A tyrannical tsar, a fugitive agronomy student, an isolated Lake Michigan island, some crazily optimistic dudes … all a part of the story of the greatest strain of rye on Earth and its journey to become a legendary whiskey.

This article first appeared in Traverse Northern Michigan. Find this story and more when you explore our digital issue library. Want Traverse delivered to your door or inbox monthly? View our print subscription and digital subscription options.

On a bluebird morning this past June, the Manitou Island Transit ferry puttered out of Leland harbor headed for uninhabited South Manitou Island, which lies some nine miles off the Leelanau Peninsula. Onboard, 90 beamingly happy guests (including the renowned whiskey writer Chuck Cowdery and Maggie Kimberl of American Whiskey Magazine) and the staff of Northern Michigan–based Mammoth Distillery were already raising cocktails to the day’s occasion: the first-ever Rosen Rye Day.

The celebration would center around a public reveal of a mere quarter-acre of an extremely rare rye said to have once been the key ingredient in some of the finest whiskey in the world. Although Mammoth staff had painstakingly planted the precious crop on the island just last fall, Rosen rye has a history on South Manitou—but it had been almost a century since the grain graced this beautiful island.

The hesitant among us, myself included, started with bloody marys, as it was still morning; the rest threw decorum to the wind and ordered selections from the open bar that included the Whiskey Tango Foxtrot— Mammoth whiskey, pineapple-jalapeño mixer and ginger beer. It will be six to eight years before the first bottle of Rosen rye whiskey is available to the public, but it’s never too soon to cheer a world-class whiskey in the making. Especially this one, packed as it will be with equal parts story and flavor. As the ferry rolled into the infamously dangerous Manitou Passage, Mammoth employee Matt Hayes hoisted the huge, bright orange and black Mammoth Distillery flag into the breeze where it flapped with swashbuckling authority.

Field of Rye

Photo by Beth Price

The moment brought home the staff-wide pride in this company that is more about ethos and heart than bottom line. Headed by founder and CEO Chad Munger and his compatriot in right-brain visioning Whiskey Maker Ari Sussman, Mammoth’s products have garnered a number of awards (most recently the Chairman’s Trophy at the prestigious Ultimate Spirits Challenge in New York for their Northern rye) in the decade since they opened their first tasting room in tiny Central Lake. They’ve also added three more tasting rooms in Northern Michigan and one downstate in Adrian, and their products are distributed nationwide. Yet, Munger describes the company’s growth as “slow and purposeful.” The purpose is to build community—as in tasting rooms that feel like neighborhood bars—while utilizing authentic Northern Michigan ingredients no matter the effort. “We aren’t show dogs,” Munger says. “We are work dogs.”

Which brings us to the Rosen rye, their toughest and most heartfelt project to date. The four years since Munger and Sussman hatched a plan to bring the rye back to South Manitou Island, where its glory days began over a century ago, have been marked with plenty of sweat, probably some blood but no, not tears. More like a company-wide, “Holy wow, we are making this happen!” It’s a great story built on the back of another epic story: The origin of South Manitou Island Rosen rye itself.

Lighthouse on South Manitou Island

Photo by Beth Price

In 1903, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia exiled Joseph Rosen, a teenager, to Siberia for his political views. Rosen escaped to Germany where he studied agronomy before immigrating to the United States and making a beeline for Michigan Agricultural College—now Michigan State University. There he met plant-breeding genius Professor Frank Spragg. Interested in strains of Russian rye, Spragg asked Rosen to have his parents send seeds from Russia. Sometime later, several cups of seeds arrived in an envelope mailed by Rosen’s parents. Spragg went to work and came up with a hybrid he named Rosen after his young Russian friend.

By this time, Rosen had moved on to receive a doctorate from the University of Minnesota, and his interaction with the seed that bears his name became minimal. Meanwhile, Spragg sent Rosen rye seed out across the state, and it consistently produced yields and characteristics that were far superior to other varieties. While most rye in this country is used for pasture or as a winter bedding crop, it was soon clear that although Rosen was certainly prolific, it was also an elite grain that could produce whiskey of the finest quality.

The new champion grain had only one drawback: It cross-pollinated too easily with inferior strains. Within two years of cultivation, Rosen lost its superpowers. Spragg knew he needed to find a place to breed pure seed stock isolated from other crops of rye. By 1918, he and his team of researchers had zeroed in on South Manitou Island, just 200 miles from his East Lansing campus. Except for steamers stopping at the harbor for cordwood, the small island community lived a secluded existence. When an emissary for Spragg, a Mr. J.W. Nicholson, came calling to ask if the farmers there would be willing to grow Rosen rye, it was a momentous occasion.

Eleven farmers signed on to grow Rosen and only that variety. As the story goes, they agreed to drown any one of them who dared break that rule. From the first crop harvested in 1919, Spragg’s experiment was a stupendous success. Island Rosen rye seeds were sent to farms all over the country. When the rye had lost its mojo after several years, there was fresh seed stock waiting on South Manitou.

Ferry boat to South Manitou Island

Photo by Beth Price

The crib on the way to South Manitou Island

Photo by Beth Price

People waiting to get on ferry

Photo by Beth Price

The South Manitou rye was so amazing that the island farmers raked in award after award at both national and international agricultural expositions. Their reputation even earned them the nickname the Manitou Kings—the most well-known of them being August Beck and brothers Louis and George Hutzler. Their fame, and that of the rye they grew, was amplified considerably by Prohibition. Not surprisingly, the prized island seed stock surreptitiously made its way to whiskey-making meccas including Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Maryland.

