Rye whiskeys have changed a lot over the years. Based on a modern perspective (let’s not get into the historical styles of yesteryear), rye whiskeys have gone from “spicy!” to a nuanced whiskey style that layers in fruity Kentucky sweetness, herbal savoriness, fatty nuttiness, and grassy earthiness with all that “spice.” That, of course, is a broad brushstroke. But the point does exemplify how far rye whiskeys have come in the United States as a style over the last decade or so.
That leads me to ask the question, do the newer ryes outshine the classics (which, let’s be honest, always had way more going on than just “spicy” even back in the day)? I knew I had to do a blind tasting to answer that.
I grabbed the following bottles for today’s rye whiskey blind tasting:
- Bardstown Bourbon Company Origin Series Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey Finished in Toasted Cherry Wood and Oak Barrels (New)
- Catoctin Creek Rabble Rouser Rye Whiskey Bottled In Bond (Classic)
- Old Overholt Straight Rye Whiskey Aged 4 Years (New)
- Pikesville 110 Proof Straight Rye Whiskey (Classic)
- Rabbit Hole Boxergrail Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey (Classic)
- Russell’s Reserve Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey Single Barrel (Classic)
- Elijah Craig Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey (Classic)
- Michter’s Limited Release US*1 Barrel Strength Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey (New)
- Pursuit United Blended Straight Rye Whiskeys Finished in Sherry French Reserve Oak (New)
- George Dickel Leopold Bros. Collaboration Blend Column Still & Three Chamber Still A Blend of Straight Rye Whiskies (New)
This tasting is looking at the classic bottles that get regular releases throughout the year and new releases from brands that drop special releases once a year. All of the “new” ryes are whiskeys that dropped in the back half of 2022. All of the classics are stuff you can find on the shelf pretty much year-round. Though there is a crossover with the new Overholt 4-Year Rye which dropped last August but has become a standard-ish release.
Semantics aside, this is still about what tastes great. I’m going to rank these ryes on what pops, has the deepest flavor profile, and tastes really good. Sometimes, it’s that simple so let’s dive right on in!
Part 1: The Tasting
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 really good rye. It’s spiced but more toward florals with a fruity Kentucky vibe. It’s good, really good.
Nose: The nose opens with a deep and sweet red fruitiness that gives way to a light winter spice mix, some caramel, and maybe a hint of Cream of Wheat cut with brown sugar.
Palate: There’s a light but dark orange citrus vibe on the palate that leads to lemon pepper, vanilla pudding cups, and more of that winter spice with a dash of bitter espresso bean.
Finish: The espresso note drives the finish toward clove buds and cinnamon bark with a creamy porridge crafty sweetness counterpoint.
There was a twinge of craftiness (sweet grain porridge) that came through. Overall, this was nice.
Nose: Mild notes of dark powdered spices (think dusty cinnamon and nutmeg) mingle with a hint of dried honeysuckle and maybe some apple chips.
Palate: The taste has a black pepper sharpness with a hint of dark berry fruit leather next to drip coffee, vanilla creamer, and a touch of cinnamon.
Finish: The black pepper circles back on the finish with a hint of caramel and vanilla but not much else.
This was okay but basically had no finish. It’s clearly a rail whiskey for mixing drinks.
Nose: The nose pulls you in with a mix of dark cocoa powder packed into a cedar box with a touch of rye bread, caraway seed, and salted butter with this thin line of spiced honey.
Palate: The taste leans into clove and salted black licorice with that spiced honey leaning a little floral next to a touch of dry singed cedar bark.
Finish: The end mellows significantly towards a vanilla pudding spiked with eggnog spices and a touch more of that dark chocolate shaved overtop with a hint of spiced caramel sauce.
This is pretty damn good whiskey. It’s complex and tastes really nice.
Nose: This has an interesting nose that’s part spicy pork stew (chili, umami, fat) with bright peaches, vanilla, and summer wildflowers as a counterpoint.
Palate: The palate has a hint of old cedar next to cream soda, white pepper, and crusty rye bread with a hint of caraway seed and maybe some dry fennel.
Finish: The finish brings in heavily spiced chewy tobacco packed into an old cedar box with creamy vanilla and a dash more of that powdery white pepper.
This is also very good. It leans into the vegetal notes with plenty of fresh and fun flavors.
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.
Okay, this is a clear and huge step up from every other pour so far. It’s deep, delicious, and perfectly balanced.
Nose: There’s a real sense of a dark chocolate bar that’s cut with dried chili and a touch of cinnamon that draws you in.
Palate: The palate mellows that spice into a Christmas spice mix while a honey sweetness and texture lead towards sweet oak and the slightest wisp of pipe tobacco smoke.
Finish: The finish takes its time as those spices keep your senses warm and buzzing on the slow fade.
This is nice but there’s a lightness here that isn’t so much cheap as just a tad thinner. It feels like another cocktail base whiskey more than a sipper. It’s something you build with instead of sipping on.
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.
And we’re back up in the clouds. This is another stellar pour that’s just better, deeper, and tastier all around. It’s a little hotter than pour six, but just as complex.
Nose: There’s a sense of dark fruits — black cherry, dates, rum raisin — on the nose that leads to soft and sweet oak next to worn leather, mulled wine, and brandy-soaked fig cut with nutmeg and clove.
Palate: The taste is more on the woody side of the spice with a clear sense of old-school mulled wine with sweet vanilla and star anise over orange rinds and raisins with a slight chili warmth underneath.
Finish: The chili warmth drives the finish toward a soft red-wine-soaked oak that’s spiced with orchard barks and fruits next to vanilla/cherry tobacco just kissed with dark chocolate.
