The Hands-Down Best Rye Whiskey to Drink Right Now

Jonah Flicker
·10 mins read
Photo credit: Courtesy
Photo credit: Courtesy

From Esquire

Once upon a time, rye whiskey was extremely popular in America, particularly before the buzzkill that was Prohibition. But in the years that followed the dry spell, rye got a reputation as an inferior spirit, if it was even considered at all. That is finally changing, and over the last decade, the rye resurgence has gained strength, with both small and large distilleries releasing their own versions of bourbon’s spicier sister.

The rules for rye whiskey are simple: The mash bill must be at least 51 percent rye (whiskeys released right at this minimum percentage are sometimes referred to as “barely legal”), it must be distilled to no more than 160 proof, and it must be aged in new charred oak containers (virtually always barrels). Unlike bourbon, flavor and coloring actually can be added to rye whiskey, unless it is designated as "straight" rye whiskey (which also means that it’s at least two years old).

A lot of the rye whiskey you can buy now originally comes from MGP, an historic, factory-like distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, that specializes in whiskey with a 95 percent rye/5 percent malted barley mash bill. Brands like Templeton, Bulleit, Smooth Ambler, and James E. Pepper source their rye from here, and then blend and bottle it themselves. MGP has been making rye since well before it regained its popularity, and it definitely knows what it’s doing. That being said, there was a period when some brands were not so transparent about where their whiskey came from, leading to blowback from whiskey drinkers. For the most part, this practice has faded, but brands sourcing from MGP that don’t at least put “distilled in Indiana” on their labels get called out loudly.

There are also plenty of rye whiskeys being made in Kentucky, New York, Colorado, and every other state in the union, with mash bills ranging from 51 to sometimes 100 percent rye. And yes, there are many craft distilleries making commendable rye whiskeys—including Wigle, 291 Distillery, and Hotaling & Co.—that are starting to really compete with the old guard. Here are ten of the best (and most readily available) rye whiskeys you can find today.

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Elijah Craig

Heaven Hill’s Elijah Craig bourbon has long been a go-to bottle for many because of its accessible price point and level of quality. Earlier this year, the brand released its first rye whiskey expression in a few states. It’s bottled at 94 proof, giving it a little bit of heat and making it stand up to other ingredients in cocktails nicely. The mash bill is the “barely legal” Kentucky recipe: 51 percent rye, 35 percent corn, 14 percent malted barley. This isn’t a flashy, in-your-face spice bomb. On the contrary, it’s an easygoing whiskey that is a good alternative to Heaven Hill's other ryes—a step up from the bottled-in-bond workhorse Rittenhouse, and cheaper and much lower proof than the excellent Pikesville. In other words, Elijah Craig Rye fits nicely into the middle space… at least until the distillery decides to release an Evan Williams Rye (I’d drink that).

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WhistlePig

WhistlePig, a leader in the premium rye category since it was founded about a decade ago, has used some of its own in-house rye in its FarmStock series, but the majority of the whiskey is sourced from Canada and Indiana. When it reaches the WhistlePig distillery in Vermont, it is blended and put into various barrel types for further aging. Last year, the oldest whiskey from the distillery thus far was released, the 18-year-old WhistlePig Double Malt. Most recently, the distillery put out the even more expensive Boss Hog VII: Magellan’s Atlantic. This is a wonderfully weird but altogether intriguing whiskey. It started out with 17-year-old rye that was aged in American oak. The whiskey was then finished for three weeks in Spanish oak and just three days in South American teakwood. The result is an incense bloom of spice, sandalwood, and cinnamon, with a nice caramel sweetness underneath. Boss Hog is priced at $500 per bottle, but if you can afford it you won’t be disappointed.

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Wild Turkey/Russell’s Reserve

Wild Turkey isn’t necessarily the first name that comes to mind when you're thinking about rye whiskey, but it has been a part of the distillery’s portfolio since the 1950s (initially sourced, then distilled in-house starting in the ‘70s). Up until 2012, the 101-proof version, with a mash bill rumored to contain just above 51 percent rye, was the core rye expression. Nowadays, there’s also an 81-proof version—it’s fine, but stick with the 101—as well as single barrel and six-year-old smaller batch rye whiskeys under the Russell’s Reserve name. Wild Turkey's rye lineup has grown over the past year or so. There’s the high-end Master’s Keep Cornerstone Rye, a blend of nine- to 11-year-old whiskey bottled at 109 proof. And more recently, the distillery added a barrel-proof rye to its Rare Breed label, a non-chill-filtered whiskey that clocks in at just over 112 proof.

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Rossville Union

I could list all the various brands that use rye whiskey from the venerable MGP spirits factory—Bulleit, Dickel, Sagamore Spirit, Smooth Ambler, and many more. These are generally all good, because the folks at MGP made rye before it was cool (again), and have an operation set up to produce mass amounts of booze that doesn’t sacrifice quality. So it only made sense for MGP to start releasing rye whiskey under its own brand name, Rossville Union. The core expression is a blend of five- and six-year-old whiskeys bottled at 94 proof, while the barrel-proof version hits 112.6 proof—assertive, but not aggressively so. Most recently, MGP launched a single barrel, bottled-in-bond version of the whiskey in two different mash bills that is available at select retailers. If you come across it, I suggest giving it a try.