But even as the rye’s reputation soared, events were unfolding that would end the Rosen rye dynasty. By the time Prohibition ended in 1933, the drinking public had come to favor the taste and price of whiskey made with corn instead of rye. Simultaneously, the new coal-burning ships replacing steamers on the Great Lakes didn’t need to take on cordwood so they had few reasons to stop at the island. Farmers no longer had a guaranteed way to ship rye and other produce to the mainland for sale. By the early 1940s, commercial crops—the magic rye included—had vanished from South Manitou.

Some 80 years later, on that first-ever Rosen Rye Day, Chad Munger and Ari Sussman stood at the edge of the field of shoulder-high Rosen rye that their Mammoth team had planted on the old Hutzler farm last fall. As the rye swayed in the breeze, Munger and Sussman recounted the story of how Mammoth Distilling brought rye back to the island.

Mammoth Distilling samples

Photo by Beth Price

Snack on south manitou island

Photo by Beth Price

Four years ago, Sussman was mining the agriculture and food archives at Michigan State—indulging a personal passion while doing the R part of R&D for his company—when he came across a full-page ad for Old Schenley rye in a 1934 issue of Vanity Fair touting that it was made with Michigan Rosen rye: “The most compact and flavorful rye kernels Mother Earth produces were used for this luxurious brand.”

“How could I not have heard of this before?” Sussman recalls thinking. He shared the ad with Munger ASAP. “We had exactly one conversation where he described what he discovered, and it was pretty clear to me that this was something that we needed to try to do,” Munger says. “It was just too close and too relevant to the business we were building.”

Munger and Sussman didn’t want to just grow Rosen rye, they wanted to grow it on South Manitou because, obviously, the island conditions are ideal—but also for historic authenticity. There was a problem: South Manitou is a part of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and managed by the National Park Service, an entity not given to allowing private enterprise on federal land.

People in a rye field

Photo by Beth Price

House on South Manitou Island

Photo by Beth Price

People standing at a rye field

Photo by Beth Price

Munger, who built his company on vision first (and figuring out how to get there later), plunged in. Job number one was finding Rosen rye seed. It turned out that the United States Department of Agriculture had seed stashed safely away in its vault at the National Laboratory for Genetic Resources Preservation. Not long after Munger asked for it, 18 grams came in the mail—just as it had come to Spragg from Russia 120 years ago. Next, Munger turned to Michigan State University, the birthplace of Rosen rye, and specifically to Dr. Eric Olson of MSU’s College of Agriculture & Natural Resources. Olson helped Munger and Sussman uncover Spragg’s records from so long ago—and in so doing, established a historical connection to the rye and South Manitou that was all-important to the administrators at Sleeping Bear. Just as farmers have been issued special use permits to grow corn at Gettysburg National Military Park, where cornfields had stood during the Civil War, Mammoth Distilling received permission to plant Rosen rye where it had been historically grown on South Manitou Island.

Cutting through the federal government’s red tape was a whew moment, but the real work hadn’t even started. In accordance with their permit, the Mammoth crew must plant, tend and harvest the rye just as the Manitou Kings did: with no pesticides, no irrigation, no electricity and no machinery other than a tractor. They had to bring their own gas for the tractor and pitch a tent in one of the primitive island campgrounds at night. It all adds up to what Munger calls “farming in the raw.”

Row of Mammoth Distilling Spirits

Photo by Beth Price

Three young, energetic and devoted Mammoth employees head up the island farming operation: Matt Hayes, custodian of the Mammoth flag on our trip over; Lead Agronomist Doug Burke (aka Farmer Doug), who sports a rye tattoo that stretches along his right forearm; and Mammoth’s Head Distiller Collin Gaudard, a fifth-generation Leelanau Peninsula farmer whose grandfather was once keeper of the South Manitou Lighthouse. “It just feels so right to be farming here,” he says.

The team’s first planting was October of 2020—a mere hundred square feet on the old Hutzler farm. The ferry trip over was in rocking and rolling autumn waves, and when they arrived at the farm, they found the field covered in Amazonian-sized poison ivy. Yet, they dug in with pioneer perseverance, gearing up in boots, long pants and long-sleeved shirts to disc the poison ivy into oblivion. They harvested that rye by hand last summer, and then used the seeds to plant the quarter-acre crop that now waves in wind at the Hutzler field. The seed from that in turn will be used to plant more acreage and so on, until 40 acres of historic rye beds will once again be cultivated. Additionally, Mammoth Distilling has leased a farm on Beaver Island, north of South Manitou, where they will grow Rosen rye.

All too soon our group had to say goodbye to the rye and the bucolic serenity of the Hutzler farmstead so we could make it back to the ferry in time. But there wasn’t one of us who wouldn’t return to the island for Rosen Rye Day when the whiskey is ready. Bloody marys be damned. On that morning we’ll all be drinking rye.

Person picking rye

Photo by Beth Price

American flag over South manitou island

Photo by Beth Price

Elizabeth Edwards is senior editor of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. lissa@traversemagazine.com

Beth Price is an editorial and commercial photographer based in Northern Michigan. She’s passionate about cap- turing authentic human experiences that help achieve a greater appreciation for the natural world we live in. bethpricephotography.com

Photo(s) by Beth Price