Over the past few years whiskey has really gained in popularity as more and more people discover the category and experiment with different ways to enjoy it. Within the category of whiskey, nothing has been hotter than Rye Whiskey. When Bulleit launched their rye whiskey, it literally doubled their overall sales and they already had a significant amount of whiskey sales.
So why is rye so hot? Most American whiskey on the market is bourbon, which is made from at least 51% corn. While corn delivers some really nice flavors, it can sometimes lack complexity. Rye is often added into the mix to help give whiskey depth, spice, and character. Popular bourbons like Woodford Reserve, Four Roses and Wild Turkey use a fairly significant amount of rye in their mix.
To be labeled an American rye whiskey, you must include at least 51% of rye in the mix. Many of the rye whiskeys on the market are exactly that, as rye is an expensive and difficult to use grain, however some go even deeper into the rye pool to make the rye the centerpiece of the whiskey. The most profound example of this is Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection Rare Rye, which is made from 100% rye.
Since not all rye whiskeys are created equally, we thought we’d give you a run down of several of the major rye whiskeys on the market and our take on them. This list doesn’t cover them all, the space is vast with a ton of options and we’ve picked a representative cross section of some of the best options. Not to be overlooked are some amazing rye gems out there including Thomas H. Handy Rye, Van Winkel Family Reserve Rye and Rittenhouse 25 year Rye, unfortunately they are nearly impossible to come by so we tried to keep our focus on the ones which are easier to find.
Russell’s Reserve 6 Year Rye (45% / 90 Proof, $37)- it’s hard to think of a rye whiskey that does a better job of showing off the rye grain and what it brings to the equation in whiskey. For us this is the rye to which all other ryes are compared. The nose has a spicy floral quality to it, with a lightness that you don’t see in most whiskeys. The spice is backed by a light vanilla, marsipan, and touch of oak.
Once Russell’s Reserve Rye hits your palate, there’s no mistaking that it’s rye. The first burst of flavor tastes like rye bread. It’s light, spicy, and simply perfect. The rye notes are joined by light vanilla, oak, and allspice. Russell’s picks up some heat as the spice intensifies in the midpalate, but it manages to maintain the light, fresh rye note. The finish is long and flavorful, preserving the rye as the top note with oak spice laying the floor underneath. If you are looking for the best expression of rye in a whiskey, Russell’s Reserve 6 year rye is the rye for you.
Knob Creek Rye Whiskey (50% / 100 proof, $40) – A relatively new entry into the rye space from the folks over at Jim Beam. Beam has experimented beyond the traditional Jim Beam Rye before with R(1) and had some limited success. It’s clear that they’ve learned a lot from that and have applied their findings to the Knob Creek Rye. Of all the rye whiskeys we tried, Knob Creek Rye has the most oak in the nose. This gives the nose a nice complexity as you get the sweet vanilla mixed with the light floral rye spice, cinnamon, and oak. The combination is seductive and extremely inviting.
The entry on the Knob Creek Rye is jam packed with flavor. There’s so much there right from the get-go that you almost immediately want to start digging through it all. The balance of flavors here is superb, with vanilla, rye, cinnamon, and oak all there from the start – all very clear and all completely integrated. In the midpalate it’s the cinnamon, which helps drive the spice but doesn’t overpower or obliterate the rye. Together they are a little bit of a dynamic duo of spice. Following right behind is solid oak. Many of the rye whiskeys on the market dial down oak in the mix, but the strong oak notes really work here and serve to add complexity and character. The finish of the Knob Creek Rye is long and spicy with cinnamon and rye notes lingering for a long, long time. Knob Creek Rye is simply a delicious whiskey. Rather than showcase the rye, it takes a more integrated approach and shows how well rye fits within the mix of other classic whiskey flavors.
Bulleit 95 Rye (45% / 90 Proof, $27) – Most of the rye whiskeys on the market do not disclose how much rye they use in their mix. The regulation requires 51%, but how much rye used beyond that is often a mystery. Bulleit is very clear in boasting that they use 95% rye in their whiskey. This is a tremendous amount of rye, which is one of the most difficult and expensive grains to use in whiskey. The nose on the Bulleit Rye is light, showcasing the light floral notes of rye. There aren’t a lot of esters coming off the nose, which helps give the spice notes a soft and sweet quality.
The entry on Bulleit is a perfect union of sweet and rye spice. Soft vanilla combines with a hint of honey which is wrapped around a light rye spice note. While Bulleit’s rye note doesn’t jump out of the glass like Russell’s Reserve 6 year, it’s still very well presented. What we love about the entry of Bulleit Rye is how well integrated it is. The sweet and spice come together like a pair of love birds. In the midpalate the rye spice emerges from the embrace to be joined by cinnamon and oak spice. The finish is wonderfully spicy, flavorful, and long. There’s a reason why Bulleit’s sales doubled when they introduced this rye: it’s an exceptional product with a very well crafted taste experience that serves as a thesis on why people love a good rye whiskey.
Wild Turkey Rye (now 40.5% / 81 proof, $25) – there’s been some rumbling around Wild Turkey’s change on the proof of their rye. Wild Turkey Rye used to be at 101 proof, which matched the proof of their iconic bourbon. In an effort to try to shake off the misconception that they are a fiery whiskey, they’ve brought out Wild Turkey Bourbon 81 and now this rye at the lower proof. The difference is immediately apparent in the nose – Wild Turkey Rye 81 has less alcohol on the nose, and its spice is softer and sweeter. The entry of the 81 is soft and sweet leading with vanilla accompanied by a light floral note. Whereas the light rye spice on the Russell’s comes in right at the beginning, here it develops more in the midpalate.
