Everyone likes to talk about the bourbon boom, the Irish whiskey boom, the Scotch whisky boom. It would just be easier at some point to simply say, “whiskey, in general, is having a moment. A big, long moment.” And you can certainly include rye whiskey in that conversation. In fact, it could be argued that the rye whiskey boom is even bigger than some of the others, as countries like Ireland, Germany, and even Scotland are getting in on the sticky grain.
While rye is getting toyed with all over the globe, it’s still the American and Canadian ryes that dominate the conversation right now. It’s those expressions — many widely beloved and award-winning bottles among them — that we’re looking at today. For this blind taste test, I tried 15 rye whiskeys, all of them either completely new or the 2021 release of a well-known expression.
Our lineup today is:
- Catoctin Creek Roundstone Rye (VA)
- High West Double Rye! (IN & UT)
- Blue Run Golden Rye (KY)
- Knob Creek Rye (KY)
- Traverse City North Coast Rye (MI)
- Nashville Barrel Single Barrel Rye #511 (TN)
- Alberta Premium Cask Strength Rye (AB)
- 2021 BTAC Sazerac 18 (KY)
- Sagamore Spirits Cask Strength Rye (MD)
- Stellum Rye (IN, TN, & KY)
- 2021 BTAC Thomas H. Handy Rye (KY)
- Woodinville 100% Rye (WA)
- Michter’s 10-year Rye (KY)
- Chicken Cock Rye (KY)
- Redemption Rye (IN)
Let’s dive right in. And if you dig any of these, click those prices to give them a try yourself.
Part 1: The Tasting
This opens with a hint of peppery spice that leads towards lemon cream pie filling and a touch of vanilla pods on the nose. The palate holds onto that lemon vibe and marries it to black pepper, like a 1990s s”lemon pepper” spice blend, next to a rush of black licorice, white peaches, and more of that rich vanilla.
The pepper gets powdery towards the finish — more like a fine white pepper — as the citrus lingers longest.
This is pure apple crumble with notes of brown sugar, cinnamon/nutmeg/allspice, and a bit of mint. The taste has a dried rose note that leads into a very botanical, absinthe feel next to dry apple cores and stems. A warm mid-palate soon takes over, with plenty of black pepper and sharp cinnamon. That apple returns late, with a warmth that reminds you of apple tobacco on the finish.
This is like thick challah French toast with just the right balance of yolky custard, nutmeg, and cinnamon with a touch of vanilla oils and a hint of soft, worn leather on the nose. That vanilla turns into a thick eggnog pudding with a slight wet straw funk and black-tea-soaked dates with a touch more cinnamon. The mid-palate reembraces the leather with a dried tobacco whisper next to a light grainy warmth and a super soft minerality.
From my notes: “Classic cherry, vanilla, cedar, and peppery spice? This has to be a Beam product.”
That matrix of flavors delivers on the palate with the vanilla getting super creamy as the cherry really pops as “ripe” and “vibrant” on the tongue. The spice is more attached to a moist tobacco leaf with a bit of a chew to it that’s also just touched by dark chocolate cherry vibes.
This is sort of all over the place from top to bottom, with a nose full of soft leather, dried flowers, bready grains, lemon curd, and dark cherry. The palate has that creamy vanilla and eggnog pudding vibe with a touch of caramel corn, fresh ginger, and meaty dates. The spice kicks up on the backend with a very distinct cherry-vanilla tobacco chewiness that leaves your mouth buzzing.
This draws you in with a cinnamon toast with plenty of woody cinnamon, butter, brown sugar, and a hint of vanilla bean. The palate is very peppery — kind of like milling some black pepper right onto your tongue — while balancing a nice touch of raisins, clove, and anise. The mid-palate dries out even more with a toasted tobacco leaf that leads back to a cherry-infused cream soda.
Green dill sits next to west cedar bark and rich yet sweet cherry candies on the nose. The taste veers into cream soda vanilla territory while red berries, savory pumpkin, and green peppercorns dominate. The end has this super-refined dark chocolate and brandied cherry vibe that bursts on your palate like firecrackers at midnight on New Year’s eve.
