Rye whiskey means a lot of things. Sadly for most folks, it only means one thing: peppery spice. That is, in part, due to MGP’s 95 percent rye mash bill dominating the modern rye scene with everyone from WhistlePig to Bulleit to Redemption to Templeton (and many more) all pulling their juice from the same source.
In reality, rye whiskey is so much more than white pepper driven spice. Savory herbs, orchard fruits, dry woods, anise, and licorice are all relatively common flavor notes, depending on the aging and exact mash bill. Today, we’re aiming to illuminate that fact with this blind tasting of 12 (!) rye whisk(e)ys from the U.S. and Canada.
This blind tasting and ranking is pretty straightforward. I’m tasting 12 ryes and ranking them by which ones taste the best and (crucially) which I want to drink again. Price is not a factor and neither is availability. A couple of these will be out of reach, but I really tried to make the list a group of ryes you can find and, most likely, afford. Click on the prices if the bottle feels like the one for you.
We have a lot to cover, so let’s dive in.
Part 1: The Taste
There’s a sweet but spicy apple up top with hints of vanilla and honey. The taste is slightly oaky, a little peppery, and has a note of dried fruit. It’s very mellow and … just fine. It’s easy for sure.
This is completely different from Taste 1, with notes of licorice next to apple with a bit of spice at the end of the nose. The taste has a dose of vanilla next to apricot that builds towards raisins. Going back to the nose, there’s a hint of dill popping in with a little bit of a savory fig.
Interesting. I don’t know what this is but I kind of dig it.
There’s a dry straw note next to mild toffee with a hint of sweet but old oak on the nose. The taste leans into bitter dark chocolate with a touch of spiced apple and caramel while still holding onto that old-yet-sweet oak. It’s goddamn delicious on each of those notes and so clear.
There’s an interesting build on the end — this gets really hot as it (very slowly) fades out.
This is nice. There’s a savory note that’s maybe dill or pumpkin next to toffee and dried fruit. On the taste, there’s a real sense of cinnamon-infused dark chocolate with notes of Christmas spice, creamy vanilla, and a mild tobacco chew.
Okay… This is kind of wild.
There’s a nose of vanilla next to licorice that leads to … Lysol. Not in a bad way, per se. But, it’s 100 percent on the nose. The taste has none of that and is light, velvety, full of spiced chocolate, and caramel. The end has a light tobacco chew with a mild spicy edge.
Sadly, I just can’t get past that aerosol note on the nose.
Orange soda leads towards a clear note of dill and… it works. This is really unique. The taste is this mix of rich toffee, creamy vanilla, and soft cedar. It’s ultra-velvet and has this light touch of powdery spice on the very end.
Please drink water, folks.
A nose of oak, cherry, vanilla pudding, and mild spice … this has to be from Beam. The taste has this beautiful balance of peppery spice with vanilla cream that it almost feels like a high-rye bourbon — kind of like a sibling to Old Grand-Dad. There’s a musty chocolate edge near the end and the finish leaves you with a fine tobacco spicy buzz.
There’s this opening of cedar that leads to, I swear, firecracker black powder. This is f*cking wild and I love it. There’s also a sense of savory fruit (think pumpkin) on the end of the nose that just works with that black gunpowder and cedar. The taste is a cream vanilla — nearly a mint ice-cream — with hints of Christmas spices next to sweet yet spicy caramel apples on the very end.
I wrote, “WOW” in my tasting notes.
This is wild and unique again! There’s this grassy note that leads to dry reeds that then leads to dry pine boards with dill and toffee all popping off on the nose. That woodiness mellows to a cedar on the palate with a honeyed pear body and a mildly cinnamon spicy twinge next to … chocolate mints.
What’s amazing is as this fades away very slowly. You’re left with this extremely clear sense of freshly cracked black peppercorns. It’s great.
There’s a dill note next to wet cedar, a hint of vanilla, and, I think, cherry candy. The taste is full of cream soda with tart red berries and a savory fruit vibe. The end gets peppery, leading towards dark chocolate infused with chili pepper. It really works and feels like absolute silk.
