You can’t beat a good American rye whiskey. The use of the wheat varietal — rye is a type of wheat — in the whiskey’s mash bill (recipe) adds a very different feel than your standard corn-fueled bourbon or malted barley whiskey. Rye is often earthier, grassier, more herb-forward, a little funkier, and carries notes that highlight citrus, orchard, and light fruits with a good base for woody and yeasty spice to shine through.
That makes American rye whiskey its own beast — worthy of a good double-blind taste test.
For this double-blind tasting, my wife was kind enough to grab a dozen rye bottles from the “new” pile of whiskeys currently heaped around my desk. She cataloged and poured them for me and then I came in a tasted all 12 rye whiskeys.
From there, I ranked each whiskey based on taste alone. This was double-blind, so all that I knew when tasting and ranking was that I was tasting rye whiskey from the U.S.A. I didn’t even know proofs or age statements. That means that my ranking below is purely based on taste, which hinges on three pillars:
And, wow, there were some serious standouts today (along with plenty of perfectly “fine” whiskeys). Nothing was bad, a lot was good, and a few were great so let’s dive right in and taste and rank some new rye whiskeys!
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Part 1 — Rye Whiskey Tasting
Nose: Dark orange rinds and dried chili peppers lead on the nose with a hint of dried garden herbs, rye bread crusts, and a hint of wet oak.
Palate: The palate opens with a cinnamon and clove spiced cake cut with lemon and orange zest next to lush vanilla and a hint of honeydew melon rinds.
Finish: The end leans into the vanilla and spice but sort of peters out before landing any big flavor notes.
This is fine. The opening is much stronger than the finish, which leads me to think this is a cocktail whiskey that you build upon.
Nose: Huge sweet grain notes dominate the nose with whispers of old oak, Christmas trees, and black licorice.
Palate: That heavy grain converts to Cream of Wheat on the palate with an old rye bread vibe next to cinnamon orange cookies with a hint of vanilla.
Finish: The cinnamon and clove drive the finish toward a dry oakiness with a twinge more of those Christmas trees and a lot more of that Cream of Wheat.
This feels interesting but I can’t get a bead on it. It’s just so grain-forward that I have to fight to find the rest of the profile.
Nose: Dark fruit leather, stewed peach, and salted caramel mingle with vanilla buttercream cut with toffee and winter spice syrups on the nose.
Palate: The palate opens with a hint of grilled pineapple and peach dosed in caramel sauce and hit with salt before dark winter spice cakes arrive with dates, prunes, and old nuts with plenty of clove and allspice that eventually leads to a hint of eggnog creaminess.
Finish: The spice gets barky on the backend as the finish drives toward old wicker furniture in sweetgrass on a summer’s day next to a mild chili-peach-infused chewing tobacco leaf.
This is really nice. It’s classic and well-balanced.
Nose: This opens with a classic sense of rye bread with plenty of dill and caraway front and center that gives way to dark powdery chocolate, roasted almonds, toffee, and a touch of candied orange with this nice layer of nostalgic backyard on a summer day vibes.
Palate: That summer grassiness carries on through the palate as blueberry pie and vanilla cake mingle with a hint of salted caramel, more of that herbal rye bread, and a twist from a pepper mill over old boot leather.
Finish: The end sweetens with the caramel and vanilla as black licorice, stewed blueberry, and spiced winter cakes play with a nice sense of fresh herb gardens in the sun.
This is a really nice sipping rye with a truly nostalgic/classic vibe. It’s bright and earthy in all the right ways.
Nose: Salted caramel sweetness with a vanilla underbelly drives the nose toward rye bread crusts, a hint of dried savory herbs, apple blossoms, and a whisper of soft leather gardening gloves.
Palate: The spiciness arrives after lush vanilla cream and salted caramel with a dose of freshly cracked red peppercorns, dried red chili, and sharp winter brown spices next to a spiced oak.
