Rye whiskey is seeing a resurgence in popularity, with even Jim Beam launching their own rye whiskey. Rye is a little difficult to put into words. It can be spicy and oaky at the same time, yet it also has some nuances of bourbon flavour.
Nevertheless, rye whiskey is unique in its own right, which is why it's so appealing. It's worth looking at some of the most popular brands on the market today.
If you're looking for something different and spicy, rye whiskey is an excellent option for you to try. It’s even anticipated that several rye whiskeys will become collector's items by this year due to growing demand and limited availability.
So, where does one begin when searching for the perfect rye for their palate? Using this guide, you will be able to choose from some of the best ryes in the world to taste and enjoy today. We also included a buyer's guide that explains the differences between "high-rye," "straight rye whiskey," and "rye whiskey.”
A Brief History of Rye Whiskey
Rye whiskey is actually the first kind of whiskey to be documented in the United States. Rye whiskey was distilled in New Amsterdam around 1640 by the colony's director, William Kleft, and was the grain of preference in the Netherlands and Germany.
In 1750, local farmers in Pennsylvania began distilling rye whiskey by mixing it with grain. However, it soon faced many challenges. In 1783, bourbon whiskey quickly overtook Rye as the preferred whiskey of the middle class in the United States.
By the 1820s, rye whiskey had evolved into an aged spirit. Rye was primarily produced in Pennsylvania and Maryland but made in Kentucky and other Ohio Valley states with large whiskey businesses.
Pennsylvania rye whiskey was mainly a straight rye whiskey, while Maryland rye was more refined with flavors like cherry or prune juice added to make it sweeter. Both kinds were popular in the 19th century, but the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 nearly destroyed the Maryland Rye category. It was a time when straight whiskey was becoming more popular, and thereby rye whiskey was required to be classified as a blended whiskey.
In addition to those, Prohibition also challenged rye whiskey’s production, even until it ended.
Distilleries returned to Pennsylvania and Maryland, although not as many as in Kentucky. Bourbon grew to be more popular, and a lot of distilleries were shut due to Prohibition, significantly affecting rye whiskey’s sales. Following this, Pennsylvania reverted to being a control state, with politicians hostile to distillation. Pennsylvania's higher taxes and restrictions rendered distilling unprofitable.
Because the success of Bourbon curtailed sales of Pennsylvania rye, National and Schenley relocated rye production to their Kentucky distilleries. Many New Englanders began drinking Canadian Whisky, which was primarily brewed with rye grain.
Then there were the American troops who, upon return from their service at WWII, came home with an appreciation for whisky from Ireland and Scotland. By the 1980s, rye whisky production had all but ceased in its native Mid-Atlantic region.
Rye whiskey nearly vanished as a whiskey category in the United States. It would take the rise in interest in Bourbon in the 1990s to reintroduce rye whiskey as a popular kind of whiskey.
How is Rye Whiskey made?
To make rye whiskey, the grain mash must include at least 51% rye, with the balance being barley, corn, oats, and wheat making up the mash. Despite the fact that rye whiskey can legally contain 100 percent rye, only a few distilleries go higher than 90 percent.
In contrast, bourbon, one of the most famous American whiskey varieties, must include at least 51% maize in its mash bill. While bourbon tends to be sweeter and fuller-bodied, rye whiskey is more spicy and dry in flavor due to its mash bill.
The following conditions must be met by every rye whiskey sold in the United States, according to the government:
- Made from a grain mixture that is at least 51% rye.
- Aged in new charred oak barrels.
- It is distilled to no more than 160 proof, or 80% alcohol by volume (ABV). In practice, most rye is distilled out at a lower proof than this.
- Entered into the barrel for aging at a proof no higher than 125 (62.5% ABV).
- It should be bottled at no less than 80 proof (40% ABV).
A look into the best ryes on the marketBulleit Rye Whiskey 750ml
The new Bulleit Rye Whiskey is manufactured by the same people who make Bulleit bourbon and contains 95 percent rye grains, which is significantly more than the legally authorized 51 percent. This is probably the most extreme whiskey yet.
The aging procedure takes place in white oak barrels that have been perfectly charred before being filled. This whiskey has a copper color with a green patina and is 95 percent rye. It pushes fermentation techniques to achieve a 95% rye mash whisky, the highest rye content ever observed in a whiskey. You’ll notice some astringency and a lot of spiciness.
This golden amber spirit has notes of oak, rich fruits, and vanilla. With only one sip, you may get a sense of the cherry flavor right away. This is followed by more fruit, nuttiness, and toffee. It finishes dry and chewy, with lingering notes of maple and oak.
