Fans of rye whiskey are a lot better off than bourbon drinkers these days. Despite a rise in popularity and availability in the 21st century, rye hasn’t seen the runaway inflation that bourbon has. Sure, there are unicorns and dustys that people collect, but great bottles of tasty ryes are easy to find in the $40-$100 range (remember that retailers can charge whatever they want, so you may not find coveted labels at the SRP). With the notable exception of Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye, even most collectible ryes don’t retail for five to six times their suggested price, unlike bourbon.
“From my perspective, the basic principles of making the best whiskey possible apply to those products that are affordable, the same way they apply to those that are high-end,” says Isaac Winter, distilling manager at Utah’s High West Distillery. “You’re always after quality, consistency and complexity.”
As we move into the holidays, it’s a good time to re-stock the bar with brown spirits (Pro tip: Leave these bottles out for guests to enjoy, and hide the pricey stuff for yourself for later). Consider the following rye whiskeys as a starting point, and consider the following tips for getting the bang out of your money:
- Consider a straight rye or Bottled-in-Bond rye. Both categories help codify what you’re buying (proper distillation and aging, no additives, no added color).
- Look for higher-proof products. For most ryes, 80 proof (40% ABV) is just too slight and complexity is lost. You can always add water on your own to bring the proof down a bit.
- There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a sourced whiskey, and in fact, many of the best ryes start their life in Indiana or Alberta (that’s Canada). But look for as much transparency as possible.
- Most of these ryes are above $50 but always under $100. For something even a bit more affordable, we offer up these rye whiskeys.
Though WhistlePig popularized 100% rye products (the grain is notoriously finicky and on its own leaves a sticky residue in the still), now you’ll find a number of excellent 100% rye mash bills. Bob Dylan’s whiskey label launched Refuge in July 2023 as part of its core collection. A straight rye aged 6-8 years and finished in Amontillado sherry casks, you get all those rich dried and stewed fruit notes, with hints of date, chocolate and plum on top of the oak and rich caramel with a long and dry spicy finish. Master Blender Alex Moore notes that the challenges of secondary finishes mean that extra special attention is paid as the aged whiskey rests in the ex-Sherry barrels. For you, this means extra bang for your buck.
You’ll need to get yourself to Missouri or Kansas for this one (check out the J. Rieger Distillery in Kansas City, MO while you’re there). But distiller Nathan Perry collaborated with the late whiskey legend Dave Pickerell on this rye. “Bottled in Bond” basically means the juice in the bottle was produced at one distillery, in one distilling season, aged at least four years in a government-bonded warehouse and bottled at 100 proof. Perry uses a 96% rye / 4% barley mash bill for extra spicy rye goodness and the whiskey ages six years in Rieger’s Kansas City warehouse. The 2023 edition launched in August, so you can probably still find a bottle or two.
Only one in ten barrels of aged rye gets selected by Catoctin’s chief distiller Becky Harris to go into this new, higher-proof version of the brand’s core rye expression. The award-winning whiskey from husband-and-wife team Scott and Becky Harris (who recently reacquired their brand from Constellation Brand Ventures). Using a mash bill of 100% locally farmed rye (a mix of Haslet, Indy Dillon and Brasetto ryes), it’s a classic spicy rye with plenty of depth and complex flavor. The juice is a beautiful, deep amber, is non-chill filtered and about as respectable a rye as you’re going to find anywhere at this price. Great for sipping neat or over an ice ball, but Harris says it is “superb in cocktails.”
Until now, any Widow Jane whiskey distilled at the company’s Red Hook distillery (using heirloom corn) has been available in Brooklyn only. For Paradigm, the company blends sourced whiskeys from Kentucky and Indiana with rye grown and distilled in New York state, The result is an approachable, elegant rye with a softness to it that still celebrates the natural spice-and-pepper characteristic of the grain. On the nose, you’ll get mineral and wet earth with an undertone of caramel. On the palate, it enters surprisingly sweet and soft, with caramel, a hint of mint and stewed fruits. It’s got a medium body on the mid-palate, and the finish is grassy and spicy with a pleasant freshness. The long finish has a green note that may surprise, but it’s quite a beautiful little rye that works particularly well in spirit-forward cocktails. It also made our Best New Whiskeys list for October.