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High West

Speaking of MGP. High West, located in Utah, specializes in sourcing whiskey (mostly rye, but also bourbon) from distilleries in Indiana and Kentucky, coming up with interesting blends and often finishing the liquid in various barrel types. The distillery has also been incorporating some of its own young rye whiskey into recent releases of core lineup standouts Double Rye! and Rendezvous Rye. For limited-release expressions like Yippee Ki-Yay (sadly discontinued) and A Midwinter Night’s Dram, blends of rye are finished in Syrah and port barrels; Bourye, another limited-release bottle, combines bourbon and rye into one whiskey. Newest from the distillery are the High Country American Single Malt (available in Utah only for now) and a bottled, barrel-aged Manhattan and Old Fashioned. All of these are good, but start your High West journey off with the rye.

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Old Overholt

The Old Overholt name has been around since the late 1800s, and the brand has belonged to Jim Beam since 1987. A few months ago, some big changes were made to the whiskey. The core expression is now a young rye (said to be about three years old), bottled at 86 instead of 80 proof, and non-chill filtered. This is a really good, really cheap rye whiskey, and a favorite of bartenders, with just a bit of spice to counter the sweetness from the corn. There’s also Old Overholt Bonded Rye, which is at least four years old and 100 proof, per the bottled-in-bond definition (also now non-chill filtered). And new to the family are Old Overholt 114 proof, an apparent nod to Beam’s Old Grand-Dad 114, as well as a more expensive 11-year-old version that is a deep and complex sipper.

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Michter’s

The Michter’s Fort Nelson Distillery in downtown Louisville is a great stop for any whiskey fan (closed to visitors until further notice during the pandemic, unfortunately). It's a small operation compared to the Shively Distillery, where most Michter’s whiskey is made. Of course, we have not tasted its own whiskey yet, as it continues to mature inside new charred oak barrels. In the meantime, the contract-distilled rye whiskey that Michter’s bottles is an excellent choice. It’s a little bit spicy, a little bit sweet, and differs from bottle to bottle as it’s a single barrel release. Want to try something with a higher ABV? There’s a Barrel Proof version available ranging from 107 to 112 proof. Interested in different flavors? Check out the Toasted Barrel Finish Rye, which spends some time in custom toasted barrels after initial maturation. And if you are looking to drop some cash on an older limited release (and are lucky enough to find it), try the 10 Year Single Barrel, which is as rich, complex, and textured a rye whiskey as you can find. There’s also a 25-year-old version, but who are we kidding, you are never going to taste that.

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Laws Whiskey House

This Colorado distillery isn’t just making rye whiskey, it's also making four-grain bourbon, malt whiskey, and wheat whiskey. But man, the rye whiskey is good, so let’s talk about that. San Luis Valley Straight Rye is the core expression, made from a mash bill of 93 percent rye and 7 percent barley. It’s aged for over three years in new charred oak barrels, and explodes with flavors of caramel, spicy grain, and cherry. Sip this on its own or throw it in your favorite cocktail. There’s also a six-year-old bonded version (95 percent rye/5 percent barley mash bill), which has deeper oak flavors, and a cask strength release (100 percent rye, half malted and half unmalted). Overall, the distillery is focused on its identity as a grain-to-glass operation, seeking out heirloom grains to cook with from different farmers, and challenging the perception that terroir does not exist in the world of whiskey.

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Catoctin Creek

Another craft distillery with a strong focus on rye is Virginia’s Catoctin Creek; it even trademarked the term "the Virginia Rye Whiskey." Founders Scott and Becky Harris (she’s also the chief distiller) are committed to making high quality, small batch rye whiskey that doesn’t lack for flavor or complexity. Some of these are young and relatively low ABV, like the 80-proof flagship Roundstone Rye, a nice sipping whiskey or Manhattan building block. All are made from a 100 percent rye mash bill, like the bottled-in-bond Rabble Rouser Rye, a 100-proof, four-year-old whiskey that explodes with spice and fruit. Go ahead and explore the limited releases from the distillery as well, like the Braddock Oak Single Barrel and Red Wine Finished Rye, or the biannual cask strength version of Roundstone Rye, which is finished in a maple syrup barrel.

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New Riff

New Riff, a recent addition to the Kentucky distilling scene, makes whiskey that tastes like it’s coming from a distillery that’s been around for decades. That’s because every whiskey is bottled-in-bond and non-chill-filtered. The rye, made from a mash bill of 95 percent rye and 5 percent malted rye, is a fantastic spirit with great depth of flavor. No wonder, considering former MGP master distiller Larry Ebersold was an advisor when the distillery first got up and running. The single barrel version of the rye, while obviously differing from bottle to bottle, is a great option to check out as well.

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