That said, the amount of the rye in those bourbons does tend to vary. Some bourbons use maybe 10 or 15 percent rye against 75 to 80 percent corn in their “mash bill” (alongside a small percent of malted barley). Those would be considered “low-rye” bourbons. When bourbons use 20, 25, or even 30 percent rye in the mash, that’s high rye territory.
Very broadly speaking, high-rye bourbons tend to be a bridge between the softer and sweeter world of bourbons, and the greener and sharper world of rye whiskeys. These are the bourbons where you get a little more chili, winter spice, and, yes, pepperiness (white, black, and green pepper are common flavor notes). You might also get some herbal notes, hints of grassiness, and maybe some licorice or anise alongside the subtler bourbon vibes.
To decide on which high-rye bourbon to recommend the most… highly, I decided to pull some bottles off my shelf and blind taste them. The main rule was that each bottle had to have 20 percent or more rye in the mash bill. Beyond that, I’m simply ranking them based on taste.
- Old Grand-Dad Bonded (27 percent rye)
- Bulleit Bourbon (28 percent rye)
- Woodinville Cask Strength Bourbon (22 percent rye)
- Bradshaw Bourbon (21 percent rye)
- Basil Hayden’s 10 (27 percent rye)
- Four Roses Small Batch Select (Blend of 20 percent rye and 35 percent rye)
- FEW Bourbon (20 percent rye)
- Still Austin “The Musician” Cask Strength (25 percent rye)
Let’s see how this one shakes out!
Also Read: The Top 5 UPROXX Bourbon Posts Of The Last Six Months
Part 1: The Taste
This is “peppery” from the nose into the taste with hints of vanilla extract, winter spices, and suede rounding out that nose. The palate is all about a soft Christmas cake with more dark spices, orange zest, and light almonds. The mid-palate hits on a cherry cough drop sweetness and almost medicinal feel as dry cornmeal and a hint of green peppercorn linger on the short end.
This feels classic from the jump with a nose full of leather, spice, vanilla, oak, and caramel. The taste is on the thinner side with a clear sense of cinnamon next to vanilla pudding, a touch of apple tobacco, brown sugar, and dry cornbread. The finish leans into the warming spice and wet brown sugar with a hint of dry wicker on an ultimately thin end.
Leather, Almond Roca, orchards full of fruit, cherry bark, and soft spice greet you on the nose. Wintry spices mingle with dry vanilla husks, almond shells, and an almost sweet potting soil. The mid-palate takes on a slight cherry candy by way of a spicy tobacco vibe as it slowly fades out through the woodier aspects of that orchard on the nose.
This opens with Werther’s Originals and old library books, with a whiff of aftershave on the nose that’s oddly comforting. A soft spice drives the palate as dry reeds lead towards cherry toffee and apple candies. The spice warms slightly on the finish as the tobacco dries out and those reeds make a return.
Old cedar beams with cobwebs mingle with rich vanilla cake and eggnog spices next to a hint of potpourri on the nose. The palate has a woody maple syrup sweetness that’s countered by dark chocolate fudge, more of that old wood, and dash of white pepper. The finish leans into the pepper but ends pretty thin all things considered.
Old oak mixes with dried raspberries and cloves, all bound up in worn leather on the nose. Dark and tart berries drive the taste towards apricot jam with plenty of winter spices as a hint of fresh mint lurks in the background. Vanilla kicks in late and smooths things out while letting that jammy and fruity spice linger on the tongue the longest.
Cinnamon and allspice-heavy garam masala powder lead towards an old leather note, with ripe red apples, bruised peaches, and vanilla on the nose. The palate leans into the vanilla and battered peaches with a saltwater taffy wax wrapper vibe next to a spicy cedar humidor. The end arrives abruptly and the whole sip thins out and fades away fast leaving very little on the palate besides the wood.
Cedar leads to a dark chocolate-covered brandied cherry with hints of a dried mint and vanilla husk in the back end on the nose. The palate feels like dried blackberries floating in a vanilla cream sauce with a dusting of cinnamon. That spice leans towards dried chili flakes and the soft leather softens the whole sip towards a berry spice tobacco end.
Part 2: The Ranking
8. FEW Bourbon — Taste 7
Average Price: $49
FEW Spirits takes small-batch, hands-on distilling very seriously. The Evanston operation takes its time in sourcing quality ingredients and then takes even more time to assure those ingredients become fine whiskey. This is a grain-to-glass operation. FEW was also the first distillery to open in Evanston after prohibition and the master distiller was instrumental in helping to overturn the city’s century-old dry laws.
