Best known as bourbon’s spicy cousin, rye whiskey makes for a delicious sipper or cocktail ingredient in its own right. Accordingly, no connoisseur’s collection is complete if it doesn’t contain at least a few of the best rye whiskeys. And what are the best rye whiskeys, you ask? For the answer, look no further than our trusty guide below, where we explore this versatile spirit in all its lip-smacking glory. In addition to listing out all the top examples–from Willet Rye to Rittenhouse–we explain what rye whisky is in the first place. Let’s dive in, shall we?
This article is part of our Brews & Bottles Series.
What is Rye Whiskey?
You might not realise it when you’re throwing back shots with your mates, but most spirits must abide by some strict parameters if they’re going to fall under a specific banner. All bourbon, for instance, must come from a mash bill (i.e. the mixture of base grains) that’s at least 51% corn. Furthermore, all bourbon must be aged in new, charred oak barrels.
Along similar lines, rye whiskey must possess a mash bill that’s at least 51% rye. Rye, by the way, is a sturdy grain that shares a number of properties with barley, and can survive harsh changes in climate. While a few applicable whiskeys crank the rye dial all the way up to 100%, most incorporate additional grains like barley and corn, thereby diversifying the flavour profile. Like bourbon, all rye whiskey must be aged in new, charred oak barrels.
What Makes for Good Rye Whiskey?
Being that few palates are exactly the same, asking what makes for good rye whiskey is something of a superfluous question. Nevertheless, the top rye whiskeys will usually go down smooth, and deliver a distinctive tier of character, while the worst ones will yield significant burn, and leave a foul taste behind. Beyond that, it’s usually a matter of preference. For instance, some drinkers prefer an overly spicy rye, while others like rye that balances notes of spice and sweetness. Meanwhile, cheaper rye whiskeys are usually best served in a mixed drink (barring a few exceptions), as they’re probably going to retain some heat or bitterness due to lack of aging.
15 Best Rye Whiskeys
Saved from the brink of extinction by Heaven Hill Distillery in the late 1990s, Rittenhouse Rye has origins going as far back as the repeal of Prohibition, when it was one of the first new labels to storm out of the gate. Still bottled in bond, and aged for four years, the acclaimed spirit balances lush notes of dark cherry and vanilla with subtle waves of spice to absolute perfection. Just as astounding is the unbeatable price point, making this top rye whiskey a winner on every conceivable front.
Pikesville 6 Year
Heaven Hill Distillery keeps the hits coming with Pikesville 6-Year-Old Straight Rye Whiskey, a label with over 120 years of history behind it. Since 1982, the spirit has been distilled on site in Kentucky, and in 2015 it received a qualitative upgrade by way of longer aging and a higher proof. Nowadays, this top rye whiskey is stronger, tastier, and more acclaimed than ever before, though still quite affordable.
Willett Family Estate Small Batch
Another label with tons of history (as in over 120 years) behind it, Willett resumed production of its own distillate in 2012. The result is this relatively young, small batch whiskey, which delivers robust flavour and a bold edge. Put simply, Willett Rye is a quintessential go-to expression among seasoned drinkers, and well worth your time.
Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Rye
Named after the bartender who first substituted rye whiskey for brandy when making a Sazerac, this remarkable spirit is easily among the best rye whiskeys you’ll ever try, presuming you can actually score a bottle. Indeed, as part of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Straight Rye Whiskey only comes out once a year, and usually gets snatched up immediately. Uncut, unfiltered, and bottled straight from the barrel, the award-winning spirit rides in on a warm wave of toffee, cinnamon, clove, mint, and candied fruit, and leaves a trail of spice and nutmeg in its wake.
Sazerac Rye 18 Year
Another rare beast from the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, Sazerac Rye 18-Year-Old takes its name from the famous New Orleans establishment where “America’s first cocktail” (aka the Sazerac) was invented. Aged for 18 long years, this top rye whiskey bathes the taste buds in a warm bath of oak, leather, spice, cinnamon, pepper and vanilla. In other words: welcome to flavour country.
