Let’s start off 2023 by going hard in the paint with the whiskey tastings. Today, I’m lining up some of the best cask strength rye whiskeys — or “barrel strength” depending on the label’s wording — to see how well they stand up to each other … and how much burn there really is in these ABV bombs. This is a blind tasting about big flavors, big ideas, and big proofs in the rye whiskey sphere.
For the lineup today, I’ve included the following bottles:
- Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Rye Whiskey BTAC 2022
- Redwood Empire Emerald Giant Rye Whiskey Cask Strength
- Michter’s Limited Release US*1 Barrel Strength Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey
- Rare Character Presents Single Barrel Series Straight Kentucky Rye Whiskey Cask Strength
- Uncle Nearest Rye Single Barrel Whiskey, Barrel no. 1
- Stellum Rye The Lone Cypress
- Blackwood Toasted Rye Whiskey Batch #1 Barrel Strength
- Starlight Distillery Single Barrel Huber’s Cigar Batch Rye Whiskey Finished in Amburana Barrels
While I’ve been focusing on “new” releases a lot over the last months, this is about a side-by-side rye whiskey style comparison. Cask strength whiskey is meant to show off the beauty of the spirit’s aging in the barrel. There’s no hiding behind proofing here. This is about a distiller and/or blender finding the barrels that hit perfect marks as-is that then become a fantastic batched or single-barrel rye whiskey without any water added to hit those high flavor marks.
In short, this is the good stuff on its own.
When it comes to the ranking, I’m going on taste alone. That said, part of the tasting experience with cask strength expressions is how much the ABVs blow out the flavor profile on the nose and palate. So, the overall warmth will 100% come into play when tasting these rye whiskeys, especially how that warmth is balanced out with the overall profile.
Okay, let’s dive in and rate some stellar rye whiskeys to open 2023 on a high note.
- The Single Best Bottle Of Whiskey From Each Of The 50 States
- The Best Whiskeys In The World, According To The John Barleycorn Awards
- The 50 Best Rye Whiskeys Of 2022, Ranked
- Every Single Bottle Of Wild Turkey, Power Ranked
- The Best Bourbons And Ryes From The 2022 American Whiskey Masters Awards
Part 1: The Tasting
Nose: This is tannic from the jump with a nutty sense of an old almond cookie next to buttery biscuits with marmalade and a trio of old saddle leather, star anise, and lemon meringue pie with a flutter of dried flowers in the background.
Palate: The palate lights on fire with high ABVS. Then, those florals pop on the palate as candied orange and spiced holiday cake lead to a dark chocolate brownie, some burnt orange, and sweet cinnamon with a peanut brittle sweetness.
Finish: The end is piney and full of dried roses, orange rinds, and incense.
This has a nice, almost classic nose that feels old and tannic with a clear sense of dry old potpourri pots lurking throughout the whole profile. This isn’t my jam — thanks to that floral side — but it’s really well constructed.
Nose: This opens with a soft leatheriness that’s embued with dry chamomile tea, burnt orange, dark cherry bark, and old cinnamon sticks that spent too much time in mulled wine with a hint of sour cherry and tart apple.
Palate: The palate amps up the tea leaf vibe with lush Earl Grey next to dark chocolate-covered espresso beans flaked with salt and maybe some dried nasturtiums that build out the spices toward a spiced winter cake.
Finish: Those baked winter spices lead back to a soft creamy espresso dusted with nutmeg and dark chocolate powder and layered into a spiced tobacco leaf rolled with cedar bark on the end.
There’s a nice complexity that speaks to a high-quality spirit in the glass. This was very B+ but didn’t wow.
Nose: Dark cherry and butterscotch candies pop on the nose next to sour red wine mixed with mulled wine spices — lots of cinnamon, clove, and star anise — next to tart apple skins, apple bark, and a hint of singed marshmallow between lightly burnt Graham Crackers.
Palate: The palate leans into spices in a subtle way with a nutmeg/eggnog vibe next to rich vanilla ice cream and smoked cherries with a minor note of fresh pipe tobacco and singed cedar bark.
Finish: The end adds some dried red chili and sharp cinnamon to the tobacco with a pinch of freshly cracked black pepper and a supple sense of a fresh fruit bowl with a lot of red berries.
Okay, this is really good. It feels fashioned from great whiskey. There’s just something “more” here.
Nose: The nose opens with a classic sense of winter spices — cinnamon barks, whole cloves, freshly ground nutmeg, star anise — next to creamy nog spiked with vanilla and salted toffee with an all-around leatheriness that’s countered by red pepper sharpness.
