The 10 Best Rye Whiskey Brands to Drink Right Now
Once upon a time, rye whiskey was extremely popular in America, particularly before the buzzkill that was Prohibition. But in the years that followed the dry spell, rye got a reputation as an inferior spirit, if it was even considered at all. That is finally changing, and over the last decade, the rye resurgence has gained strength, with both small and large distilleries releasing their own versions of bourbon’s spicier sister.
The rules for rye whiskey are simple: The mash bill must be at least 51 percent rye (whiskeys released at this percentage are sometimes referred to as “barely legal”), it must be distilled to no more than 160 proof, and it must be aged in new charred oak barrels. Unlike bourbon, flavor and coloring actually can be added to rye whiskey, unless it is designated as "straight" rye whiskey (which also means that it’s at least two years old).
A lot of the rye whiskey you can buy now originally comes from MGP, an historic, factory-like distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana that specializes in whiskey with a 95 percent rye/5 percent malted barley mash bill. Brands like Templeton, Bulleit, Smooth Ambler, James E. Pepper, and many others source their rye from here, and then blend and bottle it themselves. MGP has been making rye since well before it regained its popularity, and this distillery definitely knows what it’s doing. That being said, there was a period when some brands were not so transparent about where their whiskey was made, leading to blowback from whiskey drinkers. For the most part, this practice has faded, and brands sourcing from MGP that don’t at least put “distilled in Indiana” on their labels get called out frequently and loudly.
There are also plenty of rye whiskeys being made in Kentucky, Tennessee, and every other state in the union, with mash bills ranging from 51 to sometimes 100 percent rye. And yes, there are many craft distilleries making commendable rye whiskeys, including Wigle, 291 Distillery, and Hotaling & Co. While these are often good, the most noteworthy rye whiskey still comes from the old guard. Here are 10 of the best (and most readily available) rye whiskeys you can find today.
Wild Turkey/Russell’s Reserve
Wild Turkey isn’t necessarily the first name that comes to mind when you're thinking about rye whiskey, but it has been a part of the distillery’s portfolio since the 1950s (initially sourced, then distilled in-house starting in the ‘70s). Up until 2012, the 101-proof version, with a mash bill rumored to contain just above 51 percent rye, was the core rye expression. Nowadays, there’s also an 81-proof version—it’s fine, but stick with the 101—as well as single barrel and six-year-old smaller batch rye whiskeys under the Russell’s Reserve name. The latest entry in Wild Turkey's high-end Master’s Keep collection, Cornerstone Rye, comes out next month. The whiskey is a blend of nine- to 11-year-old rye bottled at 109 proof, and while it is delicious, it'll cost you a steep $175 for a bottle.
Jim Beam has several different rye whiskeys under different brand names in its portfolio, but Knob Creek is where you will find some of the best liquid. The core Straight Rye Whiskey (100 proof) is presumed to contain about the same percentage of rye as Wild Turkey. But the whiskey has a very different character, and is still recognizable as a Jim Beam product because of its signature nuttiness. A single barrel version is also available at a higher 115 proof, and there are some limited releases, like a cask strength expression and Twice Barreled, which was finished in new, charred oak barrels after initial maturation.
The Old Overholt name has been around since the late 1800s, and the brand has belonged to Jim Beam since 1987. It’s a young rye (said to be about three years old), bottled at 80 proof, and again, with just enough rye in the mash bill to legally be defined as such. This is a damn fine workhorse of the rye whiskey world, with just a bit of spice to counter the sweetness from the corn, making it a solid and inexpensive cocktail whiskey. Last year, Old Overholt Bonded Rye was released. Per the bottled-in-bond definition, it’s at least four years old and 100 proof, dialing up the heat and flavor compared to the original.
