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Spicy, bold, and part of America’s spirit history, rye whiskey is becoming an increasingly popular option for both cocktailians and those who prefer their whiskey straight.
“Historically, we were a very rye-focused culture before we discovered it was easier in most of the U.S. to distill with corn and barley malt,” says Jena Ellenwood, bartender at Dear Irving and Sparrow Tavern in New York City. “Rye was harder to grow in the soil, and it tended to have more spice than the sweet corn.”
Popular in the 1940s and ‘50s, rye went through a bit of a slump until the early 2010s when demand grew again. Now, there are plenty of quality rye whiskeys available on the market, some crafted for sipping straight, while others punch through in cocktails. “With rye whiskey, the question becomes not just one of aroma and flavor, but of body and heat, as well,” says Alicia Yamachika, lead bartender at Nobu Honolulu. Read on to find out the best bottles of rye to drink and mix with, according to our industry experts.
Best Overall: Basil Hayden’s Dark Rye Whiskey
Region: Kentucky, Canada, California | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Spice, Dried fruit, Molasses
Almost decadently rich, this unique rye whiskey is a blend of Kentucky rye, Canadian rye from Basil Hayden's Alberta-based distillery, and a touch of California-made port, which gives it undertones of dark fruit flavors.
This isn't your typical rye, but it's still great for sipping on its own or stirring into a cocktail like a Boulevardier or Manhattan. Easy-drinking as it is, this bottling still harbors rye’s signature spice, though it leans more into the holiday spice category than black pepper. Whether you’re new to rye whiskeys or a seasoned rye drinker looking to branch out, this is the bottle to consider.
Runner-Up, Best Overall: High West Double Rye Whiskey
Region: Utah, Indiana | ABV: 46% | Tasting Notes: Menthol, Honey, Spice
From High West, Utah’s ski-in distillery, the Double Rye bottling is heavy on the spice, making it a great option for diehard rye fanatics who are heat-seekers at heart. It’s a blend of two different rye whiskeys (a younger spirit and an older spirit, both aged two years at minimum), and it’s designed to be twice as spicy as your average rye.
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Best for Manhattans: Redemption Rye
Region: Indiana | ABV: 46% | Tasting Notes: Mint, Citrus, Floral
Though a whiskey only has to contain 51 percent rye grain to be deemed a rye whiskey in the U.S., Redemption went a bit further, creating their signature bottling with 95 percent rye grain. Perfect for rye purists, it also happens to make a terrific Manhattan, thanks to that heavy rye content. The spice and malty quality of the grain come through, balancing out the fruity sweet vermouth, while the spirit’s cinnamon and nutmeg notes play off the bitters. It also comes in at 92 proof, so watch out for its punch.
Best for Sazeracs: Sazerac Rye
Region: Kentucky | ABV: 45% | Tasting Notes: Vanilla, Citrus, Candied spice
As its name suggests, this rye whiskey is the best pick for Sazeracs. Packed with notes of baking spices, orange and lemon zest, and a hint of vanilla, it's bright and vibrant. This rye harmonizes beautifully with the classic New Orleans cocktail’s Peychaud’s bitters and absinthe, plus it can handle a little dilution from some ice. When using it to make a Sazerac, don’t forget the lemon zest garnish. The rye brings out even more of the candied citrus notes in the whiskey, marrying everything together.
Best Under $50: Balcones Texas Rye 100 Proof
Region: Texas | ABV: 50% | Tasting Notes: Cocoa, Pepper, Espresso
“I was a fan of this one before I moved to Texas two months ago,” says Carlos Batista, beverage director for Landrace at the Thompson Hotel San Antonio. “It’s rich and spicy, chocolatey, and peppery, with tobacco notes. It's just this and a few ice cubes for me.” Balcones is located in Waco, Texas and makes this young whiskey with a mash bill of 100 percent rye grains, including Elbon Rye from the north of Texas along with crystal, chocolate and roasted rye varieties.
Best Under $25: Old Overholt Straight Rye Whiskey
Region: Kentucky | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Vanilla, Orange, Cinnamon
A favorite of bartenders and budget-conscious whiskey drinkers, Old Overholt has stood the test of time. Case in point: the brand boasts that it was the most popular spirit in the country after Prohibition was lifted. This rye starts with a cereal sweetness and a touch of vanilla, then finishes with a bracing hit of white pepper. And while you’ll often see it as the stiffer half of a Boilermaker, this rye can also be stirred into a fine Manhattan or a spicy Old Fashioned.
Best Value: WhistlePig PiggyBack Rye
Region: Canada, Vermont | ABV: 48.28% | Tasting Notes: Cocoa, Cardamom, Leather
WhistlePig is known for releasing some expensive rye whiskeys, but a few years ago the distillery launched this lower-priced, six-year-old whiskey sourced from Canada. It’s a good value bottle that provides ample flavor and a higher ABV which works well in cocktails.
“The 100 percent rye mash bill whiskey is aged to a minimum of six years,” says Joshua Lopez of American Social in Florida. “It has a bit of heat, but nothing that hangs around too long. Prominent flavors I get are cardamom, baking spices with hints of citrus, and primarily grapefruit and orange. My preferred way to drink PiggyBack is on a large ice cube, or neat with a few drops of water. It also makes a great Boulevardier with the citrus in the whiskey pairing perfectly with the Campari.”
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Best New Brand: Nashville Barrel Company Small Batch Rye
Region: Tennessee, Indiana | ABV: 50% | Tasting Notes: Caramel, Cinnamon, Vanilla
This new brand from Tennessee sources barrels (mainly from Indiana making MGP the likely source), and blends them together back in Nashville. The second batch of the rye is a favorite of Mike Vacheresse, owner of Travel Bar in Brooklyn. “A blend of four and eight-year-old MGP whiskey, this is a pleasant sipping rye,” he says. “Also, any Nashville Barrel Company single barrel picks that you see, I would highly recommend picking them up.”
