American rye whiskey is the sharper cousin of bourbon whiskey. The use of rye grains (a wheat varietal) as the main ingredient instead of corn leads to a whiskey that has more herbal, funky, and fruity characteristics. They’re two different beasts at the end of the day, but that doesn’t mean that rye whiskey can’t be soft, creamy, or sweet too. American rye whiskeys can be smooth AF and I’m going to underscore that fact today, via a big blind taste test.
Before I dive in — what does “smooth” even mean? Well, “smoothness” is the lack of roughness. It’s creamy, silky, velvety, soft, and polished. But it’s more than that when we’re talking about whiskey. It’s about the mouthfeel or texture. Smoothness really comes down to the way the whiskey feels on your palate and senses more than the flavors it imparts.
Yes, the depth of the flavor profile is still paramount — you want to taste good whiskey after all (not just “smooth like water,” in which case lowest proof would always win). But the feeling that the pour of whiskey imparts is what leads us to use the word “smooth” after we taste it. Let’s be honest, no one is describing a high-ABV whiskey that burns all the way down as “smooth,” are they? Nor would anyone pin a chewy wood bomb as smooth. This is about those aforementioned adjectives: not rough, soft, silky, velvety, polished, and creamy.
For this blind tasting, I grabbed 12 American rye whiskeys that I know are regarded as “smooth” to find the absolute best one. I also added a bottle that people love but I wouldn’t exactly call smooth — Bulleit Rye — to see if it comes close on the smoothness metric or not.
That makes our lineup today the following smooth rye whiskeys:
- Stellum Rye The Lone Cypress
- Michter’s Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey 10 Years Old
- E.H. Taylor, Jr. Straight Kentucky Rye Whiskey Bottled In Bond
- Hemingway Rye, 1st Edition A Blend Of Straight Rye Whiskeys Finished In Rum Seasoned Olorosso Sherry Casks
- Scarlet Shade Straight Rye Whiskey Aged 14 Years
- Bardstown Bourbon Company Origin Series Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey Finished in Toasted Cherry Wood and Oak Barrels
- Rare Character Single Barrel Series Selected by ReserveBar Topflight Series Straight Rye Whiskey Finished in Jaqueira Casks
- Bulleit 95 Rye Frontier Whiskey Straight American Rye Whiskey
- Jefferson’s Single Barrel Straight Rye Whiskey Finished in Cognac Casks
- Knob Creek Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey Aged 7 Years
- Russell’s Reserve Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey Single Barrel
- 291 All Rye 100% Rye Malt Colorado Whiskey Finished with Aspen Wood Staves
To round this blind tasting out, I ranked these rye whiskeys according to how smooth they were while also considering the depth and detectability of the flavor profile. Smooth is great and all, but there also has to be something delicious there to add to that smoothness. Savvy? Let’s dive in!
- The Absolute Best Bottle Of Whiskey From Each Of The 50 States
- Every Single Buffalo Trace Whiskey & Spirits Brand, Ranked
- 100 Best American Rye Whiskeys, Ranked
- The Best Whiskeys To Chase Down This May
- Every Whiskey Brand From Jim Beam, Ranked
Part 1 — The Smooth Rye Whiskey Tasting
Nose: There’s a light pine resin meets dried chili pepper 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 that give way to marzipan and vanilla cream with a hint of dried winter spices and chili peppers.
This started off heavy and woody and ended up very smooth before drying out. It’s good stuff but maybe not the smoothest whiskey in the world.
Nose: Rich and lush toffee combines with soft marzipan on the nose as a dash of freshly cracked black pepper lead to cinnamon-laced apple cider and cherry-soaked cedar bark.
Palate: The palate is part Red Hot and part zesty orange marmalade with creamy vanilla pudding, sweet and spicy dried chili peppers with a hint of smoke and woodiness, and this fleeting whisper of celery salt.
Finish: The end gets very creamy with the almond and creamy vanilla tobacco, soft and sweet cedar, and a dark chocolate orange vibe all balanced to damn near perfection.
This is a smooth motherf*cker right here.
Nose: This nose is vibrant with hints of freshly plucked pears next to black peppercorns, soft cedar, winter spice barks and berries, and a hint of fresh mint chopped up with fresh dill that leads to a minor key of spearmint and maybe some fresh chili pepper on the vine.
