If you have a weak spot for a liquor that's spicy, bold, and with a heritage that's as American as apple pie, rye whisky is probably a drink you're already very familiar with. Back before distillers discovered that distilling with corn and barley malt was much easier in most states than distilling with rye (which tends to be harder to grow), rye whiskey was one of the most popular drinks around. The peak of its popularity came in the 1940s and 1950s; after that, sales began to plummet, with increasing numbers of drinkers favoring the smoothness of bourbon whiskey over the spicy kick of rye. Then, in the 2010s, a new generation of distillers began to revisit rye, resulting in a spike in demand and a new crop of high-quality rye whiskies to try. Some of those ryes have enough heat to stand up to cocktails, while others are elegant enough to deserve to be sipped alone. Here's our pick of the 10 best rye whiskies currently available.
10. Old Overholt Straight Rye
Old Overholt began making rye whiskey long before the bourbon boom spilled over into rye and hundreds of new distillers jumped on board the bandwagon. As one of the longest established and most consistent producers of rye in the country, it's forgotten more about making good rye whiskey than other distillers have ever known. Light, easy on the palate, and ideal for drinkers more used to the smoothness of bourbon than the spiciness of rye, Old Overholt Straight Rye is a very pleasant, extremely affordable option that's ideal for cocktails.
9. Sazerac Straight Rye Whiskey
If you're a fan of Sazerac cocktails (a close cousin of the Old Fashioned and the official drink of New Orleans), you'll want to keep a bottle of its namesake Sazerac Rye Whiskey to hand. Complex, spicy, and with just the right hint of caramel sweetness to keep things balanced, it makes a divine cocktail. It's also equally enjoyable served neat or on the rocks.
8. Rossville Union Master Crafted Straight Rye Whiskey Barrel
For almost 200 years, numerous distillers and blenders have been perfecting their rye blends at the venerable MGP spirits factory in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. Bulleit, Dickel, Sagamore Spirit, Smooth Ambler... they've all been made here, and, typically speaking, the results are usually very palatable. Considering their reputation, it was inevitable that MGP would eventually start releasing rye under its own brand name. The result, Rossville Union, is delightful. There are several expressions to try, with the Rossville Union Master Crafted Straight Rye Whiskey Barrel coming particularly highly recommended - assertive but not aggressive, it's ideal sipped neat or added to cocktails.
7. Woodford Reserve Rye
As thespruceeats.com says, it's not hard to find a bourbon Old Fashioned these days, but if you want to give the cocktail a spicy edge, skip the bourbon and opt for rye instead. Woodford Reserve Rye's notes of apple, mint, honey, tobacco, and rye are big enough to stand up to the other flavors in the cocktail, without being aggressive enough to overwhelm them. With the perfect balance of sweetness and spiciness, it's also a great rye to enjoy neat.
6. Russell's Reserve 6-Year Rye Whiskey
If you're a long-time fan of rye, you'll know the name Wild Turkey. Back before rye's recent explosion in popularity, it was one of only three consistent rye producers in the country (Jim Beam and Old Overholt being the other two). When sales of rye began to surge in the early 2010s, owner Eddie Russell stepped up production. He went slightly overboard, and faced with an excess, decided to leave a few barrels to age. The end result, Russell's Reserve 6-Year Rye Whiskey, is a complex, lively rye that's perfect for sipping neat.
5. High West Rendezvous Rye
As the first legally licensed distillery in Utah since the end of Prohibition, High West has quite a bit to live up to. It's built its reputation by sourcing rye and bourbon whiskies from various distilleries around Indiana and Kentucky before finishing the blends in various barrels to create uniquely flavored expressions. Its flagship whiskey, Rendezvous Rye, is an exceptionally aromatic, complex rye that's an ideal accompaniment to an Old Fashioned.
4. Basil Hayden’s Dark Rye
A glorious blend of Kentucky rye and Canadian rye with just a splash of California-made port, Basil Hayden’s Dark Rye is rich in dark fruit flavors, spicy undertones, and heady aromas. Lovely in a Manhattan but equally well suited to sipping on its own, it's bold enough to entice seasoned rye drinkers without being aggressive enough to turn newbies off.
3. Redemption Rye
As liquor.com says, while a whisky technically only has to contain 51 percent rye to be considered a rye whiskey in the US, Redemption decided to go the extra mile by starting with a mash-bill of 95% premium rye, which it ages for two years in new charred oak barrels and bottles at 92 proof. A spicy, malty blend with notes of cinnamon and nutmeg, it's perfect for rye drinkers looking for something with a little extra punch.
2. Elijah Craig Rye
As Esquire notes, Heaven Hill’s Elijah Craig bourbon has long been a go-to with whiskey fans thanks to its great price point and equally impressive quality. In 2020, they branched into rye whiskey for the first time. Bottled at 94 percent proof, it's certainly got some heat, with enough of a presence to stand up to other strong flavors in cocktails. The mash bill of 51 percent rye, 35 percent corn, and 14 percent malted barley barely scrapes the legal minimum of rye for rye whiskies, but the end result - a very drinkable, easy going whiskey with enough identity to make an impression but without the flashiness of some of its peers - should still please rye lovers.
1. Boss Hog VIII
With a price tag of around $500 per bottle, Boss Hog VIII certainly isn't cheap. The result of a collaboration been WhistlePig (a leader in premium rye that's built its reputation on exemplary blends like the 18-year-old WhistlePig Double Malt) and Kitaya brewery on Japan’s Kyushu island, it's the first-ever American whiskey finished using Japanese Umeshu (a sweet/sour liquor made be steeping unripe plums in liquor and sugar). A deeply intriguing, wonderfully complex rye with intense notes of spice, sandalwood, and cinnamon (and just a touch of caramel for sweetness), it might be expensive, but it's worth the blowout.
Written by Lily Wordsmith
Read more posts by Lily Wordsmith