This fell apart at the end/on the finish. So here we are. There was so much potential that didn’t quite come together for me today. I guess that’s why it’s collecting dust on my shelf.
7. Bulleit Bourbon — Taste 2
Average Price: $33
Bulleit embraces a high-rye mash bill that’s comprised of 68 percent corn, 28 percent rye, and four percent malted barley. The juice is then rested for six years before blending, cutting down to proof, and barreling.
The lack of finish kind of killed this for me. There was more of a finish there than the previous bourbon, sure, but still, this feels like a good mixer and that’s about it.
6. Old Grand-Dad Bonded — Taste 1
Average Price: $20
This high-rye whiskey is aged for at least four years. The bonded barrels are then vatted according to the Old Grand-Dad flavor profile and bottled at 50 percent ABV, which lets a bit more of the juice shine in the bottle.
This was perfectly fine. It felt inexpensive but dialed in. There was no “wow factor” but there didn’t need to be. It’s a mixer after all.
5. Basil Hayden’s 10 — Taste 5
Average Price: $80
Basil Hayden’s 10 uses the same juice as Old Grand-Dad. This is aged longer and built to match a different flavor profile even though both brands use the same high-rye distillate. In this case, this is left alone for 10 long years before the team at Beam finds just the right barrels for this once-a-year bottling.
This was fine. It’s woody, sure. But there’s just something missing from this bourbon and I can’t quite put my finger on it.
4. Still Austin Cask Strength — Taste 8
Average Price: $61
Still Austin is getting a lot of love for their very crafty (and fruity) bourbon, The Musician. This is that, but at cask strength, and released as a limited offering. The juice in the bottle is a local grain-to-glass operation that utilizes the best grains and water Texas has to offer.
This was pretty damn nice. It’s miles ahead of the proofed-down version. Overall, I could see reaching for this bottle for an end-of-the-day pour over some rocks.
3. Bradshaw Bourbon — Taste 4
Average Price: $52
Bradshaw Bourbon is made by Green River Distilling Company in Owensboro, Kentucky. The bourbon is a collab between former Super Bowl champ Terry Bradshaw and Silver Screen Bottling Company, which acts as a sort of bottling fixer between a celebrity and a distiller or barrel house. The juice is a two-year-old bourbon made with 70 percent corn, 21 percent rye, and nine percent malted barley, proofed to a hefty 103.8.
I’m shocked this was number three. It’s so nostalgic on the nose and in the flavor profile. There isn’t a whole hell of a lot beyond that nostalgia but sometimes that’s enough for an on the rocks or mixing bourbon.
2. Four Roses Small Batch Select — Taste 6
Average Price: $64
This expression uses six of Four Rose’s 10 whiskeys in their small-batching process. The idea is to blend both high and very high-rye bourbons with yeast strains that highlight “delicate fruit,” “slight spice,” and “herbal notes.” The whiskeys tend to spend at least six years in the barrel before blending and proofing with just a touch of Kentucky’s soft limestone water.
This is a pretty damn good bourbon. That Four Roses dark fruitiness is engaging. Had this gone a little deeper on the funkiness of those berries and woody spices, it might have won the day. In the end, it was a great sipper that I kind of wanted to make a Manhattan with.
1. Woodinville Cask Strength Bourbon — Taste 3
Average Price: $70
Woodinville’s bourbon is aged for five years from a fairly standard high-rye mash bill. The ripple here is that all their grains are sourced locally in Washington state from a family farm. Those local grains help drive the beauty of this whiskey. This expression is that aforementioned five-year bourbon that hit just the right mark to be bottled at cask strength as-is.
Nuanced. Delicious. Accessible. This felt like the only true sipper on the list. It was delightful and a massive step up from everything after Four Roses on this list.
Part 3: Final Thoughts
That Bradshaw Bourbon continues to surprise. Sure, it’s a celebrity bourbon, but it feels unique and fascinating. That Still Austin Cask Strength was another nice surprise this time around. There’s real depth and it’s easy to see why so many folks are digging it.
At the end of the day though, Four Roses and Woodinville were in a different class. They both offered something completely different but revealed a whole lot of depth and nuance. I tend to lean more towards the Woodinville with the nutty/earthy/toffee vibe than Four Roses’ funky berries and spice, but that’s down to the time of day and the mood I’m in. Both were pretty much flawless today.