Palate: The palate holds onto the fresh green chili pepper as the pear gets stewed with those winter spices and drizzled with a salted toffee syrup cut with sharp burnt orange and bitter chinotto leaves.
Finish: That sweet and citrus bitter vibe leads back to dark and woody clove and anise with a dash of sasparilla and salted black licorice before some fresh mint and dill return to calm everything down.
This is delicious and very smooth while delivering incredible deep flavor notes.
Nose: Rich and old oak mingles with salted caramel, dark maple syrup, and sheets of dark fruit leather next to a soft sense of caraway rye toast with a soft creamed vanilla butter and a light touch of cherry compote.
Palate: That cherry takes on a slightly tart and salted aura on the taste as the salted caramel leads to huge sticks of cinnamon bark, clove-studded oranges, and a smudging bundle full of wild sage, sweetgrass, and cedar bark.
Finish: Those smoldering botanicals linger on the finish as a soft cinnamon cake with salted toffee drizzle and a whisper of dark chocolate-covered espresso beans counter the rye dank.
This has a nice smoothness over all but it’s more smooth in the way jam can be rather than the way cream is. I guess that’s me saying this is more jammy than smooth.
Nose: The nose is a vanilla bomb with a sense of buttercream and salted caramel ice cream next to fresh dark berries, a hint of zucchini bread with walnuts and clove, and a mild sense of cedar cigar humidors.
Palate: The bark-heavy winter spices amp up on the palate as plums, peaches, and pears get stewed and lead to a sharp marmalade with a hint of salted dark chocolate-covered espresso beans next to coffee-laced tobacco with a whisper of black cherry.
Finish: The end leans into the spice and tobacco as the orchard fruit really amps up with a deep vanilla cake base cut with real vanilla pods and a light sense of old oak staves in a dusty cellar with a dirt floor.
This has some serious smoothness that’s countered by some serious aged depth (earthiness). It’s a great balance and just works.
Nose: The nose is classic with fresh cherry layered with nasturtiums, cinnamon sticks, and soft cedar planks just kissed with clove, nutmeg, and anise before light red peppercorns and brandy-soaked cherries dipped in salted dark chocolate kick in.
Palate: The palate follows the nose’s lead with a lush mouthfeel that’s full of spicy stewed fruits and ciders mixing with creamy vanilla and nutty bases over subtle chili pepper spiciness far in the rear of the taste.
Finish: The end pushed the woody spices toward an apple cider/choco-cherry tobacco mix with a cedar box and old leather vibe tying the whole taste together.
This is a very nice and very classic rye. I don’t know if I’d call it smooth though. There’s no creaminess but it is very softly hewn.
Nose: The nose is deeply nutty with a dark and worn leatheriness next to a soft sense of mild mushrooms, green banana, macadamia, and anise with a soft Kentucky cherry/vanilla/winter spice undertone.
Palate: The palate is lush and silky with a sense of vanilla oils, star fruit, clove, cinnamon bark, and nutmeg next to creamy nuttiness with a dash of toffee and alder planks.
Finish: The finish just lingers and lingers while slowly fading through vanilla buttercream, sour cherries tossed in maple sea salt, and moist marzipan cut with orange and pomelo oils.
This is like cream from top to bottom — even the nose is smooth and creamy. It’s also just pure silk with an incredible depth.
Nose: This nose opens up with a mix of resinous cedar, sharp rye spiciness, creamy vanilla, and a hint of fresh mint.
Palate: The taste delivers on those notes while folding in hints of dark cacao, savory fruits (think melon), and a crumbly buttermilk biscuit with a hint of maple syrup.
Finish: The end is pretty short and thin but does circles back around to that cedar and maple syrup with a tobacco edge and a touch of winter spice.
This is nice but tastes cheap (thin).
Nose: Soft old leather and meaty raisins with a good dose of creamy cinnamon cake cut with floral and fresh honey with a deep vanilla creaminess.
Palate: The palate is plummy and full of lush vanilla with a plum pudding vibe next to a hint of orange studded with cloves while soft nutmeg smoothes everything out.
Finish: The end brings the fresh honey back and laces it with rich and almost burnt orange oils next to a mix of old cedar bark and dry cinnamon wrapped in dry tobacco.
This is nice and silky but not quite as deep as some of the other lush ryes on the panel. It’s still very good though.