Woah… This stands out from the jump with a nose full of rich and fresh honey next to tart and juicy apple nestled in burnt straw with a slight herbal tea note (maybe rooibos). The palate has a matrix of clove, allspice, and nutmeg that leads towards a maple butter before the mid-palate bitters and sweetens with black-tea-soaked dates. The finish arrives with a milky yet bitter chocolate-covered cherry with a final note of dried reeds buried deep in the background.
It’s also so damn soft and refined, comparatively.
This opens with brandied cherries with a dark chocolate whiff. That leads to a black pepper vibe on the tongue next to wet brown sugar, vanilla pods, and honey apple cookies. That bitter dark chocolate returns on the finish but pops with dried chili spice and… almost-woodiness.
From my notes: “This draws you in with a note of soft leather and … Guinness? … with a touch of apple crumble with plenty of dark spice, brown sugar, and butter.”
The palate goes full holiday cake mode with even more brown spice, nuts, and candied fruits that lead towards a mid-palate that’s all moist banana bread with walnuts. The finish lets the spice kick up a notch, creating a sharp cinnamon toast feel.
This starts with a rush of clove-heavy absinthe, with hints of dry cinnamon sticks and that divisive Buffalo Trace raw leather. The palate goes deep with marzipan, orange oils, and a whisper of fresh mint. That mint attaches to bitter dark chocolate, creating a mint-choco tobacco vibe with a finish that has touches of dried chili flakes and cherry candy lurking in the background.
There’s a clear red fruit vibe on the nose that’s supported by dark spices and honeyed tobacco. Plums turn into prunes on the tongue as fat nuts lead to dry nutshells and a wisp of spicy yet dry tobacco leaves waft in. The end is all about the old cedar and leather as very soft vanilla lingers on your senses.
This opens with a rich and buttery toffee that’s just touched with a flake of smoked salt next to rose-water-heavy marzipan, cedar, cinnamon sticks, and what really feels like “dark” leather on the nose (it’s kind of like a leather jacket that your most-beloved grandparent wore their whole life while smoking every day). The taste leans into the cinnamon with a Red Hots vibe supported by orange oils, vanilla pods, and a sweet/hot chili pepper twinge. The vanilla gets super creamy on the mid-palate as the finish hits back on that marzipan with an orange infusion and a crust of rich, bitter, and slightly savory dark chocolate.
This opens like a root beer float with an eggnog ice cream scoop that leads to a touch of rye bread funk. The palate is like an old cedar box full of spicy tobacco leaves that lead back to the sasparilla of that root beer. The mid-palate has this spicy stewed peaches vibe with a hint of dried fruit, black tea bitterness, and touch more of that peppery root beer.
This opens with rushes of cedar, green grass, nasturtiums, and soft leather. The palate feels like common black pepper next to more cedar with a touch of wet chili pepper flesh. The end combines mint, chocolate, and tobacco and packs all three into an old cigar box, and then dusts the whole thing with white pepper.
Part 2: The Ranking
15. Redemption Rye — Taste 15
Average Price: $30
This affordable rye is a sourced whiskey from MGP. It’s the famed 95 percent rye — aged for just under three years — that’s dominated the market for the last decade or so. The juice is blended by Master Blender Dave Carpenter and is brought down to a very reasonable 92 proof with soft Kentucky limestone water.
I liked everything on this list but something had to be last. This was the least engaging overall and that’s really the only reason it’s in this slot. That being said, I’ve been going back to this in highballs and it rules.
14. Nashville Barrel Single Barrel Rye #511 — Taste 6
Average Price: $115
This is an interesting whiskey. Nashville Barrel is all about the barrel picks for retailers, bars, and whoever comes along (within reason). The juice in this case is that 95 percent MGP rye that’s around eight years old. The whiskey went into the bottle at barrel strength without any additional fussing.