Best Splurge: Lock Stock & Barrel 16 Year
Region: Canada | ABV: 53.5% | Tasting Notes: Honey, Plum, Vanilla
Made by the late Robert J. Cooper (creator of the St-Germain), this high-proof rye would be a collector’s item if it weren’t so darn easy to drink. Just 3,000 cases of the 107-proof, Lock Stock & Barrel spirit were made. Distilled from 100 percent rye, producers aged the spirit in charred American oak barrels for 16 years. The resulting spirit is delightfully spicy, yet easy to sip. It’s balanced out by notes of stone fruit and a touch of honey. The rye’s high proof means it's great for mixing into cocktails with other strongly flavored ingredients, but you should also sip it straight to truly appreciate the balanced flavors and cheek-warming heat.
Best Canadian: Lot 40 Canadian Rye Whisky
Region: Canada | ABV: 43% | Tasting Notes: Vanilla, Oak, Spice
When it was briefly discontinued in the early 2000s, Lot 40 became a precious collectible, prized by fans of the 100-percent rye whisky (spelled sans “e” due to its Canadian origins). Thankfully, it made a comeback in 2012 when the rye was relaunched by Pernod-Ricard. Dry and powerful with notes of fresh-baked bread and lots of zesty spice, it’s great in a Maple Old Fashioned (a nod to its Canadian heritage), but also tasty just poured over an ice cube. A touch of chill and dilution brings out more of the whisky’s fruitier notes while tempering its bold, big-bodied heft.
Best for Sipping: Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel
Region: Kentucky | ABV: 52% | Tasting Notes: Vanilla, Nutmeg, Oak
“I love that Eddie Russell created this despite the fact that his father, Jimmy, who’s been distilling and blending Wild Turkey for 60-plus years, hates rye,” says Ellenwood. On behalf of all rye drinkers out there, we thank Eddie for rebelling against his father and creating this fine, single barrel rye. At 104 proof, it definitely packs some heat, but that’s the essence of rye. Pour it straight and you’ll get the intensity of the vanilla from its time spent in oak barrels, along with earthy, smoky flavors and a nice, dry finish. Of course, you can also take advantage of the rye's power by stirring it into a Boulevardier.
Best Bottled-in-Bond: Rittenhouse 100 Proof
Region: Kentucky | ABV: 50% | Tasting Notes: Vanilla, Baking spice, Citrus
When you see “bottled-in-bond” on a label, it means that the spirit (typically a bourbon, rye, or apple brandy) follows the regulations put in place by the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897. To be stamped with the honor, whiskeys must be 100 proof, originate from a single U.S. distillery, and be aged for at least four years in a federally bonded warehouse.
Rittenhouse follows the letter of the law and the high-quality, spicy spirit is one that bartenders turn to time after time. “It’s my go-to back bar rye and it won’t break the bank,” says Ellenwood. She likes to shake it into both traditional and nontraditional Sours. “It stands up well to citrus,” she says. And Neil Heimsoth, beverage manager at White Orchids Thai Cuisine in Center Valley, Pa., holds it up as an exemplary rye overall. “Rittenhouse is my forever first grab,” he says. “It is consistent, cost-effective, and fantastic in all types of cocktails."
Best Cask Finish: Angel's Envy Rum Cask Finish Rye
Region: Kentucky | ABV: 50% | Tasting Notes: Caramel, Mint, Orange
Angel’s Envy is a distillery that specializes in cask finishing, utilizing barrels from the Caribbean for its rye whiskey. The rye spends up to 18 months in these barrels, soaking up flavor and color. “That rum finish brings out delicious tropical notes while holding on to the elegant spiciness of the rye that Angel's Envy offers,” says Gabriel Urrutia of Gramps Miami in Florida. “It’s definitely my favorite in the Angel's Envy portfolio.”
The best overall rye whiskey to try now is Basil Hayden Dark Rye (view at Drizly), an interesting blend of Canadian and Kentucky whiskey fortified with some port wine. A close second is High West’s Double Rye (view at Drizly), a more traditional rye that’s made up of a blend of whiskey distilled at MGP in Indiana and at High West itself.
What makes whiskey a rye?
In the United States, legally a rye whiskey has to have at least 51 percent of rye grain in its mash bill. The other grains are usually a combination of corn and malted barley, but can include others as well. And in the U.S., it must be aged in new charred oak containers.
How is it different from other types of whiskey?
Rye brings spicy notes to the palate that are not always as present in other types of whiskey like bourbon. Think baking spices like nutmeg, cinnamon, and pepper, which make this whiskey a classic choice to use in cocktails that have a bit of sweetness to counterbalance the character of the rye.
What's the best way to drink it?
Definitely try sipping rye whiskey neat to discover the flavors of the spirit, but this is a whiskey that is meant to be used in cocktails as well. Try it in a Manhattan or an Old Pal.
Why Trust Liquor.com?
Justine Sterling is an experienced spirits writer and cocktail recipe developer. She has been writing about the wide world of drinking—from new spirits to cocktail trends to wines and beers—for over a decade. Rye first caught her eye in old Humphrey Bogart movies, and ever since her first taste, she’s been seeking out new, spicy bottlings.
Jonah Flicker is an experienced writer who has been covering spirits and traveling the world visiting distilleries to taste and discover for many years. His work has appeared in many different national outlets covering trends, new releases, and the stories and innovators behind the spirits. His first love remains whiskey, but he is partial to tequila, rum, gin, cognac, and all things distilled.