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 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 sweetness and spiciness coalesce on the finish with a deep sense of fruit orchards full of fall leaves and apple bark.
This is — again — very good. It has a smoothness to it but it’s overpowered by the earthiness and spice.
Nose: The nose is full of dark orchard fruits, soft vanilla pods, old oak staves with a hint of old barrel house funk, and a mix of spicy orange rind next to freshly cracked black pepper and sharp cinnamon powder.
Palate: The palate leans into the cinnamon and layers it into chewy and buzzy tobacco with hints of vanilla sweetness, cherry bark woodiness, and sharp fancy root beer vibes.
Finish: The end pings on that old musty rickhouse one more time as a humidor full of vanilla, cherry, and cinnamon-spiced tobacco fades towards a rich and buttery toffee with a hint of rye fennel on the very backend.
This is a good whiskey that balances woody depth and lush creaminess pretty well. It didn’t quite jump out but it got the job done.
Nose: The nose opens with dark fruit leather, dark black tea leaves, cinnamon bark, and a fistful of dry dill and marjoram with a whisper of salted caramel sweetness.
Palate: The palate has a grainy cinnamon toast vibe next to more of that dark black tea with a hint of clove-spiced plum jam, freshly cracked black pepper, and more of that salted caramel.
Finish: The plumminess drives the finish with a hint of cracked almond shell and dark dill next to fresh flat-leaf parsley and a touch of sweet-sour cherry packed in sawdust.
This was warm, grainy, and spicy. It’s straight-up delicious. I wouldn’t call it smooth though. This is much more in the “puts hair on your chest” category.
Part 2 — The Smooth Rye Whiskey Ranking
12. Bulleit 95 Rye Frontier Whiskey Straight American Rye Whiskey — Taste 8
Average Price: $34
Bulleit’s rye has a mash bill of 95% rye and 5% malted barley solely from MGP of Indiana. The rye is aged for four to seven years before blending, proofing, and bottling.
This was perfectly good whiskey. It just felt like the thinnest whiskey on this panel because it is. This really feels like a whiskey you build a cocktail with. Newbies conflate smoothness and thinness but our readers are past that level.
11. 291 All Rye 100% Rye Malt Colorado Whiskey Finished with Aspen Wood Staves — Taste 12
Average Price: $115
This Colorado whiskey is made with a 100% rye mash bill — 50% Colorado malted rye (from Root Shoot Malting) and 50% German rye malt — on a bespoke still. The hot juice is then aged in new oak with signature toasted aspen wood staves added to help refine the aging process. Finally, the barrels were batched and bottled 100% as-is, yielding only 1,000 bottles.
This was way too strong and hot to be called smooth. That said, this is a very tasty whiskey with a ton of depth. So if you’re looking for a bold AF whiskey with a kick, this is the play.
10. Knob Creek Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey Aged 7 Years — Taste 10
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.
This is another one that goes very deep but in a way that feels nostalgic and comforting. That said, it’s not smooth unless you add some ice or water to let the creaminess bloom in the glass (and this is a neat tasting panel — so that didn’t happen here).
That said, I would 100% use this to make a Manhattan tonight. It’ll be dope.
9. Bardstown Bourbon Company Origin Series Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey Finished in Toasted Cherry Wood and Oak Barrels — Taste 6
Average Price: $69
This whiskey — from Bardstown Bourbon Company’s own Origin Series — is their classic 95/5 rye that’s aged for almost five years. Then the whiskey is finished with alternating toasted American oak and toasted cherry wood staves in the barrel. Once the whiskey is just right, it’s batched, proofed, and bottled.
This has great depth and feels like a classic rye that delivers. Again though, I’d use this for cocktails more than as a sipper.
8. Stellum Rye The Lone Cypress — Taste 1
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 awesome team at Barrell Craft Spirits created the blend to accentuate woodier notes before it was bottled at cask strength.
While this did have a nice woody vibe (plenty of that spice was in there), there was a nice counterpoint of silky smoothness. It wasn’t a “grab you by the collar” whiskey but they don’t all have to blow your socks off. This is just good. I’d use it as a sipper over a lot of ice (to calm down that woodiness) or in a great whiskey-forward cocktail.
