Rye whiskey’s moment has arrived. The freewheeling category is seeing an impressive amount of innovation—and excellent bottlings to boot.
What’s the appeal? While the whiskey still needs to be made with at least 51% rye grain to call itself rye, so much else is open to interpretation—and distilleries are taking full advantage of that flexibility. Some producers are softening that rye with corn, barley or wheat, while others zip the amount of rye up to 100% for maximum spicy effect.
In addition, an increasing amount of attention has been paid to where and how that rye is grown, as producers make the case that the grain is particularly expressive. It’s the only American spirits category with terroir-specific designations: Empire (New York) rye, Minnesota and as of July 3, 2021, Indiana rye became part of the mix too. Of course, rye doesn’t need to be made in America; look to Canada for plenty of options. Scandinavian ryes provide some intrigue and are distinguished by rich flavors that suggested toasted pumpernickel and campfire-adjacent s’mores.
Rye-makers also continue to play with cask finishes to add extra layers of flavor. While a pair of high-scoring bottles (Milam & Greene, High West’s A Midwinter Night’s Dram) show that Port barrels can be a particularly harmonious partner for rye, a surprising quartet of rum-finished bottlings also illustrate how versatile the category can be. Of those four, the most notable is Barrell Seagrass, finished in barrels that previously held Martinique rum, which adds a bit of trademark funk and salinity to the cask-strength spirit.
Yet, perhaps the strongest signal of rye’s unstoppable ascent: In November 2021, a legacy blended Scotch maker trumpeted the arrival of a “High Rye Blended Scotch.” It boasts 60% rye as a key part of the blend, which is unusual for Scotch as it typically puts malted barley front and center. Seems like everyone wants a piece of rye whiskey right now.
A Midwinter Nights Dram, Act 9; $100, Drizly. The ninth annual release of this blend of straight rye whiskies, this year finished in ruby and tawny Port barrels, is as excellent as ever… SEE SCORE AND REVIEW
Barrell Seagrass; $90, Total Wine & More or Wine.com. This is a rye whiskey finished in casks that previously held Martinique rum, apricot brandy and Madeira, bottled at cask strength. The end result is intriguing and weird… SEE SCORE AND REVIEW
Elijah Craig Kentucky Straight Rye; $30, Total Wine & More. The complex aromas suggest red fruit, vanilla and allspice. The first sips open with oak, leading to hints of dried cherry and cranberry… SEE SCORE AND REVIEW
Jefferson’s Straight Rye Whiskey Finished in Cognac Casks; $70, ReserveBar or Total Wine & More. The mild aroma shows a hint of dried apricot, which is echoed on the drying palate. Adding water layers on toasted brioche… SEE SCORE AND REVIEW
Milam & Greene Port Finished Rye Whiskey; $50, Wine.com or Total Wine & More. Complex and enticing, this rich take on rye has a notably deep, ruddy hue, with toffee and red fruit aromas… SEE SCORE AND REVIEW
Old Hamer Cask Strength Rye; $40, Total Wine & More or Drizly. The concentrated caramel aroma, plus a hint of alcohol, makes the nose twitch. It’s clear from the first sip this is an overproof rye… SEE SCORE AND REVIEW
Redwood Empire Rocket Top Rye; $80, Winesearcher.com. Look for a concentrated crème brûlée aroma but a lighter flavor profile, mixing caramel, toasted brown sugar and a plummy note. There’s just enough toasty spice… SEE SCORE AND REVIEW
Stauning Rye; $80, Whisky Exchange. Complex and delicious, this deep-flavored rye opens with espresso, dark chocolate, and hints of campfire smoke and barrel char… SEE SCORE AND REVIEW
Whistlepig FarmStock Beyond Bonded Rye; $100, Total Wine & More. This whiskey is made with 100% rye grain harvested from Whistlepig’s Vermont farm, the grain-to-glass rye the producer has been working toward for years. Happily, it was worth the wait… SEE SCORE AND REVIEW
Wild Turkey Rare Breed Barrel Proof Rye; $60, Total Wine & More or Drizly. Mild almond and cinnamon aromas lead into cocoa and caramel on the surprisingly luscious, lip-smacking palate… SEE SCORE AND REVIEW
Woodford Reserve Rye; $35, Total Wine & More or Drizly or ReserveBar. This offers a classic rye profile. The rich vanilla fragrance leads to a relatively lean flavor profile, showing espresso, charred oak, unsweetened chocolate and clove. The finish is satisfyingly long… SEE SCORE AND REVIEW