosen rye is king, and the cradle of Rosen rye is tiny South Manitou Island.”
In 1942, a Seagram’s Distillers’ Grain Manual reported that Rosen rye was the best-adapted varietal of winter rye in the corn belt and Michigan and that good results had been obtained in other states. It further states that Rosen-type rye is preferred by distilleries as it has a larger grain, making processing easier, but only when climate conditions support the high starch content.
Rosen rye was grown and used in distilling until at least the 1970s but completely disappeared from American agriculture at some point, while at the same time the last of the farming families moved from South Manitou Island. The Seed Spark Project began cultivating Rosen once again in Pennsylvania in 2015, but Michigan’s role in the history of Rosen rye was just being discovered.
Sussman discovered a Schenley advertisement from 1934 in Vanity Fair which boasted that its whiskey was made with “Michigan Rosen Rye,” which led him down a rabbit hole.
“When I heard that Michigan Rosen rye was used in the Schenley blend, I immediately thought to look at Michigan Agricultural College experimental station reports,” Sussman says. “I knew that Michigan Agricultural College, which was the predecessor to Michigan State University, was fastidious in its agricultural record-keeping and that those documents would likely provide the information we were looking for.”
That was when Sussman discovered Spragg’s 1921 report on Rosen rye and knew he would have to work to bring this storied varietal back to Michigan.
“We knew that we wanted to find Rosen rye, but we had no idea where to look,” recalls Sussman. “We spent months looking for it: we talked to farmers, we talked to plant professors, we talked to private companies in the agriculture business, and no one could supply us with Rosen rye. One of the plant breeders at Michigan State University, Dr Eric Olson, reached out to the federal seed bank and was able to procure 18 grams of seed. That seed was sent back to the agriculture department at Michigan State University, where it was propagated in their laboratory greenhouses for a couple of years. During that time, Mammoth Distilling was securing permits to reintroduce Rosen rye to South Manitou Island, which was an objective from as soon as we learned the story of the Hutzlers and the Becks.”
“After only about two years, we were able to go from our gene bank extraction all the way to a production-ready variety for Michigan farmers,” says Dr. Olson, assistant professor of wheat breeding and genetics in the Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences at Michigan State University. “There’s quite a bit of interest in rye as a specialty crop for whiskey and for the beverage industry, and there’s also interest from growers to diversify their farming operations with a high-value crop for like rye for malting.”
Rosen rye takes about 11 months from planting to harvest. It is planted in the fall after harvest, just a few weeks before the first frost, and it grows about six inches high before going dormant at that first frost. It sits in dormancy over the winter and begins to grow again in the spring, reaching maturity at the end of the summer, which is typically late July in Michigan.
The first modern Rosen rye crop was planted on South Manitou Island in the fall of 2020. Like Dr. Spragg’s initial planting, it was a patch about the size of a horse blanket.
It was all done under the supervision of Michigan State University in cooperation with the National Park Service, which now owns the uninhabited island. The labor for preparing the fallowed farmland, planting, and harvesting was done by Mammoth Distilling’s production team, a feat which included a mile hike back to a primitive campground at the end of each day, as the only way to get to and from the island is a 10-mile boat ride in a ferry or landing craft.
The second crop of Rosen rye on South Manitou Island was just harvested at the
end of this summer. After four years of careful cultivation, the next crop will hopefully yield enough for both seed stock and whiskey production.
“It has been a long time since any varietal was cited by name as having unique or superior flavor,” Sussman points out. “Purchasing decisions at distilleries just haven’t been made on the basis of flavor for a very long time, and for small distilleries in particular, looking to create unique products, the ability to use varietals that had previously had success in the whiskey industry seems like a good place to start exploring all of the flavors available to us as distillers.”
Flavor is an important consideration when choosing grains for whiskey, but it’s far from the only reason distillers are reaching for non-standard grains these days.
