Rye whiskey is the peppery, hot-blooded sibling of American whiskey and bourbon. It’s defined by the dominance of rye grains — featuring a mash bill (recipe) with at least 51 percent rye, along with grains like malted barley, cereals like corn, and sometimes even wheat. An easy rule of thumb is the more rye in the mash bill, the more spice in the sip.
Rye is a unique spirit in that the burn isn’t so much to be avoided as to be savored. Rather than “smoothness” being the dominant note, there’s an extra layer of complexity to rye that makes it great for sipping and even better for mixing up in a mean cocktail. The addition of rye grains to the mash bill doesn’t only mean heat or peppery spice. There’s also a rich, sweet buttery undertone that can lean either towards burnt cream or fresh spring honey flavor.
The below five bottles of rye below will take you on a journey through the style. They’re the perfect bottles to have on hand if you want to take your guests through the highs of rye whiskey and learn a little something along the way. Let’s dive in!
BULLEIT STRAIGHT RYE WHISKEY
What to talk about: Bulleit’s Rye is the perfect introductory glass of rye for both your party guests as they walk through the door and the style in general. The mash bill is a mix of 95 percent rye grains alongside five percent malted barley. There’s an ease to the sip that doesn’t ask too much of the drinker but still hits on the nuances of this particular whiskey style. It’s also fairly inexpensive and easily sourced from pretty much any liquor store across the United States.
Tasting Notes: The first hit from Bulleit Rye is a refreshingly bright rush of slightly sweet cherry tobacco. Think more pipe smoke or even hookahs than cigarette tobacco. That meaty fruitiness gives way to a rush of mild pepper spice and that’s just about the end of the dram. There isn’t a lot of sweetness here besides echoes of honey, which feel more like a bourbon. Still, this one goes down very easy and is a great starter for your party guests.
OLD OVERHOLT RYE WHISKEY
What to talk about: Old Overholt Rye is an interesting whiskey. Its popularity in the mainstream soared by scoring a “medicinal license” during Prohibition, allowing it to flourish during the dark years. The mash bill is actually a bit of a secret but there’s a big rye presence with hints of corn and barley lurking in the background. This is an interesting whiskey to give as a sip and then mix into a cocktail (especially a Manhattan or Sazerac).
Tasting Notes: There’s a very interesting interplay between fruit and sweetness with this whiskey. You get a sense of a Cherry Coke with a shot of vanilla. Then an almost smoky oak barrel char bursts in, darkening everything. It’s a fascinating dichotomy of the light and the dark.
CROWN ROYAL NORTHERN HARVEST RYE
What to talk about: Canadian whisky gets far too little respect. That’s even more or a truism if we’re talking about Canadian Ryes, which tend to be beautiful representations of the style. Crown Royal’s Northern Harvest Rye is a 90-percent rye whisky that keeps winning awards and being lauded by the whiskey elite around the world. There’s some controversy about which batches are hitting the mainstream vs. the contest circuit, but for $30 the quality is undeniable. Take note, ye rye lovers — this bottle isn’t to be ignored.
This is the whisky that will forever change your guests’ opinions about Canadian whisky.
Tasting Notes: Fruit is the biggest surprise here. Ripe plums, juicy apricots, and spicy baked apples are at the forefront of the sip. There are hints of spearmint and oaky vanilla that never overpower the brightness of that fruit. Then a rush of baking spices with a focus on cinnamon arrives on the backend with an orange marmalade sweet bitterness that’d put a smile on Paddington’s face.
PEERLESS KENTUCKY STRAIGHT RYE WHISKEY
What to talk about: Okay, the party is winding down. Your guests are getting light headed. It’s time to bring everything back into sharp focus. Enter Peerless Rye. This is a powerhouse whiskey that isn’t cheap and not necessarily easy to find. There’s also a freshness to this whiskey thanks to a “sweet mash” instead of a “sour mash.” That means we’re dealing with a whiskey that uses new yeast with every batch, instead of passing down the mash like a sourdough starter.
Tasting Notes: There’s a lot going on here. At the front end, there’s a clear hit of bright spring spearmint, rye spiciness, fresh cedar, brown sugars, vanilla, and whispers of black licorice. That gives way to a Christmas cake spice and sweetness that leans towards nutmeg and cloves with a clear rye-peppery spice. That peppery nature leads to a burnt cream and rich toffee sweetness on the back end, leaving you with a complex sip of whiskey that’s sure to satisfy even the most refined guests.
WHISTLEPIG STRAIGHT RYE WHISKEY
What to talk about: Is WhistlePig Rye better than Peerless? Hard to say. This rye feels more like a crowd-pleasing encore. It’s a bit like The Rolling Stones coming back on stage after two-and-a-half hours and playing Paint It Black. No one is going to complain and everyone is going home really fucking happy. The blended rye is a mix of 100-percent rye from Canada (another reason not to diss on Canadian whiskies) and rye sown and grown in Indiana. It’s then blended, barreled, and aged at the WhistlePig farm up in Vermont until it reaches near perfect heights.
Tasting Notes: Cloves and orange are the biggest notes on the front end. The orange starts out as a bright zest and fades into a deep essential orange oil just as the rye spice kicks, keeping pace with the building vanilla oakiness. Soon, a nice worn leather and rich pipe tobacco rush arrive that leads to a buttery-rich toffee finish with an ever-so-distant note of bitter cocoa.
This is rye at its best. Your wallet might not love you for buying it, but your guests sure will.