There’s a clear sense of toffee right away next to a rummy edge with a hint of spicy oak. The taste is so goddamn mild while still popping off with notes of sharp Red Hots, orange oils, and vanilla creaminess. The end amps up the spice with a rich tobacco chewiness while ending on the slightest note of sweet red berry.
This opens with caramel, cherry, vanilla, oak, and maybe a touch of pear. This smells like bourbon. That cherry becomes a cherry candy while the vanilla holds onto the middle of the taste … Okay, this is Jim Beam. But it really feels like I’m being tricked becasue this tastes like their higher-end bourbon.
The taste has a mild heat but it’s really the cherry and vanilla that shine the brightest.
Part 2: The Ranking
12) Jim Beam Prohibition Rye (Taste 12)
Average Price: $22
This rye was designed by the master himself — Master Distiller and whiskey legend Fred Noe — as a return to the bigger and bolder days of rye before Prohibition defanged a lot of the industry and its recipes. The juice is a throwback recipe to the 1920s version of Beam’s rye, giving the whiskey a fruitier and spicer edge in the process.
I honestly didn’t think this was rye, hence its ranking as last. I did really like it though, because it was so easy to drink, light, and flavorful. Still, if you’re looking for big, bold rye, this is the furthest you can get from that on this particular list.
11) Basil Hayden’s 10-Year-Old Rye (Taste 5)
Average Price: $78
This is Beam’s high-end brand and their high-end rye within that brand. The barrels are the ones that made it to ten years and hit just the right marks of flavor and texture to be batched, proofed down to a very accessible 80 proof, and bottled.
This was nice, though light. That Lysol note was wild and only grew as I nosed more after sipping. I don’t know where it came from but it was there. I really like this rye, in general, but I almost always drink it on the rocks.
10) Rittenhouse Bottled-in-Bond Rye (Taste 4)
Average Price: $28
Haling from Heaven Hill’s stills and warehouses, this rye is very much a bourbon drinker’s rye. The mash bill is only 51 percent rye with 37 percent corn, and 12 percent malted barley. The juice then matures under the federal regulations allowing it to be “bottled-in-bond” and is barely proofed down to 100 proof with that soft Kentucky limestone water before bottling.
This was good. But there was nothing that popped. I can see using this bottle as a great rye cocktail mixer for Sazeracs.
9) Bulleit Rye (Taste 1)
Average Price: $32
Indiana’s MGP rye is one of the most popular ryes on earth. Their rye is has a mash bill of 95 percent rye and five percent malted barley. The juice is aged for four to seven years at MGP before blending, proofing, and bottling by Bulleit at their warehouse.
This was a nice, easy opening. Though it rang kind of sweet and thin but in a good way. This feels like a great mixer and an occasional on the rocks dram.
8) Pinhook Rye’d On (Taste 2)
Average Price: $40
Pinhook is a blendery that’s creating some high-quality whiskeys. They source their rye from MGP’s iconic 95 percent rye mash bill juice. In this case, they’re taking hand-selected barrels and blending and proofing them according to their desire, creating a wholly unique expression with an all-too-well-known base product.
This was such a departure from the first taste that I didn’t really know where to put it. And that’s wild since both juices are from MGP! Still, this felt a little more advanced and hit a little nicer today than the first taste (Bulleit).
7) Sazerac 18 Antique Collection 2020 (Taste 3)
Average Price: $1,100
This iconic rye from Buffalo Trace pulls the focus from the Kentucky corn and places it on that Minnesota rye. The juice then spends 18 long years mellowing in heavily charred oak on one floor of one warehouse at Buffalo Trace. 76.9 percent of the whiskey is lost to evaporation over that time, leaving a concentrate that’s then filtered down to 90 proof.
This was tasty but, f*ck, it was hot. All those notes that made it so beautiful were burned out of my senses as it faded, leaving me just with heat. I know this works amazingly with water or a rock but as a taster, it was just too hot.
Still… the build of this dram is so, so good that I can forgive that final note of heat. Hence the solid B+.
