Rye Whiskey has enjoyed something of a renaissance in recent years. Drinkers have re-discovered how good a full-bodied rye whiskey can taste and are eager to explore all that this delicious style of whiskey has to offer.
Whiskey producers have rushed to cater to the newfound popularity of rye. There are now more rye whiskeys on the market than ever before, including some experimental whiskeys which combine traditional and new distillation processes.
In this post, I’ll share some basic information about rye whiskey before showcasing several of the best rye whiskeys currently available.
What is Rye Whiskey?
American rye whiskey must be made from a fermented rye grain mash that contains at least 51 percent rye. The rest of the mash can consist of any grain but usually includes some malted barley and corn.
To be classified as an American rye whiskey, a spirit must also:
Be distilled to no higher than 160 U.S. proof (80% ABV)
Be placed into the barrel at no higher than 125 proof (62.5 percent ABV)
Aged in charred new oak barrels for at least two years.
Bottled at a minimum of 80 proof (40 percent ABV)
It is important to note that some Canadian whiskeys that are labeled “Rye Whiskey” may not contain a mash that is 51% or more rye.
That’s because Canadian whiskeys often use the term for purely historical reasons and there are no legal restrictions on the use of the term.
Subsequently, some Canadian products labeled “Rye Whiskey” may only have a small amount of rye present if any.
What Does Rye Whiskey Taste Like?
Rye whiskey is a full-bodied spirit with a spicy flavor. It is usually quite dry and the taste of rye is very obvious in the palate. While there is some sweetness present, it is not overbearing as it can be in some bourbon whiskeys.
It has a sharp taste that packs plenty of punch. Rye whiskey can be enjoyed straight, with water, on ice, with a mixer, or as a part of a cocktail. In fact, many classic whiskey cocktails taste best when rye whiskey is used.
The Best Rye Whiskeys
Sazerac Straight Rye Whiskey
Sazerac Straight Rye Whiskey is an authentic whiskey that is produced at the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky. This distillery is more than 200 years old, which makes it one of the oldest working distilleries in the United States. Sazerac has owned Buffalo Trace since 1992 and now uses it to produce a wide range of whiskeys and other spirits.
Sazerac Rye is the company’s best-selling spirit and is now considered a classic. This whiskey was developed for use in a Sazerac cocktail in place of Cognac. It gives a Sazerac cocktail more of a kick and adds some delicious flavors, hence its popularity.
Sazerac has won several awards and is considered one of the best rye whiskeys produced in the United States. It has a beautiful mahogany appearance, with a nose containing pepper, vanilla, and clove. The palate is sophisticated, including a healthy dose of pepper, cinnamon, and orange. The finish is very dry, with a hint of honey and anise.
Its big brother the Sazerac 18 from the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection used to be the best rye whiskey around a few years back but recent offerings have not been that great and when added to the fact it’s nearly impossible to get hold of a bottle, we decided to leave it off the list.
Sagamore Spirit Straight Rye
Historically, Maryland has been the center of rye whiskey production in the United States. This has changed over the years as leading rye brands moved to other parts of the country or have been sold off to other distilleries. The team behind Sagamore Spirit is hoping to make Maryland the home of rye whiskey production once more.
Sagamore Spirit is produced at a large waterfront distillery in the heart of Maryland using copper stills. The facility isn’t just a working distillery, it is a tasting center that educates people about the history of Maryland’s rye whiskeys.
The distillery’s straight rye whiskey is a delicious spirit with a wide range of flavors and aromas. The nose is surprisingly sweet with honey, jasmine, peach, and hints of vanilla. The palate is diverse with plenty of rye, vanilla, and spice, along with hints of tobacco and other fruits. The finish is quite smooth. A delicious drop worth tracking down.
Pikesville Rye (6 Year)
With roots dating back to the 1800s, Pikesville Rye is another traditional rye whiskey that is packed with flavor. Although the whiskey was originally produced in Maryland, it is now distilled by the Heaven Hill distillery in Kentucky. Fortunately, Heaven Hill has closely followed the original recipe, producing a whiskey of exceptional consistency and quality.