Wild Turkey Rye 81 picks up some heat toward the end of the midpalate, but it never really gets all that spicy. The finish is fairly long and dry, with the floral rye spice note lightly left on the palate. There’s some nice cooling on the finish that shows off very good distillation.
The Wild Turkey Rye 101 is a completely different taste experience. The entry is still slightly soft with vanilla, but the floral rye presents stronger and spicier. The midpalate is also far less delicate as it explodes with flavors of vanilla, rye, oak spice and tobacco (a note that just doesn’t come through on the 81). There’s more spice at the end of the midpalate but oddly less heat. The finish has some nice solid spice that lingers for a very long time.
For us, the Wild Turkey Rye 101 is unmistakably Wild Turkey, while the 81 feels muted and slightly apologetic. We’d love to see Wild Turkey stand tall on their 101 and not feel like they have to reformulate to change a misconception about their amazing whiskey. (Note: we are told the 101 will be re-released again as a special edition. When it is, be sure to snatch it up.)
Rittenhouse Rye (50% / 100 proof, $22) – a favorite among many mixologists, Rittenhouse has found its place as an essential ingredient in many whiskey-based drinks at craft cocktail bars. Part of the excitement around Rittenhouse Rye is that it’s one of the most affordable quality rye whiskeys on the market. Another is the way it delivers its flavors and aromas. The nose on Rittenhouse Rye is a nice combination of slightly sharp spice and softly sweet. Rittenhouse has a subtle cardboard-like note in the nose that rounds everything out.
The entry on Rittenhouse is one of the sweetest we’ve seen in the rye category, with vanilla and caramel right from the start. The sweet notes quickly make way for a very quick ramp up of cinnamon and rye spice that powers right through to become the predominant notes in the whiskey. Things get quite spicy in the midpalate as the 100 proof alcohol comes through with some heat to bolster the spice. The finish is dry and long with very solid spice that sticks around for quite a long time.
Rittenhouse Rye’s journey from sweet to spicy, and its long finish, are perfect to riff off of in a cocktail, but things aren’t as integrated as Knob Creek’s Rye, and the rye notes aren’t as elegant as Russell’s or Bulleit. Still, if you are looking for a bold and spicy rye to mix with, it’s hard to think of one better for the task than Rittenhouse.
Michter’s Single Barrel Straight Rye Whiskey (42.4% / 84.8 proof, $39) – Michter’s may be one of the lesser known ryes we’re profiling, but it’s based on one of the older rye recipes being produced, which dates back to 1753. As we’ve seen in the case of Wild Turkey Rye, proofing a whiskey can make a huge difference in the way it delivers flavor and the intensity of those flavors. It’s clear here that Michter’s is exacting with their proofing, coming in at an odd 84.8 proof. The nose on the Michter’s is a nice blend of light rye spice and corn. You get some light vanilla and oak but the predominant quality of the Michter’s Rye nose is light and airy spice.
The entry follows the theme of light and airy with a nice rye spice present up front. Instead of the vanilla and caramel you get with many of the other ryes, the entry is light rye spice. It’s not quite as clean and wonderful as the Russell’s, but we love the intense focus that Michter’s has on the rye note. The experience of Michter’s Rye is a little singular, though. It’s a fairly straight line from the entry through the finish where this light rye spice dominates. You do get an undercurrent of the sweetness from the corn, a little caramel and perhaps some stone fruit, but those notes are all fairly muted. Since things really don’t build or crescendo, it’s hard to place the dividing line between where the midpalate ends and the finish begins. Michter’s Rye certainly isn’t a bad whiskey, it’s just sort of one dimensional. That dimension is rye, but it’s just not as affable as Russell’s and not as well integrated as Bulleit Rye.
Whistle Pig Rye (50% / 100 Proof, $60 ) – As with the Bulleit Rye, Whistle Pig discloses the amount of rye that they use in their whiskey, which is 100%. Unlike many of the other ryes, Whistle Pig also has an age statement at 10 years. While Whistle Pig talks about being hand bottled in Vermont, the whiskey itself is imported from Canada. Whistle Pig has the highest rye content of the whiskeys we tried, but it also comes with the highest price tag – almost three times that of Bulleit, which has 95% rye.
The nose on the Whistle Pig Rye is slightly nutty with clear oak notes. You also get clear caramel, slight cinnamon, and very subtle rye. Considering that this whiskey is 100% rye, it’s a surprise that there isn’t more light rye on the nose, but it’s clear that the barrel’s impact has become dominant in the nose. While we may be left wanting in the nose, the taste more than makes up for it.
Whistle Pig is lush and sweet from the start with vanilla and caramel leading the pack. It’s not as singularly sweet as the Rittenhouse entry, as the sweet notes are mixed with cinnamon. The transition to spice is delightful and the midpalate is an welcome union of spice notes with cinnamon, clove, rye, and oak all coming together. There’s a slight heat at the end of the midpalate which carries to a long finish. Whistle Pig is a delicious whiskey, but its price and taste experience feel a little out of line. Also, the things we love about rye are overtaken a bit by the aging process. Still, it’s a whiskey we’d happily drink. Whistle Pig also has an 11 year old Whistle Pig TripleOne which is nearly twice as expensive but not nearly as good.