6) Alberta Premium Cask Strength (Taste 10)
Average Price: $80
The rye comes from the Alberta prairies for the 100 percent rye mash bill. The grist (milled rye grains) is then married with Rocky Mountain glacial water for fermentation. The spirit is then barrelled and left to mature for an undisclosed amount of time. The results are blended and bottled with zero fussing at cask strength, giving this whisky a real depth and sense of those chilly plains, mountains, and barrels from Alberta.
This beloved award winner was … nice. It was complex rye but nothing jumped out and grabbed me. Still, amazingly drinkable.
5) Knob Creek Rye (Taste 7)
Average Price: $35
This is another bourbon drinker’s rye with a mash bill that’s believed to be only 51 percent rye (which is likely the same for the Basil Hayden’s above). This rye, however, is batched and proofed at a higher ABV, 50 proof, allowing more of the barrel to shine through.
This had a huge heavy-rye bourbon vibe, but in a really accessible way. It was super easy drinking but still lets you know that you’re drinking rye — with the comfort of a “bourbon home” to fall back on.
4) Michter’s Single Barrel Rye 10 (Taste 11)
Average Price: $200
Michter’s 10-year rye is a classic. The juice in this bottle is hand-selected from single barrels to represent the essence of a subtle yet delicious rye whiskey. It’s then just proofed with soft water and bottled.
We’re already starting to split hairs with the next two entries. This is great, really. It’s so goddamn easy to drink while still imparting a sense of “rye whiskey” that it’s hard not to love.
3) Woodford Reserve Rye (Taste 9)
Average Price: $40
This whiskey was a long time coming. Master Distiller Chris Morris tinkered with this recipe for nine years before it was just right. The juice has a fairly low-rye mash bill — for a rye, that is. The bill only calls for 53 percent of the spicy grain. The rest is made up of local corn and malted barley. The whiskey then spends up to seven years maturing at their Versailles, Kentucky facility before its blended, proofed with soft limestone water, and bottled.
This started off very rye-forward and then kept growing and deepening on every subsequent nose and sip. It really is just great and feels like it denotes everything rye can be. That pop of black pepper, like, a minute after the end of the sip was wild and applause-worthy (I was also nine drams deep and really, ahem, feeling it too).
2) Lot 40 (Taste 6)
Average Price: $45
Lot 40 is Canada’s Hiram Walker Distillery’s signature rye. The mash bill is 100 percent rye with 90 percent comprising of standard Canadian rye and the remaining ten percent malted Canadian rye. The recipe goes back to the 1700s and keeps things simple in aging, proofing, and bottling, allowing the rye grains to take center stage.
This kind of came out of nowhere and really shined brightly. It’s so smooth and easy to drink while still clearly hitting notes that make it stand out as a unique whiskey. I tried it on the rocks after and it got even better with notes of cedar, chili-chocolate, and savory fruit.
1) Wild Turkey Rye 101 (Taste 8)
Average Price: $40
Wild Turkey’s signature rye benefits from the brand’s signature moves in making all their whiskey. The juice is matured for around six years in heavily charred “alligator” barrels. That heavy char and longer aging imbues a lot into the whiskey before it’s batched, lightly proofed down to 101 proof, and bottled.
This is the only dram that I wrote, “Wow” next to. It stood out so clearly from the rest of the pack while also being a really f*cking delicious whiskey in general. But it also felt like it was “rye.” It was more than bourbon, had unique and engaging flavors, and was really, really crushable.
Part 3: Final Thoughts
There were a lot of great whiskeys on the dock today. But in the end, nothing even came close to Wild Turkey in sip-ability, uniqueness, and depth. It was a surprise (especially for a dram I know pretty well) and stood out the most. I’ll be drinking more of that this weekend, for sure.
That being said, the Lot 40 (which I haven’t tasted in easily a year or two) really popped in a way that was extremely accessible while also packing some seriously beautiful flavor notes.
Overall, this exercise was illuminating. I think we all get a little bogged down in rye=spice. And that’s just … wrong. Rye is a wide-ranging style that can hit so many great and unique notes that we need to stop pigeonholing into a “spicy” corner. If you take anything from this massive blind test, let it be that.
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