Finish: The creaminess, sweetness, and spiciness coalesce on the finish with a deep sense of fruit orchards full of fall leaves and apple bark.
This is a damn fine Kentucky rye. It’s well-rounded and runs deep. It’s maybe a little light at the end, but that’s not a fault — more a preference.
Nose: The nose runs deep with a hint of dried red chili pepper that builds toward soft and fresh pipe tobacco cut with pear and packed into an old leather pouch as a little bit of old candy wrapper a note of fizzy chinotto soda with a rock candy sweetness and a hint of dry sweet cedar.
Palate: Sweet dark fruits and grilled peach open the palate as a dramatic warmth starts to build toward razor-sharp clove, cinnamon, and mace with a very slight woody bark presence before singed marshmallows come into play and the heat hits 9-point-holy-shit on the Richter Scale.
Finish: That heat fades pretty quickly on the back end as notes of old boot leather and apple skin tobacco mingle with a faint whisper of creamy almond and ginger rock candy next to a fleeting note of dried ancho chilis soaked in hot water.
This is astronomically better than everything that came before it. It’s not even close. This is delicious whiskey that has a depth that’s more than everything else tasted so far combined and then tripled. Translation: this is the good stuff.
Nose: Dark fruit leather kissed with clove, anise, and cinnamon drives the nose toward moist and buttery salted banana bread with black walnuts and plenty of real vanilla with this whisper of old cobwebby cellar oak staves.
Palate: The palate is luscious with deep vanilla buttercream, soft salted caramel dipped in lush dark chocolate cut with burnt orange rinds next to woody walnut shells, old cinnamon sticks, and a braid of smudging sage, cedar bark, and dill-laced tobacco.
Finish: The end just keeps going while layering in caraway-crusted rye crusts, old orange rinds soaked in brandy, more of that salted caramel, and this fleeting sense of singed marshmallow smushed into a shot of espresso.
To quote Action Bronson, “F*ck, that’s delicious!”
Nose: Cinnamon sticks and nutmeg bulbs mingle with a pecan pie and this wildly subtle sense of fresh matchsticks with a vanilla bean underpinning.
Palate: Caramel pie and rye herbs counter each other on the palate with anise and caraway leading to grassiness as the caramel leads to a buttery creaminess touched by vanilla and poppy.
Finish: The end has a nice balance but kind of disappears, leaving you with a sense of grassy rye whiskey with a lush vanilla base.
This is really good but kind of punts the finish.
Nose: This opens with a medley of winter spices — clove, nutmeg, cinnamon, anise — that leads to a mixed berry jam with a touch of salted butter over rye toast next to dark cherry leatheriness.
Palate: The vanilla opens the palate with creaminess as the winter spices adhere to the dark berries and build a sort of berry crumble vibe next to woody dryness.
Finish: That woodiness drives the finish toward more winter spice, a hint of that rye toast, and more berries with a deep earthiness — think rich black potting soil — on the very end.
This is very interesting and tasty. I need to revisit whatever this is in other formats — on the rocks, in a cocktail, etc.
Nose: Holiday spice cakes and vanilla cookies lead on the nose with very dark and leathery dried fruit sheets over salted toffee rolled in roasted almonds and dipped in espresso-heavy dark chocolate with a rush of grassiness on the backend.
Palate: That grassiness rears its head on the palate and leads to dry roasting herbs with a sense of rye bread stuffing, dark fruit competes, and woody vanilla pods with a bark-heavy clove, anise, and cinnamon.
Finish: The end inches toward earthiness with an old woody spice vibe next to firewood stacked in fresh dirt with a sweet edge over lush vanilla cream.
This is really goddamn good too. It hits so many great notes and hits them clearly and concisely.
Nose: There’s a sense of slight sourdough rye funk on the nose with a hint of pumpkin seed, caraway, sweet cinnamon, vanilla husks, and a whisper of candied ginger.
Palate: The palate leans into that sour funk and caraway as oolong tea, piney honey, and spicy, raisin-filled oatmeal cookies vibe.