At 90-proof, this is a whiskey with a peppery spice burn. It's ideal for a refreshing sip. When the beverage is poured over ice, some of the heat is reduced, allowing the sweetness to show through.Sazerac Straight Rye Whiskey
Crafted in the Sazerac-owned Buffalo Trace distillery in Kentucky, this award-winning whiskey brand survived while so many others in the rye industry failed. Whisky Bible’s Jim Murray gave it 94.5 points, while Wine Enthusiast gave it 95 points, deeming it a "Best Buy," and "Best Rye Whiskey." Furthermore, it received the Best American Rye Whiskey Award at the Los Angeles International Wine & Spirits Competition and a Gold Medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
Sazerac Straight Rye Whiskey is believed to be produced from a mash of 51% rye, 39% maize, and 10% malted barley. Small batches of barrels are wedded together after six years of being aged in the heat of the Kentucky countryside following distillation. The hue of the whiskey is copper-bronze, and the scent includes rye, malt, cinnamon, cloves, and black pepper. On the palate, there are flavors of chewy caramel, vanilla, spicy rye, and candied citrus, followed by a hint of dried fruits and rye.Elijah Craig Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey
Elijah Craig Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey’s aromas are very much like traditional Kentucky Bourbon. Despite the sweetness of caramel and vanilla bean, the nose is spicy and peppery with hints of nutmeg and a touch of oak.
It is a classic American straight rye whiskey with a mash bill of 51% rye, 35% maize, and 14% malted barley.
Upon the first sip, you’ll notice its silky and slightly oily texture, followed by a corny sweetness, a faint peanut butter flavor, rich caramel and vanilla, and finally, a long-lasting mint note on the finish. Apple pie spice, like caramelized Granny Smiths with cinnamon sugar on top of the more subtle stone fruit, is also present, as well as some barrel char and apricot-like stone fruit notes. There is an extraordinary degree of caramelization overall. As a result, it is an exceptionally well-balanced whiskey that combines the flavors of bourbon and rye.
If you're looking for fantastic all-purpose rye that's not so costly that you'd feel guilty about mixing traditional cocktails with it, this is a good choice at $30.Old Forester Single Barrel Rye Barrel Strength
Over the last several years, the Old Forester brand was recognized for its relatively simple and straightforward product lineup, but those days are long gone. Old Forester Rye fans have been asking for a chance to drink it at barrel strength ever since it was released in 2019. This is the first time in the brand's 150-year history that Old Forester has released a barrel-strength single-barrel expression unfiltered.
Old Forester's rye whiskey is only two years old, but don't assume that it's just one of many inexpensive whiskey options. It’s the result of a 1940s high-malt formula that lends it a floral flavor with all the brown sugar sweetness you'd expect from the brand. The 100-proof strength of this whiskey lends itself well to drinks, as well.
It's a bit complex on the nose. Some of the aromas to look forward to are caramel and brown sugar, as well as cherry and a dash of coffee bean. When it comes to the flavor, it's pretty unique and powerful. An initial bittersweet numbing feeling soon gave way to a taste profile that was overflowing with character. The cherry is the star of the show here, and it makes for a delicious drink.Redwood Empire Rocket Top Rye Whiskey
Redwood Empire Rocket Top Rye is a rare spirit that was bottled under the tight rules of the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897. Only clean water from the Russian River Valley aquifer was added to the original distillate, which was aged in the temperate temperature of the Northern California coast. Redwood Empire's art is at its finest in this masterpiece.
This bottled-in-bond rye whiskey was distilled and aged fully on-site, unlike the sourced whiskeys they've previously produced. Whiskey was produced in the spring of 2016 and aged for five years in oak barrels with an average char level of three, per the company's representatives. In the end, a total of 26 barrels were used to create this release. The scent is dominated by sandalwood, clove, and dried leaves, while the taste is dominated by black pepper, coffee, and leather.
It has a bitter orange peel, fall spice, caramel, and dry oak sawdust aroma, as well as notes evocative of the Fall season.
The flavor is inviting and comforting. The majority of the nose is present. The woodshop and sawdust element is rounded off with the fall spices and orange peel. This is followed by a fruit cake sweetness that transitions into a dry wood spice finish with eucalyptus.
For some time now, Redwood Empire has been recognized for combining their own distillate with whiskies from various distilleries around the United States.High West Double Rye Whiskey
High West Double Rye! is its distillery’s entry-level rye whiskey. It’s technically a blend of straight ryes, a 95% rye (5% malted barley) mash bill from MGP, and an 80% rye (20% malted rye) distilled by High West themselves at their new-ish distillery in Park City, Utah.
There are notes of hay, pine, oak, and a tad of rye spice on the nose, and you get fresh dill as a resounding presence throughout. It’s got a very intriguing scent and doesn't have the typical spice undertones but is more herbaceous and grassy.
There may be a tingling sensation in your tongue as you savor a sip. There's just the right amount of sweetness in the older rye to offset the freshness and grassiness of the younger variety. Both can be detected. Nutty, sweet, and rich in a toasty and nuanced way. It's a beautiful experience. The finish is medium-bodied with all the preceding notes and fades with a touch of charcoal.
Overall, this is an excellent, well-balanced, and complicated rye whiskey that can easily justify the price. However, because some of this whiskey's unique characteristics may be lost in a cocktail, it's better to sip it neat.
It's a great wine with decadent flavors and a lovely scent. The high-rye provides a level of complexity, richness, and vibrancy that maize alone cannot provide. You won't want to miss this.