If there’s a direct competitor to Old Overholt, it is probably Rittenhouse Rye. This whiskey was originally made in Pennsylvania, but Kentucky’s Heaven Hill has owned the brand and distilled the whiskey since the 1990s. It is yet another “barely legal” rye, with a mash bill of 51 percent rye, 35 percent corn, and 14 percent barley. There used to be an 80-proof version, but most people are familiar with Rittenhouse in its current bottled-in-bond iteration. Don’t expect anything overly complex or rich here, just another reliable and affordable rye whiskey that makes a very tasty Manhattan.
Pikesville is another Heaven Hill product, but this whiskey far outpaces Rittenhouse in terms of flavor and mouthfeel (the two share the same mash bill). The brand was once a rye whiskey produced in Maryland. It managed to survive Prohibition, but finally ceased production in the early ‘70s. Heaven Hill acquired Pikesville in the ‘80s, and for many years made an 80-proof, three-year-old version that was sold in Maryland; it has since been discontinued. In 2015, this robust, 110-proof, six-year-old expression was launched. Look at it as Rittenhouse’s older, more mature sister whiskey, a rye that’s just as pleasurable to sip as it is to mix a drink with
High West, located in Utah, specializes in sourcing whiskey (mostly rye, but also bourbon) from distilleries in Kentucky and Indiana, coming up with interesting blends, and sometimes finishing the liquid in various barrel types. The distillery has also been incorporating some of its own young rye whiskey into recent releases like Double Rye! and Rendezvous Rye. For limited-release expressions like Yippee Ki-Yay and A Midwinter Night’s Dram, blends of rye are finished in Syrah and port barrels; Bourye, another limited-release bottle, combines bourbon and rye into one whiskey.
E.H. Taylor, Jr.
The Colonel E.H. Taylor range has been a part of the Buffalo Trace family of whiskeys since 2011, and it generally consists of some very fine bottles. In recent years, people have complained about the limited stock, high prices, and explosion in popularity of whiskeys like Four Grain bourbon, and there is some grumbling that the brand-new Amaranth bourbon may follow suit. However, the straight rye is not terribly difficult to find, and it is a delicious whiskey with prominent black pepper, caramel, and vanilla notes. This one is bottled in bond, and while the distillery doesn’t disclose the mash bill, it is probably somewhere just above 51 percent rye.
WhistlePig has recently been using some of its own distilled rye in its FarmStock series, but the majority of the whiskey is sourced from Canada and Indiana. When it reaches the WhistlePig distillery and farm in Vermont, it is blended and put into various barrel types for further aging. Over the years, the brand has been the source of some controversy among whiskey fans who balked at what they perceived as a lack of transparency about the whiskey’s source, though that seems to have changed. It will be interesting to see what future releases containing more of the distillery’s own whiskey will taste like. In the meantime, the oldest (and presumably most expensive) rye whiskey from the distillery thus far will be released in the coming weeks: the 18-year-old WhistlePig Double Malt.
George Dickel Rye
George Dickel is the other Tennessee whiskey, nowhere near as big or popular as Jack Daniel’s, which happens to be one of the best-selling whiskeys in the world. But this MGP-sourced rye is arguably more flavorful and interesting than Jack Daniel’s entry into the category. It is made using MGP’s typical 95 percent rye mash bill, and it undergoes the same Lincoln County process that is required of all Tennessee whiskey, in which the spirit is filtered through sugar maple charcoal—“mellowing” it, in the parlance of the brand. The difference here is that the Tennessee whiskey distilled at Dickel is mellowed before barreling, while the rye is mellowed after maturation and before it’s bottled.
Redemption Whiskey is another MGP product, and a good example of how unique the whiskey sourced from this mega-distillery can be, even when it’s the same 95 percent rye mash bill. Redemption Rye is on the young side, generally about two-and-a-half years old, and bottled at 92 proof, giving it the hot and spicy character that defines this whiskey. If you are curious how the liquid might taste if it was allowed to mature for a few more years, try the 10 Year Barrel Proof Rye. The current iteration of this intense whiskey is a decade old and bottled at 116.2 proof, unleashing layers of caramel, nutmeg, and cinnamon in every sip. There are a couple of bourbon expressions available as well from Redemption, but rye whiskey is the heart and soul of the brand.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.