Finish: The mid-palate kicks in hard with the heat as sharp cinnamon and chili dominate until a soft sense of vanilla, toffee, and dark fruit leather mingle on the finish.
This is funky bready rye. It’s nice. It wasn’t exciting though, which might just be the placement of this pour in this lineup.
Nose: The nose is sweet with a sense of pecan pie cut with maple syrup over spiced winter cookies, a hint of toffee, and what almost feels like marshmallow tobacco (kind of like the kind you’d get in a vape).
Palate: That toffee drives the palate toward more vanilla spice cakes and a hint of dried fruit next to old leather pouched full of dried tobacco and clove.
Finish: That clove tobacco pushed the finish toward a soft landing that feels almost like it’s cut with contact lens saline solution.
The end of this one is kind of baffling but somehow kind of works. The saltiness kind of mutes the finish but adds to what is there. I don’t know. It’s a headscratcher.
Part 2 — Rye Whiskey Ranking
12. Square 6 Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey High-Rye — Taste 2
Average Price: $90
This new whiskey is from the micro-distillery at the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience on Whiskey Row in Louisville, Kentucky. The whiskey in the bottle is a high-corn rye with a mash bill of 63% rye, 24% corn, and 13% malted barley that ages for four years before batching, proofing, and bottling.
This is such a grain bomb that it mutes everything else in the profile. It’s just too much work to find any flavor notes. I’d pass.
11. Hotel Tango Straight Rye Whiskey Rye, Ready-To-Drink — Taste 1
Average Price: $44
This Indiana distillery is owned and operated by combat-disabled veterans. The whiskey in this bottle is a blend of MGP rye whiskeys that were specifically created for mixing cocktails.
This is a decent cocktail base. It’s nothing that special though. If you’re in Indiana, support our veterans and give this a try.
10. Jefferson’s Ocean Aged At Sea Rye Double Barrel Rye Whiskey Voyage 26 — Taste 12
Average Price: $86
The latest “voyage” release from Jefferson’s is a Canadian rye that was aged in classic new char 3 oak. Those barrels were then sent to Kentucky where they were batched and re-barreled into both new char #3 oak and toasted barrels. Then those barrels were loaded onto a ship and sent around the world to age. You can check out the whole voyage here. Finally, the barrels were returned to Kentucky, batched, proofed, and bottled.
This was fine. I kind of like the salinity at the end. That said, this is something I’d make cocktails with on a weekday.
9. Middle West Spirits Straight Rye Whiskey Dark Pumpernickel Batch No. 125 — Taste 11
Average Price: $46
This Ohio whiskey is made with dark pumpernickel rye, Ohio soft red winter wheat, yellow corn, and 2-Row malted barley. The hot juice is then aged for four years in new white oak before it’s bottled with a touch of local Ohio water.
This is decent rye. Is “decent” enough to get all hot and bothered about? Maybe not. That said, I would check this out if I was in Ohio — always eager to support an emerging scene.
8. Ezra Brooks 99 Proof Straight Rye Whiskey — Taste 8
Average Price: $24
This new bottling from Lux Row in Kentucky highlights a unique Indiana rye. The rye in the bottle is hewn from a very high-corn rye whiskey with a mash bill of 51% rye, 45% corn, and 4% malted barley. That whiskey is aged and charcoal filtered before batching, proofing, and bottling in Bardstown, Kentucky.
This was pretty decent stuff too. It didn’t quite stick the landing but you can cover that up in a good cocktail.
7. Old Hunting Creek Straight Rye Whiskey — Taste 9
Average Price: $49
This new rye is from award-circuit darling Southern Distilling Company. The whiskey is made from a low-rye mash of 51% rye, 39% corn, and 10% malted barley. The whiskey then ages for at least four years before it’s batched and proofed to bottled in bond strength (100-proof) for bottling.
This is good rye whiskey. It has a nice depth and feels very classic. That’s all.
