This definitive guide to the best rye whiskeys explores everything you need to know about bourbon’s spicy sibling, including the bost bottles you can buy at your local liquor store.
Table of Contents
The Short List
Best Everyday Rye Whiskey
- Old Forester Rye Whiskey
- Sazerac Straight Rye Whiskey
- High West Whiskey Double Rye!
- Knob Creek Rye
- Sagamore Spirits Straight Rye
- New Riff Distilling Rye
- Pikesville Rye
- Willet Family Estate Small Batch Rye
Best High-End Rye Whiskey
- WhistlePig 10 Year Old Straight Rye
- E.H. Taylor, Jr. Straight Rye
- Michter’s 10-Year Single Barrel Rye
- Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Rye
At one time in our history, rye, not bourbon, was America’s whiskey. In the late 1700s, distillers in the rye-growing regions of Pennsylvania and Maryland created a market so reliable that rye was used to barter. When rye became the first domestic good taxed by the newly formed U.S. government, the backlash was such that it led to a rebellion.
Then Prohibition decreased production and bourbon, produced from corn grown in the newly farmed Midwest, supplanted it as America’s favorite brown liquor. As recently as 2006, in an article in The New York Times about a potential resurrection, rye survived only “by whiskey lovers who want to preserve its singular, almost exotic essence.”
Then something happened. The sweet-toothed, older, bourbon-drinking generation gave way to a generation that reached for more spice and flavor. Since the late aughts, rye sales have increased by hundreds of percentage points, which has driven the number of ryes on store shelves up in turn. From a $20 must-have to the most coveted rye whiskey in American, these are the best bottles of rye you can get your hands on.
The Short List
Best Overall Rye Whiskey: Russell’s Reserve 6-Year Small Batch
Despite rye’s recent burst of popularity, for a time it was represented consistently by only three brands: Jim Beam, Old Overholt and Wild Turkey. Then the bourbon boom spilled over into rye, and Eddie Russell stepped up rye production. With an excess of rye, he decided to let some barrels age a bit longer. The most interesting thing is that Wild Turkey only uses two mashbills (one for rye, one for bourbon) and one yeast. So to taste their lineup is to taste differences that purely came from aging. Their rye is 51 percent rye, 37 percent corn and 12 percent barley, leading to a more complex, sweet and bold rye that’s ideal for cocktails or sipping neat. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a more consistently excellent and available product at a fair price.
Best Cheap Rye Whiskey: Old Overholt Straight Rye
Old Overholt is cheap and easy to drink. It’s a perfect bottle for anyone transitioning from bourbons (which are less spicy) to rye. First made by Abraham Overholt in 1810 and produced in the Jim Beam portfolio, we recommend it for a light, summery Old Fashioned with a bit of spice to combat the sweet.
Best Rye Whiskey for Cocktails: Rittenhouse Bottled-in-Bond Straight Rye
If you drink rye, you’ve probably had some Rittenhouse. It’s made with a mashbill of 51 percent rye (called “barely legal”) along with Old Overholt and Sazerac, so it tends to be sweeter and more accessible than ryes which made almost entirely from rye and tend to be extremely spicy. At 100 proof and a 4-year minimum maturation, it makes for a wicked cocktail whiskey.
Best Everyday Rye Whiskeys
Old Forester Rye
It would’ve been fair to call it a tie between Old Forester’s new 100 proof rye and Old Overholt for the “Best Cheap Rye” title. It’s a stout, cheap rye that balances spice and Old Forester’s classic bumblegum-like sweetness nicely. It’s been out for less than two years, but don’t be surprised when it becomes a staple well rye at your local bar.
High West Whiskey Double Rye!
David Perkins is a creative distiller, and Double Rye! was among his first to push the envelope. He blends ryes from two to seven years old, including MGP’s famed 95/5 rye and its own 80 percent rye, 20 percent barley rye — spicey-meets-sweet, basically. The result is a whiskey that feels green and springy, with a strong, mellow finish.
This is the namesake of the Sazerac cocktail, among the oldest American cocktails and one that still turns heads (especially in New Orleans). Once considered among the best bangs for your buck in the rye world, it’s suffered from its own cult success, and the price tag has risen over the years. It’s complex, both spicy and a little sweet, and tastes very similar to Old Overholt and Rittenhouse. In fact, a general rule would be to buy Old Overholt to save money, Sazerac for an easy drinker and Rittenhouse for cocktails.
