Leelanau News and Events

South Manitou Is Whiskey’s Treasure Island

By Craig Manning | July 28, 2021

Whiskey aficionados take note: Mammoth Distilling is sowing Prohibition-style whiskey with heirloom seeds on South Manitou Island. That means you may soon be able to taste what whiskey tasted like in that fabled era — or, at least, closer to that flavor profile than anyone has gotten in the better part of a century.
 
The key to the past, in this case, is a specific type of whiskey grain: Rosen rye, a celebrated varietal of rye that was extremely popular among Prohibition-era moonshiners — especially in the eastern United States. And while it’s Bourbon County in Kentucky that is often thought of as the epicenter of U.S. whiskey history, Rosen rye came from a different part of the country: Michigan. 

Right now, the Central Lake-based craft spirits company Mammoth Distilling is leading a charge to revive Rosen rye as a staple in the world of American whiskey. According to Mammoth Founder and CEO Chad Munger, the company has been striving throughout the years to make all of its spirits with pure heritage grains and with ingredients grown right here in northern Michigan. The goal? To make whiskey with the same kind of unique terroir — often explained as “taste of the place” — that wine grapes have.

As Munger tells the story, Ari Sussman, Mammoth’s head distiller, has been “spending a lot of late nights combing the internet for all kinds of knowledge in the spirits area,” looking for new ways to lend unique character to Mammoth’s Michigan-made products. One of those late-night trips down the rabbit hole brought Sussman to the fascinating history of Rosen rye. 

“He stumbled across some information in the archives at Michigan State University (MSU) of a grain that was brought from eastern Europe to Michigan Agricultural College [the former name of Michigan State University] in the very early 1900s by guy named Joseph Rosen,” Munger says. “[Rosen] came, took a job at Michigan Agricultural College, and brought with him just a pocketful of seeds that would become, eventually, Rosen rye. His dad had sent the seeds with him because it was known where he came from as a very characterful and very highly productive variety of rye.” 

At the time — and still, largely, to this day — Munger says that rye was far more likely to be grown in the U.S. as a cover crop than as a cash crop. Still, when Rosen showed the seeds to a fellow professor at the college, the professor was intrigued. Together, the two propagated the seeds, planted them in a greenhouse, grew Rosen rye in college greenhouses, and got it certified as a pure strain of rye by the Michigan Crop Improvement Association. 

“Sure enough, [the crop] was unusual,” Munger says. “It was unusually productive and had lots of character. So MSU introduced it to farmers all over the state, and by the mid-1910s, there were almost three million acres Rosen rye growing in the state of Michigan, which made it at that time the largest rye-producing state in the country.”

Despite its value and popularity to the market — including as a grain for distilling purposes — Rosen rye’s dominance didn’t last. While the grain was productive and rich in character, it also cross-pollinated so easily that growing pure strains of Rosen rye proved difficult for Michigan farms. That hybridization process, Munger explains, “just destroyed the character of the Rosen and took away what made it unique.”

Just as quickly as it had risen to prominence, Rosen rye fell out of favor and disappeared from Michigan’s farmland. Everywhere, that is, except for South Manitou Island, where a single farm was able to keep growing Rosen rye without any of the problems that everyone else was experiencing.

The conditions on South Manitou made it perfect for Rosen rye. Thanks to westerly winds, the island was also far enough from the nearest significant landmass — i.e., Wisconsin — that a breeze wouldn’t carry a stray spore far enough to contaminate the South Manitou crop.

For more than a decade, the island’s Hutzler farm served as a seed farm for Rosen rye seed. Repeatedly, the farm claimed the annual title for best rye in the United States. And because of that acclaim, when Prohibition struck, whiskey bootleggers in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and all up and down the East Coast continued to rely largely on the island's rare Rosen rye to craft their spirits.

Now, fast forward nearly a century, and Mammoth Distilling once again planted Rosen rye on the historic Hutzler and Beck farms on South Manitou Island, after an almost dreamlike sequence of fortunate circumstances falling into place. Read on in this week’s Northern Express, sister publication to the Leelanau Ticker, where writer Craig Manning explores Rosen rye’s unlikely and magical revival on South Manitou Island.

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