Willett Rye is often considered one of the best rye whiskeys you can have on your shelf. The small-batch and high-proof whiskey comes with a lot of hype around it, thanks to Willett’s craftsmanship (and marketing). People line up to collect bottles of Willett bourbon and rye and the bottles often disappear from shelves as soon as they show up. (Get to know your local liquor store owners, fam!)
For this blind tasting, I’m putting Willett Rye up against nine other well-known and fairly accessible rye whiskeys. I’m choosing a few standard bottles and a few absolute bangers to really push whether or not Willett is all hype or does indeed deliver.
Our lineup today is:
- Sagamore Spirit Rye
- Woodford Reserve Rye
- Pursuit United Rye
- Barrell Seagrass
- Hudson Whiskey NY Back Room Deal
- Willett Rye
- Catoctin Creek Cask Proof
- Woodinville 100% Rye Finished With Toasted Applewood Staves
- Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Travelers Bold & Spicy Tennessee Straight Rye Whiskey
- Smooth Ambler Contradiction Rye
Let’s see where Willett lands!
Part 1: The Taste
There’s a clear winter spice on the nose that’s supported by orange oils, candy-coated walnuts, and tomato paste (I swear). The palate opens with a dried orange vibe next to eggnog spiciness and creaminess with more candied nuts. There’s a vanilla cookie note near the end with plenty of soft brown sugar on an ultimately short and thin end.
This opens with notes of fresh leather next to rich toffee that then veers into dried mint and dill with a hint of dry grass that’s almost piney on the nose. The taste starts sweet, with a pear candy note and a hint of honey that leads towards a woody cinnamon spice dusted with dark chocolate powder. The finish leans into dry reeds and black peppercorns. You get a final hint of cherry candy on the very end.
This opens with a clear leathery note that leads towards a cinnamon-stewed cherry compote with a hint of nutmeg next to a little caramel, buttery streusel, and vanilla extract. That spicy cherry carries over to the palate as wet wicker leads to Granny Smith apple peels and sweet spice. The finish leans into the woodiness with applewood that’s sweetened by a note of brown sugar and winter spice.
Apple and cherry candies lead to a big leathery note with Wether’s Originals and a touch of peach pits next to an echo of dried roses on the nose. The palate tumbles through ripe peaches, pear candies, and savory wedges of melon with a bitter note of grapefruit sneaking in. The mid-palate fruitiness shifts towards a finish full of dry fennel seeds, fresh dill sprigs, and a hint of almost oily thyme with a cinnamon tobacco warmth and chew.
This starts with a light pear that turns into smoked apricot and maybe almonds on the nose. That smoked apricot carries over into the taste as menthol tobacco drives the palate towards vanilla-laced streusel, fruity spice, and deep barrel char. The end sort of disappears and leaves you with a red apple peel vibe with a hint of smoked char.
Apple blossoms, dry oak, and buttered popcorn open this one as layers of fresh and floral honey leads to caramel apples and a hint of soft leather. The palate is pure silk countered by a spicy cherry syrup, vanilla cream, and a touch of minty tobacco. The mid-palate dances between anise and caramel before landing on Tellicherry peppercorns, and a gentle cherry tobacco vibe.
Sticky toffee pudding with rich caramel sauce greets you on the nose alongside hints of roasted almonds and suede. The palate is plummy with prunes, figs, and dates that lead towards a rich and buttery toffee that’s just touched with dark cacao powder. There’s a maple syrup vibe near the end that helps usher in vanilla paste and spicy tobacco on the very end.
Dark red berries, tart stewed apples, kiwi skins, and a fruit basket with thin wooden staves and golden plastic foil draw you in on the nose. Orange peels spiked with cloves lead to a hint of white pepper before apple candy and pear juice take over. The finish relishes in the apple candy as a vanilla cream pie with a lard crust leads back towards woody apple tobacco on the very end.
This opens with a big note of sassafras and clove before mixing in Necco Wafers, old leather, caramel candy wrappers, and a touch of earthy moss or soil that has this faint layer of dried chili flake and cumin underneath of it. The palate opens dry dill and mint with white pepper that fades into a peaches and cream vibe with a hint of oily vanilla, almonds, and rich and chewy apple tobacco. The finish spices up that apple tobacco slightly and ends with a black truffle note.
Leather and stewed cherries open this one with hints of woody cinnamon, vanilla pods, and dried flowers. The palate holds onto that woody cinnamon and adds a cedar box full of cinnamon tobacco with hints of orange and vanilla oils in the background. The mid-palate hits on an Almond Joy note before veering into a cherry-chocolate tobacco note with a light touch of cedar on the end.
Part 2: The Ranking
10. Hudson Whiskey NY Back Room Deal Rye — Taste 5
Average Price: $62
This whiskey dropped late last year and has been getting a lot of attention this year on the award’s circuit. The juice in the bottle is Hudson’s three-year rye. That whiskey is then finished in their former bourbon barrels that Hudson sent to Scotland to age peated malt in. Those barrels were later sent back to New York so that this whiskey could finish aging in them.
That hint of barrel char was interesting. But this was just a little too thin compared to the other ryes on this list. Still, this is a really interesting sip of whiskey. Alas… sometimes interesting isn’t enough to breakthrough.
9. Woodford Reserve Rye — Taste 2
Average Price: $33
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 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 was very solid but really felt more like a mixing rye for cocktails than a sipper. It was perfectly fine, complex, and tasty — don’t get me wrong — still, I’ll be reaching for this when making my next Manhattan and probably not my next sipper pour.
8. Sagamore Spirit Rye — Taste 1
Average Price: $43
This Maryland whiskey (though part of it is still sourced from Indiana) is two rye mash bills that are put together for maximum ryeness. The low and high rye whiskeys are aged four to six years before vatting. The juice is then proofed with limestone water from a Maryland ahead of the bottling.