Knob Creek Straight Rye
What Knob Creek’s standard rye has going for it: sturdy proof, solid price and hyper-consistency. It isn’t the rye you pull out when showing off your collection; it’s the go-to pour for the nights in between. Its relatively high proof and high corn mashbill make it a workhorse whiskey, not unlike a slightly upgraded Old Overholt. Find it literally everywhere.
Sagamore Spirits Signature Straight Rye
Though there is some debate on what once defined a Maryland-style rye, Sagamore Spirits is deadset on establishing what it is going forward: subtly sweet, not-too-spicy and much closer to bourbon than the ryes of the 2000s. Its signature rye is low proof, relatively affordable and becoming available in more states every year. It’s easy-drinking to the point where one might consider a straw. After you’ve tried the signature, do yourself a favor and reach for one of the distilleries barrel-finished ryes, which are among the most awarded in the business.
New Riff Distilling Rye
New Riff is the distillery your whiskey-obsessed buddy won’t shutup about. Its straight rye is Bottled-in-Bond, non-chill-filtered and springy as can be, but the most interesting part is the mashbill, made up of the classic 95 percent rye and a very rare 5 percent of malted rye. Seeing as the whole of the whiskey is rye, it’s sharp out of the bottle, but not problematically so. Try it on the rocks and your breath will taste like mint.
Pikesville Straight Rye
Not long ago, Pikesville Rye was a bottom-shelf rye from the Potomac region. First distilled in 1895, the name was aquired by Heaven Hill in 1982, who began distilling it on-site in Kentucky. Then, in 2015, Heaven Hill launched an older, higher proof and much better version nationwide. The bottle was named runner-up for Jim Murray’s 2016 World Whisky of the Year, even though its price tag stays in the $50 range.
Willet Family Estate Small Batch Rye
Willett, led by Drew Kulsveen, is a fantastic distillery. The family, which has distilled for 120 years, reopened their still in 2012 and their made-on-premise rye batches have been just as promising as their older ryes which they purchased from MGP. The younger ryes — which are four and five years old at this point — have a distinct taste, and drink nicely neat or on ice.
Best High-End Rye Whiskey
WhistlePig 10 Year Old Straight Rye
There used to be a lot of hate surrounding WhistlePig. Its whiskey isn’t distilled at the Vermont distillery, but rather imported from Canada, a fact that snobs bristle at because Canada has more relaxed regulations on what can go in a rye (caramel coloring is allowed, for example). At first, the distillery printed that the rye was made in Vermont, which literally isn’t true, and then subsequently explained it as a finicky requirement of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Tax & Trade Bureau. It’s also pretty expensive. Don’t buy into drama. WhistlePig produces great rye. It won’t be the cheapest in the store, but this list is full of cheap alternatives. Plus, it was featured in Breaking Bad because it was creator Vince Gilligan’s favorite whiskey. So drink the pig and stop worrying.
Age: 10 years
E.H. Taylor, Jr. Straight Rye
Sazerac is likely Buffalo Trace’s most well-known rye. For E.H. Taylor, Jr., Buffalo Trace pays homage to the original recipe, dropping the corn and only balancing rye and barley for a spicy, clean rye. It’s not cheap and won’t be available at every store, but is worth the price for EHT completionists and seekers of unique ryes.
Michter’s 10-Year Single Barrel Rye
Michter’s has made a lot of bourbon bloggers upset due to a perceived lack of transparency when they just began distilling, rebooting the Michter’s name in 2004, after closing in 1989 after operation since about 1753 near Schaefferstown, Pennsylvania. But despite its whiskey being produced in Kentucky, not Pennsylvania, it’s extremely tasty and carries a hefty price tag. Its single barrel rye older than most Kentucky-style ryes, lending it a tannic-rich quality that makes it absolutely delicious with fattier foods. It’s going to be hard to track down, but it’s worth a spot on your personal top shelf.
Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Rye
Rye novices need not apply. One of five bottles in Buffalo Trace’s mighty Antique Collection, Handy Saz is an uncut, unfiltered, max proof rye made from the same juice as the standard Sazerac bottling (known as “Baby Saz”). Each year’s release is a little different, but you can generally expect a five-finger rye (and alcohol) punch to the tastebuds. If you find a bottle at its $99 retail price, and you won’t, you should buy it immediately — bottles from the Antique Collection are typically sold for three- and four-times their SRPs, at minimum.