This is really good too. It’s a little lighter but that just makes it an easy slow sipper. I like this a lot.
Nose: The nose has clear notes of bright florals next to a hint of porridge cut with maple syrup with a very mild dusting of dark cacao powder and soft leather.
Palate: The palate opens with touches of holiday-spiced orange oils and rosewater leading towards light marzipan next to a prickly bramble of berry bushes hanging heavy with dark, sweet, and slightly tart fruit.
Finish: The mid-palate holds onto the sweet and meaty date while bitter yet floral Earl Grey tea with a healthy dollop of fresh honey leads towards a finish full of more of that powdery dark cacao just touched by dry chili flakes, adding a slight warmth to the backend.
This is a pretty strong entry that balances the florals and sweetness well with the craftier notes and classic dark spiciness on the finish.
Part 2: The Ranking
10. Old Overholt Straight Rye Whiskey Aged 4 Years — Taste 3
Average Price: $22
This new version of Old Overholt adds a year to the standard age statement while taking it back to the original version from back in 1942. The whiskey in the bottles is from Jim Beam but they don’t disclose the exact mash bill.
This was fine but clearly a mixer. And I mean that as a mixer with Coke, ginger ale, bubbly water, or big and fruity cocktails. Use it as one.
9. Elijah Craig Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey — Taste 7
Average Price: $32
This is a subtle rye whiskey. The mash bill only has 51% rye grains next to 35% corn and 14% barley. The hot juice is then aged for several years before being blended, proofed, and bottled with no age statement.
8. Rabbit Hole Boxergrail Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey — Taste 5
Average Price: $52
This crafty distillery makes its rye with 95% rye and malted barley right in Louisville (and via contract distilling). The 95/5 rye hot juice is aged for three years in heavily toasted and charred barrels before vatting, proofing, and bottling.
This is a classic feeling Kentucky rye with a nice balance of sweetness and spice. I’d definitely reach for this more as a cocktail base, but I can see it being perfectly fine over some rocks too.
7. Catoctin Creek Rabble Rouser Rye Whiskey Bottled In Bond — Taste 2
Average Price: $96
This modern classic from Catoctin Creek is made from a 100% rye mash. The juice is distilled at a lower proof, which lets the graininess shine through in the end product, which is aged for four years before blending, proofing, and bottling.
This was a nice, crafty rye whiskey (thanks to that sweet porridge graininess). It’s good if you’re looking for something outside the box a bit as a cocktail mixer or easy sipper over a fair amount of ice.
6. George Dickel Leopold Bros. Collaboration Blend Column Still & Three Chamber Still A Blend of Straight Rye Whiskies — Taste 10
Average Price: $109
The blend is built from four-year-old rye made in Denver at Leopold’s distillery in their bespoke three-chamber column still. The mash bill is 80% Abruzzi Rye and 20% Leopold Floor Malt. That’s blended with George Dickel’s un-released new column still rye, which is a 95% rye cut with five percent malted barley.
This has a great balance of crafty and classic in every sip. It’s a little outside of the box, which is to its benefit. Still, this feels like a great candidate for killer cocktails that works as an on the rocks sipper in a pinch.
5. Bardstown Bourbon Company Origin Series Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey Finished in Toasted Cherry Wood and Oak Barrels — Taste 1
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 is where we get into the good stuff. This felt like a great classic Kentucky rye with the perfect balance of dark fruity sweetness, earthiness, and spiciness. It’s an easy everyday sipper and will make a mean cocktail.
4. Pikesville 110 Proof Straight Rye Whiskey — Taste 4
Average Price: $49
This is a real throwback rye whiskey. Pikesville Rye was at the center of the Maryland rye whiskey scene until Prohibition put it in the grave. Heaven Hill saved the brand and moved the production to Kentucky while holding onto the juice’s traditions of longer aging and higher proofing.
This was just good. It’s super accessible on the palate and nose while offering a nice profile overall. I’d like to make Manhattans with this all day or sip it over some rocks.
3. Pursuit United Blended Straight Rye Whiskeys Finished in Sherry French Reserve Oak — Taste 9
Average Price: $75
This brand-new rye from the team over at Bourbon Pursuit is a masterful blend. The juice is hewn from Bardtown Bourbon Company 95/5 Kentucky rye batched with two Sagamore Spirit ryes — one a 95/5 and one 52/43/5 rye/corn/malted barley. Those whiskeys are batched and re-barreled into a French sherry reserve cask for a final rest before batching, proofing, and bottling.
This really hit nicely today. It’s deep and fun with a fresh vibe while still feeling a little classic. It’s a tad lighter than the next two entires, but that just made it an easier sipper.
2. Michter’s Limited Release US*1 Barrel Strength Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey — Taste 8
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.
This was another great whiskey. It’s so deeply hewn with a great flavor profile. It was a tad warm on the mid-palate, so it missed number one today. But that just means that you need a rock or to mix this into a great old fashioned or Sazerac.
1. Russell’s Reserve Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey Single Barrel — Taste 6
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 very clearly the winner today. It had a perfect balance of sweetness and spice that just led to more and more as you tasted it again and again. It also felt like the quintessential slow-sipping whiskey that’d f*cking rule in a Manhattan.
Part 3: Final Thoughts
The top three whiskeys on this list are all essential buys. Hell, the top five are. Go out and get anyone of them and you’ll have a great rye whiskey on your bar cart.
I think you know that if you press me, I’ll tell you to get a case of Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Rye. It’s amazingly well-priced and just delicious. It’s a winner that you should be able to find and enjoy right now.