Palate: The red pepper sharpness gets woody on the palate with a balance of creamy and soft sweet notes tied to vanilla, stewed pear, and prunes countered by woody winter spices soaked in apple cider and baked into mince pies.
Finish: The woodiness of the spices kicks up near the end with a rich and chewy tobacco finish that’s layered with stewed pear, old cherry bark, and wild smudging sage.
Funky and fresh next to classic and vivid. This is another whiskey that’s just on another level.
Nose: This is a butterscotch bomb in the nose — that tells me it’s likely Canadian or at least 100% rye. There is a sense of dry grains, sweetgrass, and wild smudging sage that rounds the nose’s path toward orchard fruits and old honey pots.
Palate: That dry grassy and graininess drive the palate toward a rich butterscotch and warming ABV heat that’s part sharp cinnamon spice and part alcohol.
Finish: That spicy warmth dominates the finish for a while and then fades toward apple and cherry bark with a hint of pear/apple cider cut with clove and cinnamon next to a final rush of sage and sweetgrass tied to light apricot tobacco.
This ends really strong but it’s a trek to get there. This is also such a massive outlier to the rest of the whiskeys so far that it’s hard to slot it into a spot.
Nose: There’s a light pine resin vibe on the nose with a bushel of dried savory green herbs — think sage, thyme, rosemary, tarragon — next to old leather and dried sour cherries tossed in kosher salt.
Palate: The palate has a note of that pine with a soft orange rind next to a spiced winter cake with dried fruit, walnuts, and wintry spices.
Finish: The end is slightly warm thanks to high ABVs with a sense of those salted cherries and pine resin leading to a dry finish.
This is a pretty classic overall rye with plenty of fruit and savory greenness. It ends a little soft on the palate and ultimately doesn’t have quite the same depth as others on the list today … so far anyway.
Nose: The nose is a straight-up classic with a sense of cherry and cinnamon tied to fresh and chewy tobacco with a sense of old cedar bark braided with dry sweetgrass and smudging sage with a light sense of pear candy and cream soda.
Palate: The taste leans into spiced cherry tobacco and stewed pear with a hint of marmalade and peach cobbler next to a hint of black-tea-soaked dates, salted whiskey-laced toffee, and clotted cream before a red chili pepper spiciness kicks in with a sense of cinnamon and cherry bark.
Finish: The woodies of the orchard fruit and spice drive the warm finish — but never hot — toward a luxurious and creamy end full of sharp yet sweet tobacco, a whisper of dank resin, and echoes of old fruit orchards.
This smells like an award-winning whiskey from the jump. The taste only confirms that. This is really f*cking good whiskey.
Nose: There’s a clear nuttiness on the nose that mixes Brazil nuts with creamy almond and pecan waffles next to soft leather and a mild sense of white pepper and chili powder.
Palate: The palate has a creaminess that’s kind of like mochi or chai mocha latte with a tobacco spiciness, cedar bark, and more of that creamy nuttiness with a hint of pear and maybe some more white pepper.
Finish: The end leans into the white pepper and mochi with a rush of apple cider and clove tobacco packed into a cedar box with a hint of resin and macadamia nut dipped in dark chocolate sauce.
This was another outlier for sure but this made a lot more sense. Moreover, the ABVs were almost non-existent, making for a ridiculously smooth-tasting experience. But was it… too smooth?
Part 2: The Ranking
8. Uncle Nearest Rye Single Barrel Whiskey, Barrel No. 1 — Taste 5
Average Price: $89
This brand-new whiskey from Tennessee’s Uncle Nearest — it dropped on December 15th, 2022 — is made from Canadian rye. The 100% rye whiskey is aged in New York for four years before it’s finished in British Columbia for a spell. Finally, the barrels were shipped to Tennessee and bottled 100% as-is, one at a time.
This needs to be tasted again with other Canadian ryes. That said, this was a butterscotch bomb that was just not my jam. I need to try it again, but I’m honestly a little disappointed by it right now.
7. Stellum Rye The Lone Cypress — Taste 6
Average Price: $99
Named for one of the world’s most famous trees, this whiskey is all about finding the funky forest in the flavor profile of a brand-new rye whiskey. The blend was created by the awesome team at Barrell Craft Spirits to accentuate woodier notes before it was bottled at cask strength.
This started strong but finished weak. It was well-built throughout but didn’t wow like the other whiskeys on this list. I’d probably take that strong body and build a great cocktail/finish from that base.
