Rye whiskey is booming, much like the rest of the whisk(e)y industry around the world. But rye whiskey is no flash in the pan. The style was being made in Europe long before Dutch and German colonizers landed on these shores with their mash bills and stills. Historically speaking, rye whiskey was the first whiskey actually made in the American colonies, all the way back in the 1600s.
So there’s a deep heritage the brown juice still carries with it to this day. Of course, rye did comparatively fall out of fashion for a time, and most of the classics we see on shelves today are from the last half-century or so — though some labels may bear names and dates that pre-date those decades.
All of which lead me to ask: what’s a great, classic (modern or not) rye whiskey that’s actually worth stocking on your bar cart? To find out, I decided to taste 10 bottles blind. My wife pulled bottles off the rye shelf and poured and listed them for me, and then I started nosing and tasting.
Our lineup today is:
- Basil Hayden’s 10-Year Rye
- Wild Turkey 101 Rye
- Rittenhouse Bottled-in-Bond Rye
- Michter’s Single Barrel 10-Year Rye
- Woodford Reserve Rye
- Sagamore Spirit Rye
- Sazerac Rye
- Knob Creek Rye
- Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Rye
- Jim Beam Prohibition Rye
Let’s get into the thick of it!
Also Read: The Top Five Rye Whiskey from the Last Six Months on UPROXX
- All 19 Brands From The Buffalo Trace Distillery, Ranked
- The Single Best Bottle Of Whiskey From Each Of The 50 States
- The 50 Best Rye Whiskeys Of 2021, Ranked
- We Tasted Rye Whiskeys Blind To See If Any Of Them Could Beat Willett
- The 100 Best Whiskeys Our Head Drinks Writer Tasted In 2021
Part 1: The Tasting
This is somehow both rich and thin on the nose, with light black pepper countered by soft oak, rich vanilla, and a sense of proofing water. The palate leads to a buttery toffee sauce with a flake of salt next to orange zest and a winter spice mix that leans more nutmeg than cinnamon. The finish layers in some vanilla and caramel with a hint of cherry wood before cinnamon-chocolate pipe tobacco adds a light dryness on the very end.
There was a thinness and lightness at play that gives this away as a pretty low proof (guessing Basil here). That said, a promising start.
Interesting, rummy savory fruit, peppery spice, old cedar, and a hint of firecracker black powder lead the way on the nose. The palate veers away toward creamy vanilla sauce with a hint of poppy seed that’s accented by holiday fruit cakes full of nuts, spices, and candied fruits. The mid-palate is a little tinny with a hint of mint-chocolate ice cream leading towards a finish that’s full of spicy apple pie pipe tobacco with a hint more of that old cedar.
This was good. Wild Turkey good.
Huh… This has a nose that feels like the plastic lid and cardboard cup from a berry Slushie with a hint of vanilla extract next to “oak” and “spice.” The palate is largely the same with a black pepper spice that hints at lemon and orange as the wood stays kind of blank, like a two-by-four fresh off the dock. The finish is short and plasticky with hints of the berry syrup and cardboard cup again.
“Huh” sums this up nicely.
Rich and buttery toffee greet you on the nose with a nice flake of smoked sea salt next to rose water and marzipan, apple-cider-dipped cinnamon sticks, and an old leather jacket layered with decades of cigarette smoke and drug store aftershave. The taste leans into a whole box of Red Hots with orange oils layered into a vanilla cake with a dark and bitter espresso-chocolate frosting next to a tiny whisper of dried chili pepper. The whole sip goes super lush on the mid-palate as the vanilla and rose water lead to a soft and sticky chili-chocolate tobacco leaf wrapped around an old bunch of sweetgrass and cedar bark.
Yeah, this is the pour to beat.