6. Brother’s Bond Four-Grain Small-Batch American Blended Rye Whiskey — Taste 3
Average Price: $48
This brand-new release from Ian Somerhalder and Paul Wesley’s Brothers Bond is their first foray into rye. The whiskey in the bottle is a blend of their bourbon cut with a four-year-old 95/5 rye (rye/malted barley). The final product ends up being a 77% rye whiskey once batched, proofed, and bottled.
This is also a very good rye whiskey. It’s not exciting or arresting but it is good whiskey. If you’re looking for a good entry point to get your feet wet in the rye genre, this is a good starting point.
5. Knob Creek Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey Aged 7 Years — Taste 5
Average Price: $36
This new whiskey from Beam marks the age-statement return of their iconic Knob Creek Rye. The whiskey in this case was aged seven years before batching, slight proofing, and bottling.
Again, this is a good rye whiskey. I used this for cocktails and it rules. Do the same, you won’t be disappointed.
4. Union Horse Distilling Co. Reunion Straight Rye Whiskey — Taste 4
Average Price: $38
This Missouri whiskey is all about local to the point that even the barrels are hyper-local — a perk of making whiskey near one of the biggest sources of oak in the country. The whiskey is made with a mash of 100% local rye grown in Missouri. That whiskey then goes into a special Missouri oak barrel that was seasoned outside for 24 months before being toasted and charred specifically for this whiskey. Those barrels of rye were then batched, proofed with local water, and bottled.
This is getting into the really good stuff. This is a bold and nuanced whiskey that works well as a slow sipper. It’ll make a mean cocktail too.
3. Heaven’s Door Aged 10 Years Decade Series II Straight Rye Whiskey — Taste 10
Average Price: $99
This brand-new release from Bob Dylan’s Heaven’s Door focuses on 95/5 rye whiskey. In this case, select barrels that were 10 years or older were chosen for the batch. Once batched, this whiskey was proofed to 50% and bottled as-is.
This has enough depth to be a serious and very rewarding sipper. I need to try this in a Manhattan next. It’s just good juice, folks.
2. Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Barrel Proof Tennessee Rye Whiskey — Taste 6
Average Price: $72
The whiskey in this bottle is drawn from single barrels of the good stuff. The whiskey in those barrels was made with Jack Daniel’s rye mash bill of 70% rye, 18% corn, and 12% malted barley that’s fermented with Jack’s proprietary yeast and lactobacillus before running through column stills. The hot juice is then slowly — literally one drip at a time — filtered through 10 feet of sugar maple charcoal made on-site at the distillery. Once filtered, the whiskey is filled into new American oak barrels and left to rest until each one was just right for a barrel-proof bottling run.
This was leaps and bounds ahead of the rest of the pours on this panel. The depth of this whiskey is massive. Yet, it feels approachable. This is stellar rye. Drink it slowly and really let it wash over you.
1. Sagamore 8-Year-Old “The First” The Prime Barrel Exclusive Single Barrel Straight Rye Whiskey — Taste 7
Average Price: $75
This new barrel pick from The Prime Barrel is a limited release that highlights the power of the folks picking the whiskey. The whiskey in the bottle is an eight-year-old Maryland rye produced in Baltimore. The whiskey went into the bottle as-is to highlight the local vibe.
Sagamore has hit a stride at eight years old. This whiskey is just delicious. Drink it however you like to drink your whiskey. It’s great. The reason it’s first over the Jack Daniel’s is that this didn’t feel like homework. This felt, dare I say, fun. That’s a quality that can’t be beaten.
Part 3 — Final Thoughts on the Rye Whiskey
The top two are the whiskeys you really want to focus on from this panel. They’re far and away the best pours.
I’d say if you’re looking for an easy-going pour that’s going to give you nice rye whiskey, not challenge you, and work well in a cocktail, then go with 7 through 3. The rest is fine but skippable at the end of the day unless there’s something in their tasting notes that really jump out at you — then have at it.