6. Redwood Empire Emerald Giant Rye Whiskey Cask Strength — Taste 2
Average Price: $70
This brand-new whiskey from cult-favorite Redwood Empire out in Sonoma, California, takes their tried and true method of blending California, Indiana, and Kentucky whiskeys to the next level. The blend ended up being a lightly wheated rye with a mash bill of 94% rye, 5% malted barley, and a mere 1% wheat. The barrels were all a minimum of four years old (with some reaching past six years) when batched and bottled as-is.
This hit nicely but a bit like a mid-range pour. It was perfectly fine and delivered a rye whiskey vibe but didn’t blow me away. Again, I’d likely use this for strong cocktails or on-the-rocks pours and be perfectly happy about it.
5. Starlight Distillery Single Barrel Huber’s Cigar Batch Rye Whiskey Finished in Amburana Barrels — Taste 8
Average Price: $79
This rye from craft distiller Starlight Distillery — part of the Huber Farm and Winery in Southern Indiana — is all about that finish. The four and five-year-old rye whiskey is re-loaded into Brazilian Amburana barrels and left to rest until just right. Finally, the best barrels are batched and then bottled completely as-is.
This was unique and tasty. The finish really stood out and worked with the rye whiskey below it. That said, this only gets dinged in that you didn’t feel the barrel cask strength at all. And if you’re reaching for a cask-strength whiskey, you at least want to know there’s a little something more there, right?
Still, this was tasty AF.
4. Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Rye Whiskey BTAC 2022 — Taste 1
Average Price: $1,499
This year’s Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Rye was distilled back in the spring of 2016 with a mix of Minnesota rye, Kentucky corn, and North Dakota malted barley with some of the iconic Kentucky limestone water. The hot juice went into new white oak from Independent Stave from Missouri with a #4 char level (55 seconds). Those barrels were racked in warehouses I, L, and M on floors 2, 4, 5, and 6. After six years and four months, 31% of the whiskey was lost to the angel’s share before these barrels were batched and bottled as-is.
I’m all over the place on this whiskey. Sometimes that floral potpourri note is so overwhelming that I can’t stand it. Sometimes, it’s layered well enough that I can get behind it. Today, I leaned more toward the latter. This is a really good whiskey that’s very mood dependent. If I am in the mood, then this over a rock or two is about as good as it gets if you’re looking for a floral, green, and funky rye with a nice kick to it.
3. Rare Character Presents Single Barrel Series Straight Kentucky Rye Whiskey Cask Strength — Taste 4
Average Price: $79
This rare whiskey from Rare Character’s team is a Kentucky rye made from 95% rye and 5% malted barely. The hot juice went into the barrel back in May of 2016. In October of 2022, the Rare Character crew bottled this one barrel of great whiskey completely as-is.
Okay, this is where the “wow” factor really kicks in. This whiskey is so funky and vivid. It’s just a freaking masterpiece barrel that I truly want more of in my life, especially when you start adding a little water it really starts to bloom in the glass.
2. Michter’s Limited Release US*1 Barrel Strength Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey — Taste 3
Average Price: $199
This rare Michter’s expression is pulled from single barrels that were just too good to batch or cut. Once the barrels hit the exact right flavor profile, each one is filtered with Michter’s bespoke system and then bottled as-is at the strength it came out of the barrel.
As I said above, there’s just “more” here. This is deeper, more interesting, more flavor, and more fun. The heat from the ABVs accent the flavor profile, they don’t overwhelm it for a moment. It’s a balance that is hard to achieve but takes this to the next level.
1. Blackwood Toasted Rye Whiskey Batch #1 Barrel Strength — Taste 7
Average Price: $150
This rye is sourced from expertly picked barrels for a very small batch offering. The mash is a classic 95/5 rye/malted barley bill. The barrels are close to seven years old before a handful come together to create this barrel-strength bottling of only 620 bottles.
I’d be shocked if this didn’t win some huge awards in 2023. It’s a perfect whiskey, rye or not. It’s a short run, so you need to move fast to get some.
Part 3: Final Thoughts
There’s a certain panache that some whiskey builds have that others just don’t. That became very clear on this list. The top four or so whiskeys just felt like they were on a different footing that the rest. You could feel the years, maybe decades, of personal expertise behind the whiskey in those pours. There was just more there in every way.
Pontificating aside, these were all really tasty — yes, even the bottom three or four pours. The bottom half is perfectly suitable for beginners, passive whiskey fans, cocktail mixers, or just everyday table pours. The top half of this list is where you go when you take your palate to the next level and/or really impress your whiskey crew. They’re the bottles that’ll wow.
And all of that said, that Blackwood Toasted Rye is already in the running for best rye of 2023. It’s only three days into the year but it’s that good.