Rye whiskey’s comeback, which started about a decade and half ago, has generated energy and excitement around the style. Craft distilleries and investment by large producers into rye have drawn in a new generation of fans. As the whiskey’s story has evolved from resurgence to regular availability, and dozens of ryes now line the liquor-store shelf, producers are being forced to differentiate—often through the same methods found in other categories.
There’s plenty of barrel finishing, for example, a technique for which lean, clean rye is often better suited than sweet, oily bourbon. Sagamore Spirit has tried out a number of cask finishes, most recently rum. Ammunition Whiskey, an offshoot of the wine brand of the same name, is finishing its rye in French oak pinot noir casks.
Both Sagamore and Ammunition get some of their whiskey from MGP Distillery, the Indiana mega-distillery whose ample stocks of aged rye drove a large part of the renaissance. MGP offers its own rye brands too, including a newcomer called Alias, while Kentucky Owl's rye is made at Bardstown Bourbon Co.
Interestingly, Sagamore Spirit also provided whiskey to Pursuit Rye, a blend produced by the hosts of a popular whiskey podcast, while the Jefferson’s brand turned to Canada for its latest rye, which spent several months on board a ship as part of the Ocean Aged at Sea series. Blending, indeed, has become almost as popular in rye as in bourbon, and one recent blend found success through collaboration. Tennessee’s George Dickel and craft outfit Leopold Bros. in Denver came together to combine their two very distinct ryes, with the final blend proving to be one of the standout new whiskeys of the year.
But rye doesn’t have to break new ground to prove its worth. The oldest rye brand in the United States, Old Overholt, has shown fresh energy in the last few years, evidenced by a series of well-priced new releases and its latest effort: raising the age on its core expression to four years.
There is more to love in rye than ever before. These are a few of the most interesting new releases.
Made at Indiana’s MGP Distillery—which changed its name to Ross & Squibb, at least when it comes to in-house brands, in 2021—this rye is meant to honor the historical American women distillers who used their initials or other pseudonyms to avoid gender bias. Unlike MGP’s most popular house style—its 95% rye mashbill—it was made with a low-rye recipe of 51% rye, 45% corn, and 4% malted barley, the corn lending sweeter, rounder notes to the rye’s sharp, herbaceous profile. Bottled at 45% ABV, it’s packaged in opaque black glass.
Ammunition Rye ($50)
Cask-finished bourbon continues to grow in popularity, and producers with access to good barrels have an edge. Building on its successful Ammunition Wines brand, Sonoma’s Daylight Wine & Spirits launched Ammunition rye and bourbon in late 2021. The rye combines 2, 3, and 4-year-old whiskeys, made at MGP from its famous 95% rye mash bill. The blend is finished for at least three months in French oak barrels that formerly held Ammunition pinot noir. (The bourbon, meanwhile, is finished in French oak cabernet sauvignon casks.)
George Dickel x Leopold Brothers Collaboration Blend ($110)
In 2021, Denver’s Leopold Bros. Distillery debuted a whiskey made in the historic Monongahela style, on a unique three-chamber still—the only one of its kind in the world. That limited edition is hard to come by, but Leopold Bros. later partnered with Tennessee powerhouse George Dickel to blend Three Chamber Rye with Dickel’s own previously unreleased column still rye whiskey. (Though the Cascade Hollow distillery makes rye for other brands, George Dickel Rye, oddly, is made at MGP.) The result is this Collaboration Blend, a rich, well-balanced pour that takes rye flavors to a whole new realm.
Kentucky Owl The Wiseman ($60)
The Kentucky Owl brand built its reputation on high-priced boutique blends, but is now offering more accessible whiskeys through The Wiseman line—notably without the guidance of master blender Dixon Dedman, who parted ways with the brand in the spring of 2021. The Wiseman bourbon launched later that year, and an accompanying rye came out in April 2022. It’s made with a 95% rye mashbill, selected by the brand’s current master blender, industry veteran John Rhea, and bottled at a stiff 100.8 proof.Continue to 5 of 8 below.
Jefferson’s Ocean Aged at Sea ($80)
Jefferson’s has been loading bourbon barrels into containers and sending them on multi-month sea voyages for years, but it took until the spring of 2022 for a rye to join the maritime lineup. The brand says that the ocean’s motion and onboard conditions increase wood-spirit interaction, creating more complex flavors in the whiskey. Matured in number-three char barrels as well as toasted barrels, the rye traveled from Savannah, Georgia through the Panama Canal to Australia and Asia, and back again. The full route and notes on weather, sea conditions, and temperature can be found in a “ship’s log.”
Old Overholt 4-year-old ($20)
America’s oldest rye whiskey brand still has some new moves to make. In recent years, Old Overholt has eliminated chill-filtration and debuted a bottled-in-bond expression, as well as releasing limited editions like an 11-year-old and a 114-proof rye. Now the brand’s core offering is stepping up its age from three to four years. It may seem like a small change, but it’s significant, indicating parent company Beam Suntory’s continued support for a longstanding and beloved, but at times neglected, brand.
Pursuit United ($65)
The popular Bourbon Pursuit podcast spawned this whiskey brand, which offers single barrels as well as blends of straight bourbon and rye. The latest batch of rye features a corn-heavy recipe, blended from three mashbills from two distillery sources: Bardstown Bourbon Co. in Kentucky and Sagamore Spirit in Maryland. Bottled at 54% ABV, it’s a hefty pour that still drinks nice and easy. With this release, Pursuit Spirits is debuting batch codes that will appear on future bottlings.
Sagamore Spirit Rum Cask Finish ($79)
Initially released as a distillery-only exclusive a few years ago, Sagamore Spirit’s rum-cask-finished rye is now available nationwide as part of the brand’s Spirit Reserve Series. The whiskey combines 5- and 6-year-old ryes, splitting the blend between Jamaican and South American rum barrels for a 10-month finish. As expected, the secondary casks contribute sweetness to the flavor profile; Sagamore’s tasting notes point out tropical fruits and burnt sugar, mingling with the whiskey’s underlying spice.