Pikesville Rye is a strong whiskey that is served at almost cask strength (110 proof/55% ABV). It uses a six-year aging process to soften the spicy flavors in the whiskey and bring out other characteristics.
It has a golden copper color, with a nose including vanilla, spices, oak, cherry, cream, leather, and cocoa. The palate is dry, with a wide variety of spices, fruit, and honey. This is a whiskey worth putting on your bucket list.
New York Distilling Ragtime Rye
Despite the fun police trying to take away everyone’s booze, life in prohibition-era New York was still very enjoyable. There were dozens of secretive bars, gambling dens, music venues, and strip joints around the city.
This delicious whiskey from New York Distilling is named after the ragtime music which was common around that time. It is a very strong and rich whiskey that is particularly enjoyable when used to make classic whiskey cocktails. The nose features classic rye notes along with light peppers and berries. The palate has more rye and a raft of spices including cinnamon and nutmeg.
Lyon Maryland Free State Rye
Lyon Distilling Co. launched its new micro-distillery in St. Michaels, Maryland in late 2013. It was the first distillery to make a rye whiskey in Maryland for over 30 years.
The distillery’s Free State Rye Whiskey is a delicious spirit with a mash bill including 55% rye, 35% corn, and 10% malted barley. The corn gives it a sweeter flavor than most rye whiskeys, however, it retains the spiciness of a traditional American rye whiskey.
You can tell that a lot of work has gone into producing this whiskey because of its impeccable balance. The spicy pepper notes are nicely balanced against caramel and vanilla flavors introduced by the mash and time spent in charred oak barrels. This is a small batch whiskey, so obtaining a bottle can be difficult and there is some variance in the palate between different batches, but it definitely a drink worth tracking down.
Michter’s US* Single Barrel Straight Rye
In 1753, John Shenk founded America’s first production distillery in Pennsylvania. It is so old that George Washington himself was said to have enjoyed the distillery’s whiskeys.
Since then, the distillery has gone through several owners and name changes before eventually being moved to Kentucky. Despite the changes, the distillery (now known as Mitchers) has continued to produce some of the best American whiskeys available.
Michter’s US* Single Barrel Straight Rye is a great introductory rye for drinkers used to bourbon, Scotch, or Irish whiskey. Although it has retained the full body and flavor of rye whiskey, it is surprisingly sweet and easy to drink.
It has a beautiful mahogany appearance, with a strong rye and orange aroma. The palate is spicy and savory as you would expect from a rye whiskey. However, it also contains notes of butterscotch and marmalade, which is a delicious combination.
Rittenhouse 100 Proof Straight Rye
Rittenhouse 100 Proof Bottled in Bond Rye is one of the few whiskey producers who never gave up on rye whiskey. They continued producing it even when it wasn’t “in vogue” with drinkers. This gives them a level of authority and credibility that recent entries into the market do not have.
Savvy bartenders who knew the value of a good rye whiskey would often turn to Rittenhouse simply because it was one of a handful of high-quality rye whiskeys available.
The whiskey has a dark caramel color with a heavy rye nose that also contains hints of vanilla. The palate is bold and spice with some red/black pepper.
This is somewhat offset by the sweeter flavors of caramel and honey. A delicious and highly versatile whiskey. A great choice for an Old Fashioned or any other classic whiskey cocktail.
Templeton Rye is a classic prohibition-era whiskey that was brought back to the market by whiskey makers Scott Bush and Meryl Kerkhoff. According to the legend, it was called “The good stuff” by Al Capone, hence the slogan on the front of the label.
It is a strong and fragrant whiskey with a mash bill containing 95% rye, corn and malted barley. The modern version of It is aged for at least 4 years in new charred oak, which mellows out the strong rye flavor somewhat and lets the sweeter characteristics shine through.
It is one of the spiciest rye whiskeys available and has a very strong rye taste. However, the caramel, sugar, honey, and corn flavors offset the spice slightly and make it more palatable. The additional time in the barrel also makes it smoother than you might expect from a rye-dominant whiskey. Definitely worth checking out.