This was another perfectly fine whiskey. It’s unique and tasty. Again, though, it just didn’t wow next to the heavy hitters on this list.
13. 2021 BTAC Thomas H. Handy Rye — Taste 11
Average Price: $500
This is the youngest bottle in 2021’s BTAC. The whiskey was distilled in the spring of 2015 and bottled in the fall of 2021. The mash is mainly Minnesota rye with Kentucky corn and North Dakota barley. The juice matured in warehouses I, K, L, and O on the fifth through seventh floors. Over that time, 31 percent of the juice was lost to the angels.
I have a hard time getting past that raw leather note on some Buffalo Trace releases (like Buffalo Trace Bourbon). It might work for others but this just doesn’t vibe with my palate right now.
12. Chicken Cock Rye — Taste 14
Average Price: $75
This whiskey from a re-invigorated brand is comprised of that famous sourced 95 percent rye that’s aged at Bardstown Bourbon Company. In this case, it’s aged for around two years before the barrels are blended, proofed, and bottled.
This was a bit more refined than the other representations of 95 percent rye on this list — even the ones cut with own-make. Still, this is a great mixer for Sazeracs and Manhattans more than a sipper that you want to spend significant time with.
11. Sagamore Cask Strength Rye — Taste 9
Average Price: $68
This Maryland rye is a blend of seven-year-old juice with four-year-old rye. The whiskey is blended and just touched with limestone water from a 100-plus-year-old farm well in Maryland to bring it back down to the lower cask’s strength.
This, again, was really tasty and well-balanced. Though, I’d argue this felt more like a cocktail rye than a slow sipper. I want to try this in a Manhattan to really plumb the depths of this tasty Maryland expression.
10. Catoctin Creek Roundstone Rye — Taste 1
Average Price: $44
This Virginia whiskey is made from 100 percent rye grains sourced from local farms. The juice matures for two years in Virginia before it’s proofed with local water to a very approachable 80 proof.
It’s kind of shocking that whiskey at 80 proof has this much depth of flavor. That aside, this still feels like we’re squarely in cocktail mixing territory.
9. Traverse City North Coast Rye — Taste 5
Average Price: $45
This whiskey from Michigan is a blend of Traverse City’s own-make (a 100 percent rye) and MGP’s 95 percent rye. The whiskeys are aged for about two years before they’re vatted and proofed down with that clear Michigan water.
This is a very tasty whiskey. It was just a little spice-heavy and didn’t have that “x-factor” to help it break into the top tier.
8. High West Double Rye — Taste 2
Average Price: $38
This rye is a blend of Indiana’s MGP 95 percent rye with own-make from the Utah distillery. The rye from Utah is an 80 percent rye/20 percent malted rye mash. Both whiskeys are a minimum of two years old before they’re vatted, proofed with Utah’s Rocky Mountain water, and bottled in old tequila bottles.
I really liked this — wild that it didn’t break into the top ten. I guess that just goes to show you how freakin’ great these whiskeys were today.
7. Knob Creek Rye — Taste 4
Average Price: $36
This is another bourbon drinker’s rye with a mash bill that’s believed to be only 51 percent rye (which is likely the same for the Basil Hayden’s above). This rye, however, is batched and proofed at a higher ABV, 50 proof, allowing more of the barrel to shine through.
Even pretty much knowing this was Knob Creek, it was still one of the more memorable whiskeys in this tasting. The flavors were distinct and refined while bringing a clear sense of self to the mix. This is also getting into sippable “on the rocks” territory while still being very mixable.
6. Stellum Rye — Taste 10
Average Price: $55
This new release from Barrell Spirits Co. blends rye whiskey from Indiana, Tennessee, and Kentucky. The core is the classic 95 percent rye from MGP of Indiana that’s cut with more barley-forward ryes from Tennessee and Kentucky. All of it is left at barrel strength when bottled.
This really popped for me. Maybe it’s the combination of three of the biggest states in whiskey that helps it along. In the end, it’s just really easy drinking rye with a clear and distinct flavor profile that’s very enticing.