This one is from Evanston, IL-based FEW, which made a name for itself in the world of independent craft whiskeys early on. Launched last fall, this four-year-aged bottling follows up FEW’s Bottled-in-Bond Straight Bourbon. With a mash bill of 70% rye, 20% corn and 10% malted barley, it’s definitely a rye, but an easy drinker with sweetness and roundness from the corn. Aromatics include caramel, vanilla, a floral note and hints of almond and white pepper. On the mouth you get oak, spice, a hint of sweetness from the corn and a taste of ripe plum. The dry spice-and-mint finish is medium-length but not abrupt.
Alabama was one of the last states to (re)legalize distilling with the opening of the John Emerald Distillery in 2014. In 2017, Dr. Jeff Dugas and John Cubelic launched Birmingham’s Dread River Distilling Company, which now produces several different spirit categories, including Birmingham’s first bourbon in over a century. The rye (95% rye, 5% malted barley) is aged three years in new oak, then finished in domestic ex-Sherry barrels for another six months. The young, bright rye is highlighted with top notes of tart cherry and rich fruitiness, in addition to warm oak, earth and white pepper. The added richness makes it ideal for a Sazerac or Old Fashioned.
A blend of MGP-sourced 95% rye / 5% malted barley and High West’s own pot still 80% rye and 20% malted rye, Rendezvous is the Utah brand’s flagship and a practice in artistry. Big and spicy, there are complex notes of dried cherry, caramel, buttered toast, almond and a long spicy finish. This is a beautifully crafted whiskey at a respectably high proof, and it’s surprising it doesn’t cost more than it does. According to distilling manager Isaac Winter, in part that’s because even with the brand’s more moderately priced bottlings, care is taken to build in consistency and complexity. “Consistent quality going into maturation will make your job easier in the blending lab,” he says. “Adding even a few impactful barrels either to a finish or a blend, or as a primary maturation step to a blend is a relatively low-cost way to add layers of complexity.”
For the longest time, Irish whiskey producers considered rye merely a component grain, though it grows well on the Emerald Isle. Powers, an iconic brand out of Middleton Distillery, decided to highlight it in a method that competes directly with the American style of rye whiskeys, billed as the “first modern Irish rye.” They’ve nailed it: Using a 100% Irish rye mash, Powers Irish Rye is lighter-bodied and lower-proof than many American ryes (in the same way most traditional Irish whiskeys trend a little lighter and sweeter), but boasts an elegant, floral bouquet and well-balanced flavors. You’ll get a soft spiciness up front and a touch of ginger, with an oaky, grassy mid-palate and a bit of rye bread. The finish is sweet and spice, with a bit of a peppermint finish and a tannic “bite” on the cheeks and lips. Great in an Old Fashioned, Highball or Boulevardier.
There are a lot of spirits coming out of Colorado these days, and several pride themselves on exploring the Centennial State’s terroir: plentiful grains, high altitude, sparkling clear water, etc. Laws Whiskey House in the heart of Denver has produced what it says is the state’s first Bottled-in-Bond rye. Using rye from the San Luis Valley (in the southern part of the state), the whiskey ages 7+ years in 53-gallon charred oak barrels. The 95% rye / 5% barley product is rich and complex with an array of flavor notes blending in harmony: powerful peppers and cooking spices, sweet tropical fruit, honey and mint, with a long, enjoyable finish. The brand also produces a San Luis Valley Straight Rye, aged 4+ years ($60) which comes off younger and brasher with a strong menthol and light pepper finish but is its own sensory journey.
A new label out of San Francisco (the 95% rye / 5% malted barley whiskey is sourced from Indiana), the company takes young barrel-aged whiskey (no age statement is given), then infuses it with additional toasted and charred oak staves for a period of time. The goal is to add an extra layer of “aging” in a quicker, cheaper way—a fairly common approach to adding a finishing touch to younger whiskeys. The folks at Bespoken claim it uses less wood, energy and water than traditional barrel aging. in part because stave aging means less product lost to the angel’s share).
Despite the fact that there are a lot of buzzwords on the site (“hand selected cultivar of bespoke flavors”) and the “about us” section touts its investors (tech billionaire T.J. Rodgers and ballplayer Derek Jeter) rather than its blending team, this is a solid rye and ought to be a crowd pleaser. The nose is subtle, but there are hints of caramel and vanilla. Despite the high rye content, it’s not a particularly spicy/peppery whiskey. The open is bold and young, but rounds out nicely on the mid-palate with notes of oak, chocolate, and a lovely long spice finish. It also comes in at a respectable 100 proof that also doesn’t overwhelm while sipping. It works particularly well for a Manhattan or a fruity Ward 8.
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