Avery Robinson, partner in Black Rooster Food and board member of Rye Revival, says, “Rye is the cold-hardiest grain that we have, and it has a very robust root system. Being able to include this in a rotation of corn and soy allows farmers to use a grain that is planted at the end of the season when they can’t plant anything else that is going to take advantage of the sunlight and draw carbon out of the atmosphere. It’s going to be the first thing in the spring to do so, and it’s going to prevent soil erosion, take advantage of free solar energy, and also mop up any excess fertilizers and simultaneously reach nutrients that are deeper in the soil that other plants probably wouldn’t get to. Rye acts as a great nutrient sink. It has an expansive root system, which also opens up soils to allow for better water filtration.”
In standard Midwestern crop rotations, rye is often planted as a winter cover crop that gets tilled under to make way for spring crops. But growing rye to harvest, especially an improved varietal such as Rosen rye, can mean another value-added crop for farmers.
The notion of crop improvement is what led to the development of Rosen rye to begin with. Dr Spragg would have wanted to discover rye varietals that did well in Rosen’s homeland because he knew that there was a potential for a climate twin of Michigan’s many microclimates.
“There was a sentiment at the time that if you wanted to improve agriculture in an area, you should identify climate twins in other countries and regions and run an experiment to see if what grows well there could outperform your local varietals,” Sussman explains. “Improving cash crops back then would have involved traveling, but shortly thereafter, it became very technological. Rosen rye, and the success that Rosen rye had across the United States, not just in Michigan, but in New York, in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, North Dakota, Minnesota, the overwhelming amount of rye grown during the 20s [and] the 30s would have been Rosen rye. What that tells us now and I think what that can teach distillers is that if you’re looking for flavor, one of the tools that we have in our distillers’ toolkit is to identify climate twins around the world, what they’re growing well that might benefit our spirits, and begin connecting with farmers and see things potentially around the world.”
Bringing more genetic diversity into the mix and moving away from monocrop agriculture of the standard varietals also turns out to be a great way to hedge against the challenges of climate change.
“Genetic diversity at the variety level for a production area, say the state of Michigan, the more varieties you have in there, the better,” explains Olson. “It’s the same mentality for people to invest in S&P 500 ETFs: it’s 500 companies, you’re not putting everything in Microsoft and Tesla and whoopsie, there goes $100 billion. You spread that risk across, [for] when we do have these fluctuations like high-temperature stress, for example, high-temperature stress like we had in 2020 and 2021. Some varieties that performed well in 2020, which was a hot year, performed well in the hot year, and then not so well in the drought year in 2021. There can be unique pressures – for example, we could have a fusarium epidemic in Michigan, and if it happens at the wrong time, we could have about 50 per cent of the acres that are affected by this fungal pathogen. However, if we have a strong, broad genetic base with diversity for resistance to that fungal pathogen, we can preserve the other half of those acres if they were planting those resistant varieties.”
“Rosen rye is the beginning of our story of searching for unique flavors and working collaboratively with farmers to improve the agriculture of Northern Michigan,” Sussman says. “Mammoth Distilling is actively looking for other grains that can bring some similarly compelling stories and flavors, including barley, wheat, oats, and corn, and we have a real opportunity to rethink how we make spirits and to reconsider the quality of the ingredients we select.”
Because of Mammoth Distilling’s push to bring Rosen rye back to Michigan, June 23 was declared annual “Rosen Rye Day” in the state of Michigan, effective 2022. Michigan farmers outside of South Manitou Island are already cultivating next year’s crop of Michigan Rosen rye.
The push for greater yields in the last several decades has decreased the options for flavor profiles in all foodways, but the push for greater genetic diversity is bringing some of those flavors back. Distillers have been experimenting with the flavors found in different varietals of corn for nearly a decade, but research into the flavor options in small grains is still a fledgling area of study. Fortunately, the research can be delicious.
Photos Courtesy of Maggie Kimberl