5. Woodinville 100% Rye — Taste 12
Average Price: $45
American Distilling Institute Craft Spirits Awards named this their Best Rye back in 2017. The juice is 100 percent rye with grains sourced locally from the Omlin family farm. The whiskey is barreled in air-dried and toasted barrels but this time they’re heavily charred before the spirit goes in. The barrels are then hand-selected and married to create a pure rye whiskey experience at an accessible 90 proof.
This is where the “wow factor” started coming into play, making this and the next two entries pretty much an exercise in splitting hairs. This is just really, really good rye that hits high marks for uniqueness, drinkability, and deliciousness. You can’t go wrong stocking up on this juice.
4. Alberta Premium Cask Strength Rye — Taste 7
Average Price: $80
This Whisky Bible-beloved 100 percent rye mash bill is made from rye from the prairies of Alberta. The grist (milled rye grains) is then married with Rocky Mountain glacial water for fermentation. The spirit is barrelled and left to mature for an undisclosed amount of time. The results are blended and bottled with zero fussing at cask strength, giving this whisky a real depth and sense of those chilly plains, mountains, and glacier-fed waters from Alberta.
This continues to be named the best rye in the world and it’s easy to see why when you take a sip. It’s so refined while also being wholly unique. The high-ABVs do mean you’ll likely need a rock to sip this one, but that just means you’re opening the whiskey’s deeper flavor notes.
3. Blue Run Golden Rye — Taste 3
Average Price: $110
This whiskey is a sourced Kentucky rye from an undisclosed distillery or distilleries. The batch is a small outing of only 91 barrels that have been vatted and then proofed with that soft Kentucky limestone water before bottling.
This is pretty special juice. The nuance and depth are very good while the actual approachability of this whiskey is very high. It’s a great sipper neat, on the rocks, or even in a simple cocktail. This is just a winner all around.
2. 2021 Michter’s 10-Year Rye — Taste 13
Average Price: $230
This release goes through the same rigorous barrel-selection process as the Michter’s ten-year bourbon. However, because the point of Michther’s was to bring rye back to mainstream prominence, this bottle holds a very special place in whiskey drinkers’ hearts.
This is the bottle of rye that distillers are still chasing to this day.
This is where we get into the “wow” and “x-factor” territories — that dark, smoky leather is so entrancing. This whiskey is a touchstone rye that has serious beauty in the glass.
I also like to make $50 Manhattans with it, but that’s just me.
1. 2021 BTAC Sazerac 18 — Taste 8
Average Price: $1,400
This rye was made back in 2003 from Minnesota Rye, Kentucky corn, and North Dakota barley. The juice spent 18-and-a-half years in warehouses K and P on the second and fourth floors. Finally, it was vatted, proofed with that iconic Kentucky limestone water, and bottled.
This is damn near perfect. Actually, it might just be perfect. It’s really hard to find any faults in this juice. At the same time, it’s mature and stands alone as a great whiskey in general and a damn near amazing rye. It was so, so easy to drink today while delivering serious depth, surprises, and comfort.
What more can you really as for in a whiskey?
Part 3: Final Thoughts
This was really tough to rank, so I employed a newish method of marking every rye I liked as I sipped them and marking the ones I loved right away. That made it easier to go back and rank the top three and bottom three. That, however, made ranking the middle nine damn near impossible. Depending on my mood, I could probably reorder slots 12 through four a million different ways, but here we are.
In the end, this was an illuminating experience for my taste buds but I can’t say I was super surprised. I’m a very open stan of Michter’s but have a rockier relationship with Buffalo Trace’s ryes. Was I surprised their 2021 BTAC Sazerac 18 won? Yes and no. I had just taste-tested that expression the day before. So it was fresh in my memory. It’s amazing and it just rang the brightest today and that’s what counts in these tastings.
As a Drizly affiliate, Uproxx may receive a commission pursuant to certain items on this list.