This opens nicely with soft green grass next to a dusting of freshly cracked black pepper and dry cedar that’s countered by pear and marzipan. That pear infuses into the marzipan on the palate as floral honey balances a rye pepperiness and hint of clove. A whisper of fresh mint drives the mid-palate toward more of that sharp clove with a final note of honey-soaked pear on the thin finish.
This is pretty nice. A little thin and short, but nice.
Winter spices and orange oils mingle with candied walnuts and deep umami, kind of like tomato paste. The taste marries dried orange peels with nutmeg and vanilla cream with more candied walnuts and a hint of pecan. The vanilla amps up with a cookie vibe that leads to more of those winter spices and a good dose of wet brown sugar with a wet wicker end.
Interesting… I’ll just leave it at that.
There’s a vanilla underbelly that’s pretty luscious which supports star anise, sasparilla, clove, cardamom, and a hint of red peppercorn. The palate has big Christmas time vibes with fruit cakes full of candied fruits and nuts with plenty of dark spice, mulled wine, more of that red peppercorn, and a hint of black licorice with old pine wood paneling lurking in the background. The finish is bold yet soft and lush with anise and candied fruits creating a spicy cream soda with an old sweetgrass rope drying things out.
This is a contender!
Cherry-Vanilla Coke with cedar, black pepper, and old oak staves? Hello, Knob Creek. The palate builds on the nose with a supple vanilla cream sauce next to fresh and ripe cherries, a hint of orchard wood, old tobacco leaves, and pepper before a whisper of dried dill and fennel hits on the mid-palate. The end layers cherry and dark chocolate into the dry tobacco leaf, adding a nice chewiness to it, while dry black potting soil and old porch wicker round out the end.
We have another contender here…
This is very mellow with soft layers of rich vanilla pudding, peach/apricot, rum-raisin, and cinnamon-heavy oatmeal cookies on the nose. The palate lets the cinnamon sharpen a bit as the silky vanilla takes over and leads to applewood, floral honey, and a hint of nutmeg. The mid-palate lets the fruity sweetness fade as a vanilla/cinnamon tobacco chewiness leads to an old oak stave.
The last six pours have all been pretty freaking good. It’s going to be interesting.
Cherry, caramel, vanilla, oak… This feels more like a bourbon. There’s a hint of pear on the palate that leads back to the cherry, which has a candy sweetness. The vanilla kicks in and adds a smooth layer to a hint of winter spice, which is very cinnamon heavy. The finish is soft and thin with a cherry/vanilla tobacco note next to cinnamon sticks.
This has to be Jim Beam. It’s good but not one of the greats.
Part 2: The Ranking
10. Rittenhouse Bottled-in-Bond Rye Rye — Taste 3
Average Price: $29
This rye is very much a bourbon drinker’s rye. The mash bill is only 51% rye with 37% corn, and 12% malted barley. The juice then matures under the federal regulations allowing it to be “bottled-in-bond” and is barely proofed down to 100 proof with that soft Kentucky limestone water before bottling.
This was so thin and plasticky. I guess I’d put it a rye and Coke, but that’s about it.
9. Jim Beam Prohibition Rye — Taste 10
Average Price: $22
This rye was designed by the master himself — Master Distiller and whiskey legend Fred Noe — as a return to the bigger and bolder days of rye before Prohibition defanged a lot of the industry and its recipes. The juice is a throwback recipe to the 1920s version of Beam’s rye, giving the whiskey a fruitier and spicier edge in the process.
This was fine. It was leaps and bounds above the Rittenhouse above. Still, it felt like a mixer for highballs or maybe a cheap and easy cocktail.
8. Sagamore Spirit Rye — Taste 6
Average Price: $43
This Maryland whiskey (though part of it is still sourced from Indiana) is two rye mash bills that are put together for maximum ryeness. The low and high rye whiskeys are aged four to six years before vatting. The juice is then proofed with limestone water from a Maryland spring ahead of the bottling.
That umami note on the nose always throws me off. For the lineup today, it was just too out of place as it didn’t seem to tie into the journey of the flavor profile at all.