7. Hemingway Rye, 1st Edition A Blend Of Straight Rye Whiskeys Finished In Rum Seasoned Olorosso Sherry Casks — Taste 4
Average Price: $109
This whiskey is a unique one. The blend is made up of two whiskeys — 94% is a nine-year-old 95/5 (rye/malted barley) Indiana rye and 6% is a four-year-old 95/5 Kentucky rye. Those whiskeys were batched and then re-filled into a rum-seasoned Oloroso sherry cask for a final rest before batching, proofing, and bottling.
This is where we get into the smooth whiskeys that deliver serious depth. I’d still contend that leans a little more toward the wood finishing (which is fine) than smooth overall though. Plus, it’s a touch warm at the end, which may turn some off from the lushness. But just add a rock and this will shine.
6. Russell’s Reserve Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey Single Barrel — Taste 11
Average Price: $69
This hand-selected single-barrel expression hits on some pretty big classic rye notes with Kentucky bourbon vibes underneath it all. The whiskey is selected from the center cuts of the third through fifth floors of the Wild Turkey rickhouses. There’s no chill filtering and the expression is only slightly touched by water before bottling.
This was smooth, silky, and deep. It felt accessible. I can see this being a good end-of-the-day sipper as easily as making a killer Sazerac.
5. Jefferson’s Single Barrel Straight Rye Whiskey Finished in Cognac Casks — Taste 9
Average Price: $73
This release from Jefferson’s leans on masterfully selected barrel picks. The sourced whiskey is picked from single barrels of cognac-finished rye whiskey and bottled with a touch of proofing water.
This was not only smooth but it was complex. There was just more to the flavor profile and it all made sense. I wanted more of this. It also felt like it’d be a good pairing whiskey for a light and fresh meal.
4. Scarlet Shade Straight Rye Whiskey Aged 14 Years — Taste 5
Average Price: $199
The new Orphan Barrel from Diageo is a very rare release. The whiskey in the bottle is a 14-year-old rye that was distilled in Indiana and then left to age at the famed Stitzel-Weller Distillery in Louisville, Kentucky. Those barrels were batched and proofed before bottling.
This is smooth with a hint of earthiness to balance things out. It’s also so easy-going as a neat sipper.
3. E.H. Taylor, Jr. Straight Kentucky Rye Whiskey Bottled In Bond — Taste 3
Average Price: $349
This rye from Buffalo Trace is a beloved bottle. As with all Buffalo Trace whiskeys, the mash bill and exact aging are not known. It’s likely this is made from a mash of very high rye mixed with just malted barley, maybe. We do know that it is not the same mash bill as Buffalo Trace’s other rye, Sazerac.
This is where we blast off into outer space. This is freaking delicious, deep, and oh so silky.
2. Michter’s Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey 10 Years Old — Taste 2
Average Price: $260
2023’s Michter’s 10-Year release is another instant classic. The whiskey is made from a corn-rich rye whiskey mash bill with a good dose of barley in there. The absolute best barrels are chosen — with some up to 15 years old — for this release. Then each of those barrels is individually bottled as-is with a hint of proofing water.
This was pure velvet in a glass with a beautifully deep flavor profile that just kind of keeps going without sacrificing the creaminess at all. This is fantastic whiskey, period.
1. Rare Character Single Barrel Series Selected by ReserveBar Topflight Series Straight Rye Whiskey Finished in Jaqueira Casks — Taste 7
Average Price: $88
Japqueira is a Brazilian wood that most notably grows jack fruit and is used to age cachaça. The whiskey in the bottle is 95/5 rye from Indiana that’s then refilled into a Jacqueira barrel that previously held cachaça and let it rest in Kentucky for a spell. After four years and six months, ReserveBar bottled a single barrel 100% as-is.
This was creamy, silky, and lush from the nose to the finish. It was like drinking polished silk while also carrying an insanely deep flavor profile. This is world-class whiskey (not just rye). If I was asked, “What’s the smoothest rye is right now?” I’d name this without hesitation. An incredible value.
Part 3 — Final Thoughts on the Smooth Rye Whiskeys
There weren’t any bad whiskeys in this blind tasting. There were whiskeys that weren’t all that smooth though. If you are looking for smooth, you can skip the bottom three all together. If you’re looking for a touch of smoothness with more sharp rye character, grab numbers 9 through 4.
If you’re looking for amazing whiskey that’s as smooth as it’s deep and f*cking delicious, then any of the top three are going to scratch that itch. They’re all phenomenal whiskeys.