Van Winkle 13-Year-Old Family Reserve Rye
While we’re on the subject of impossible-to-find spirits, we might as well roll out the rarest one of them all: Van Winkle 13-Year-Old Family Reserve Rye. More than just hard to find, this is also one of the best rye whiskeys you can ever taste. From the deep copper colour to the smooth-but-substantial texture to the exquisite taste, Van Winkle Rye is like something out of a whiskey-lover’s wildest fantasies. Good luck scoring a bottle.
Russell’s Reserve 6 Year
Aged in charred no. 4 barrels, and then hand-selected by Wild Turkey Master Distiller Eddie Russell (with help from his dad, Jimmy), this 6-year-old statement might very well represent the epitome of rye whiskey itself, despite a mash bill of just 51% rye. Specifically, the celebrated spirit serves up ample notes of spice, and often gets compared to rye bread. Balancing out those grainy flavours are smooth notes of molasses and oak. This won’t necessarily be the best rye whiskey you ever try (though it certainly could be), but it will easily rank among the most consistent, dependable, and affordable.
George Dickel Rye
If you’re looking for good rye whiskey at an unbeatable price, you’ve found it right here. As a result of a mash bill that’s 95% rye and 5% malted barley, George Dickel Rye goes heavy on notes of spicy grain and toasted cereal, while hints of pepper and vanilla weave in and out of the body. Mix it with a splash of ginger ale to make a great thing that much greater.
Angel’s Envy Finished Rye
Here’s a spirit so distinctive that it’s practically controversial among purists. In order to distinguish their rye from the herd, Angel’s Envy finishes it for 18 months in vintage rum casks. Consequently, the expression retains a completely unique and fruity profile, which comes off as downright avant-garde when compared to the standard, spicy fare. Should you ignore the naysayers, you’ll discover a complex, luscious sipper that goes down best during dessert.
High West Double Rye
Speaking of experimental spirits, Utah-based High West isn’t afraid to try pretty much everything under the sun when it comes to blending. Accordingly, the brand’s Double Rye combines 2-year-old rye whiskey (from an MGP distillate) and 16-year-old rye whiskey (from Barton Distillery) to unique effect. The result is a complex spirit that’s truly firing on all cylinders, with balanced layers of sugar, spice, botanicals, citrus peel and cinnamon circulating throughout every sip. Sealing the deal is a surprisingly low price point.
High West Rendezvous Rye
Just as reputable as High West Double Rye is one of the label’s flagship statements, Rendezvous Rye. This time around, High West blends 6 year-old rye whiskey with 16 year-old rye whiskey to resounding perfection. Sip the spirit neat or use it as the base ingredient in one of the finest Manhattans that will ever cross your lips.
Whistle Pig 10 Year
Like a number of contemporary labels (including a few on our list), Whistle Pig once came under fire for sourcing its distillate elsewhere and then acting as though it produced everything in-house. To that we say: who cares when the result tastes as good as this 10 year-old straight rye? Indeed, the brand’s acclaimed rye whiskey might initially hail from Canada instead of Vermont, but that doesn’t matter when it’s sliding down your throat, imparting all sorts of wonderful flavour along the way. This one will cost you, but it’s worth it.
Booker’s 13 Year
Should you have about $300 USD to spare, then by all means grab yourself a bottle of Booker’s Rye, and prepare for an intense ride. Produced in extremely limited supply, the acclaimed spirit conquers the palate with bold blasts of spicy rye and rich waves of creamy sweetness. Decadent is the operative word here, folks.
Good rye whiskey can’t get much more affordable than Old Overholt, a mainstay in bars around the world. With roots going back as far as 1810 (which reportedly makes it America’s oldest continually operating whiskey label), this heritage statement offers a taste of timeless tradition, at a price that’s too good to refuse. Consider it your new go-to ingredient in classic cocktails like an Old Fashioned.
Michter’s US 1 Barrel Strength Rye
Michter’s might hail from Pennsylvania, but that doesn’t mean they can’t offer up one heck of a Kentucky rye. To that end, Michter’s US 1 Barrel Strength Rye is a full-bodied stunner, which delivers creamy notes of spicy fruit, along with a slightly oaky finish. This statement is costlier than the average fare, but it’s also one of the best rye whiskeys in the world.
This article is part of our Brews & Bottles Series.