This was pretty damn nice (I can see sipping this neat without any issues). I think it fell a little flat today simply because of the low ABVs. Had I inserted the Cask Strength expression here, it’d have likely faired way better.
7. Smooth Ambler Contradticiton Rye — Taste 10
Average Price: $43
This new release from Smooth Ambler mixes some very interesting whiskeys together. The blend is two Tennessee ryes (one 70 percent rye, one 51 percent rye), MGP’s 95 percent rye, and Smooth Ambler’s own rye which has a mash bill of 88 percent rye. Those whiskeys are then blended, proofed, and bottled in the hills of West Virginia.
This was solid but certainly felt like a cocktail rye more than a sipper. That’s not a bad thing. It’s refined and bold. I’d also pour this over some rocks and be perfectly content too.
6. Pursuit United Rye — Taste 3
Average Price: $65
This release is a blend of whiskeys from Kentucky and Maryland (which is the source of America’s rye whiskey heritage). The Kentucky rye is from Bardstown Bourbon Company (a 95 percent rye), which is contract distilling and aging whiskey for Pursuit United. The other rye is from Maryland’s famed and beloved Sagamore Spirit (a 52 percent rye), which makes some of the best ryes in the country.
Kenny Coleman and Ryan Cecil took barrels from each warehouse and masterfully married them to create this expression with a touch of water to bring the proof down a notch.
This was the first really solid sip of the blind tasting. I dig this a lot but it just didn’t quite go as far as some of the other ryes on this list. That all being said, this felt like the first true sipper of the mix — a bottle that I probably wouldn’t use in a cocktail.
5. Catoctin Creek Roundstone Rye Cask Proof — Taste 7
Average Price: $78
This Virginia whiskey is made from 100 percent rye grains sourced from local farms. The juice matures for at least two years in Virginia before barrels are hand-selected for their brilliance. That whiskey then goes into the bottles with no filtering or cutting with water.
This was a fine dram of whiskey. There was enough depth that I’d definitely reach for this for a neat or on the rocks pour. It was also bold enough in the ABVs that I can see using this in a very nuanced cocktail too.
4. Woodinville 100% Rye Finished With Toasted Applewood Staves — Taste 8
Average Price: Unavailable
Woodinville’s 100% Rye is a multi-award-winning whiskey. A couple of years ago, they created this distillery-only expression of that rye that celebrates Washington state’s biggest crop: apples. They added toasted applewood staves into the finishing barrels and let it rest until it was just right.
That whiskey was then vatted, proofed, and bottled for the distillery store.
I’d have put money on me putting this at number one. Anyone who reads my reviews knows that I’m ride or die for Woodinville’s whiskeys. All of that aside, this was a really good whiskey all around with a unique flavor profile and serious depth.
3. Willett Family Estate Bottled Small Batch Rye — Taste 6
Average Price: $70
This whiskey from Willett is certainly a fascinating rye. The whiskey is a blend of Willet’s high rye mash bill of 74 percent rye, 15 percent malted barley, and eleven percent corn with their low rye mash of 51 percent rye, 34 percent corn, and 15 percent malted barley. That juice is then aged for at least two years before blending and bottling at cask strength.
Well, there you go. Willett came in third and it honestly wasn’t that close. At the end of the day, this was a bourbon lovers’ rye that’s freaking delicious and pure velvet. But it’s only “classic” and nothing more.
Sometimes that’s enough to win. Sometimes it’s not.
2. Barrell Seagrass — Taste 4
Average Price: $86
The juice in this limited edition bottle is a combination of rye whiskeys from Indiana, Tennessee, and Canada. Those whiskeys were aged in Martinique rhum, rhum agricole, apricot brandy, and Madeira casks before vatting at Barrell in Kentucky.
The idea was to harness the flavors of wood that aged juice next to the sea to bring that coastal x-factor into the blending process for this rye whiskey.
There was a small part of me hoping that this would beat out Willett and here we are! In fact, I would have put money on this hitting number one. It’s so fruity and floral and just goddamn delicious. This is a stellar sipper.
1. Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Travelers Bold & Spicy Tennessee Straight Rye Whiskey — Taste 9
Average Price: $34 (Heineman Travel Shops Only)
This is Jack Daniel’s essential Tennessee Rye Whiskey at a higher ABV. This whiskey has a mash bill of 70 percent rye, 18 percent corn, and 12 percent malted barley. The spirit is then rested in Jack’s vast warehouses until it hits just the right mark to be bottled as the limited-edition “Bold & Spicy” rye.
There’s a big part of me that can’t believe this was my number one. Then I remember how much I like Jack Daniel’s rye in general and it all starts to make more sense. Anyway, this had the most depth by far with those serious umami/earthy notes layered throughout, along with more classic green herbal rye notes.
Part 3: Final Thoughts
Score one for Jack. I love Jack’s rye expressions but would never have thought they’d beat out some of these big-name ryes so easily. For me, today (caveats abound!), it really wasn’t even that close.
Still, the top five came down to fruity and unique ryes (Seagrass and Woodinville), a super deep and layered rye (Jack), and more classic bourbon-adjacent ryes (Willett and Catoctin Creek). That’s the gamut of American rye whiskey right there. You really can’t go wrong with any of those drams. Plus, there’s really something for any whiskey drinker when you look at how diverse these bottles are.
When it comes to Willett Rye, I can see why it’s so popular. It’s really close to bourbon in the flavor department and hits that out of the park. But there’s so much more to rye whiskey than following bourbon or just being spicy. And by that measure, it is easily beaten.