7. Basil Hayden’s 10-Year Rye — Taste 1
Average Price: $72
This is Beam’s high-end brand and their high-end rye within that brand. The barrels are the ones that made it to 10 years and hit just the right marks of flavor and texture to be batched, proofed down to a very accessible 80 proof, and bottled.
Had this been less washed out by the proofing, it’d be a lot higher. There are a lot of good notes under all that water, begging to get out and shine.
6. Wild Turkey 101 Rye — Taste 2
Average Price: $36 (1-liter)
Wild Turkey’s signature rye benefits from the brand’s signature moves in making all their whiskey. The juice is matured for around six years in heavily charred “alligator” barrels. That heavy char and longer aging imbues a lot into the whiskey before it’s batched, lightly proofed down to 101 proof, and bottled.
This is where things get interesting (and good). While this feels like a really solid cocktail foundation, it didn’t wow me today. Still, I’d pour this over rocks in a heartbeat any ol’ day of the week.
5. Woodford Reserve Rye — Taste 5
Average Price: $35
This whiskey was a long time coming. Master Distiller Chris Morris tinkered with this recipe for nine years before it was just right. The juice has a fairly low-rye mash bill — for a rye, that is. The bill only calls for 53% of the spicy grain. The rest is made up of local corn and malted barley. The whiskey then spends up to seven years maturing at their Versailles, Kentucky facility before its blended, proofed with soft limestone water, and bottled.
This was refined and very easy to drink. I’d still say it felt more like a cocktail base but it works as an everyday sipper in a pinch with a nice level of refinement.
4. Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Rye — Taste 9
Average Price: $36
This release from Jack asks “what would straight rye whiskey taste like if it was given the ol’ Lincoln County treatment?” Jack’s mash bill utilizes 70% rye mash bill and water from the nearby Tennessee mountains. They then treat the hot distillate as they would a standard Tennessee whiskey, with sugar maple charcoal filtration and new oak barreling.
This was pretty goddamn good, all things considered. The flavor profile was complex yet approachable with a nice depth. Plus, it was super easy to drink with no rough edges at all.
3. Knob Creek Rye — Taste 8
Average Price: $29
This is a bourbon drinker’s rye with a mash bill that’s believed to be a very low rye. The barrels are batched and proofed at a higher ABV, allowing more of the barrel and rye to shine through than, say, a Basil Hayden’s Rye.
This was a solid pour. While I wanted to build a cocktail around this rye, I also wanted to just enjoy it as-is. That’s a good rye.
2. Sazerac Rye — Taste 7
Average Price: $34
Sazerac Rye is a great entry point for a refined touch and a throwback to the 1800s. The brand was named after the famed Sazerac Coffee House on Royal Street in New Orleans where the Sazerac cocktail was born. Today, this expression is a true classic made at Buffalo Trace from their iconic rye mash bill.
This was complex but familiar. It went down softly but delivered something engaging and fun. It wasn’t as complex as the next entry (by a mile) but holds its own just fine.
1. Michter’s Single Barrel 10-Year Rye — Taste 4
Average Price: $416
Michter’s 10-year rye is a true modern classic. This release goes through the same rigorous barrel-selection process as the Michter’s 10-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. In fact, this is the rye flavor profile that other distillers are still chasing to this day.
This was the best pour by a fair amount. There were some nice pours, but nothing really came close to the complexity and ease of this dram. It was just so engaging and deep without being pretentious or over-done. It’s just nice.
Part 3: Final Thoughts
I was surprised to see Sazerac Rye so far up in the rankings. I rarely reach for that bottle but this blind tasting has given me a reason to.
Overall, the Michter’s 10 is hard to deny, especially on this lineup. Though, I could have seen (and maybe bet on) Knob Creek pulling an upset. But here we are. And trust me, that Michter’s 10-Year Rye lives up to all the hype (and price) with every single sip.