You’d be forgiven for balking at the idea of “smooth” rye whiskey. The grain-forward American version of the spirit is purposefully built to be sharper, earthier, and more loaded with herbal/floral vibes. Those don’t always bring “smooth AF” to mind like, say, “vanilla buttercream” or “lush marzipan” — two notes you might uncover while sipping a corn-fueled bourbon whiskey.
But as will all things in this crazy ol’ world of ours, rye is not a monolith. There are amazingly smooth American rye whiskeys out there, folks, and I’m here to help you find them.
Below, I’m conducting a blind taste test of newer rye whiskeys that are all under $100 to find the “smoothest” of them all. What do I mean exactly when I say “smooth”? A smooth whiskey is soft, lush, and polished without any rough edges. It’s easy to drink but also must have real depth with a fully rounded flavor profile without burning your senses or leaving you dry. It has to take you somewhere when you nose and sip without making you feel like you’re chewing on firewood or burning spice.
To find those beautifully smooth ryes, I grabbed some I knew were smooth and others I just supposed were pretty damn smooth from my shelf. I added in single barrel drops, toasted barrel finishes, sherry cask-finished softies, and even a couple of barrel-strength biggies for a broad testing pool. Our lineup features the following rye whiskeys:
- Bardstown Bourbon Company Origin Series Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey Finished in Toasted Cherry Wood And Oak Barrels
- Hemingway Rye, Signature Edition Straight Rye Whiskey Finished in Rum Seasoned Oloroso Sherry Casks
- Penelope Straight Rye Whiskey Toasted Barrel Finish
- Brother’s Bond Four-Grain Small-Batch American Blended Rye Whiskey
- Barrell Rye Cask Strength A Blend of Rye Whiskeys Batch #004
- Chicken Cock Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey
- Old Potrero Single Barrel Reserve Straight Rye Whiskey
- Heaven’s Door Refuge Straight Rye Whiskey Finished in Sherry Casks
- Starlight Distillery Old Rickhouse Bottled-In-Bond Double Oaked Rye Whiskey Toasted Series
- Jack Daniel’s Twice Barreled Special Release Tennessee Rye Whiskey Heritage Barrel Rye
After I blindly tasted these ryes, I ranked them according to both how smooth they really are and how deep their flavor profiles goe. Smooth is great and all, but if the profile isn’t there, it’s not always going to be a winner. “Thin” should never be confused with smooth. Moreoever, if something tastes great but it’s not silky, it’ll slide down the rankings. Savvy?
Let’s dive in!
Part 1 — The Smooth Rye Whiskey Blind 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 creamy and smooth with a good depth that balances the woodier aspects nicely. I like this one.
Nose: The nose opens with a hint of dry sweetgrass over berry brambles before veering into nut cake and rum-soaked raisin with a hint of spice barks and vanilla cream.
Palate: Caramel cut with orange oils and dipped in dark chocolate drives the palate toward clove and nutmeg-heavy eggnog with a touch of vanilla sugar cookies, orange cake, and a medley of dates, figs, and prunes.
Finish: That dark fruit folds into a sticky toffee pudding vibe with more of that chocolate-covered caramel and dark orange with a lush finish.
This is pretty goddamn good too. Lush, deep, fun, and pretty damn tasty.
Nose: The nose opens with a leathery sense of old winter spice barks, rich caramel, and vanilla pudding cut with butterscotch and orange rinds.
Palate: There’s a sense of singed marshmallows and dark orange zest on the palate that leans into hints of minty tobacco and cedar bark.
Finish: A hint of salted caramel and dark chocolate oranges drive the finish toward a soft old oakiness and a touch of smudging sage.
This inches toward creamy and smooth but leans more dry and woody by the end. It’s very good but I’m not sure I’d call it smooth.
Nose: Dark fruit leather, stewed peach, and salted caramel mingle with vanilla buttercream cut with toffee and winter spice syrups on the nose.
Palate: The palate opens with a hint of grilled pineapple and peach dosed in caramel sauce and hit with salt before dark winter spice cakes arrive with dates, prunes, and old nuts with plenty of clove and allspice that eventually leads to a hint of eggnog creaminess.
Finish: The spice gets barky on the backend as the finish drives toward old wicker furniture in sweetgrass on a summer’s day next to a mild chili-peach-infused chewing tobacco leaf.
This has a smooth mid-palate but ends pretty warm and dry.
Nose: Leathery candied fruits and berries drive the nose toward tobacco leaves, roasting herbs, and nasturtiums with a whisper of woody sasparilla just kissed with spearmint and sesame seed.
Palate: There’s a candied fruit vibe on the palate with pecan waffles, butter, maple syrup, and a touch of burnt marshmallow dipped in creamy espresso that leads to anise and old boot leather.
Finish: Hazlenut shells and marzipan lead to a whisper of dried botanicals like juniper and ancho chili with a woody sense of dried herbs and tobacco dosed in old brandy.
This is pretty delicious but I’d never call it smooth. This is as sharp as a scalpel and cuts deep.
Nose: This opens like a root beer float with an eggnog ice cream scoop that leads to a touch of rye bread funk, old tobacco, and a hint of oak.
Palate: The palate is like an old cedar box full of spicy tobacco leaves that lead back to the sasparilla of that root beer.
Finish: The mid-palate has this spicy stewed peaches vibe with a hint of dried fruit, black tea bitterness, and a touch more of that peppery root beer.
This is creamy and smooth. I don’t if it runs as deep as some of the other pours though.
Nose: Molasses heavy bran muffins mingle with dry cinnamon sticks, Granny Smith apple skins, and Red Hots next to rum-raisin and a twinge of an old oak stave and craft grain porridge with a caramelized edge.
Palate: The palate leans into ginger snaps with plenty of cinnamon and nutmeg next to vanilla pudding right out of the cup and a dry sense of cedar kindling.
Finish: The end holds onto the dry woodiness with a layer of salted caramel raisins and sweet porridge before veering into a bold cinnamon spice that’s like eating Red Hots and chewing Big Red gum at the same time.
This ends hot. I mean really hot. I like that cinnamon fire but it’s not “smooth” by any stretch of the imagination. It’s a lot of fun though!
Nose: There’s a deep oakiness on the nose with a hint of dry grain silos, soft prune juice, and dark winter spice barks next to a touch of nutshell.
Palate: Dark fruit stewed in winter spices with a touch of floral honey drives the palate toward vanilla pods, caramel sauce, and more of those sharp winter spices.
Finish: The end leans back into that deep oakiness with a winter spice edge that kind of just drifts off into dark fruit leather.
This is more tannic than smooth. It’s nice enough but more of a spiced woody vibe than creamy soft.
Nose: Orange-laced salted caramel is countered by rich and bold huckleberry pie and stewed blackberry compote with a big dollop of buttercream with plenty of vanilla and toffee.
Palate: That orange darkens with winter spice barks and berries next to a rich vanilla creaminess that leans toward eggnog and creamy caramel all accented by a nice layer of soft oakiness.
Finish: The end is lush and just warm enough with dark winter spice, burnt orange, and brandy-soaked marzipan next to a lush sense of vanilla cake cut with stewed dark berries.
This is both smooth AF and deeply hewn. This is the good stuff, folks.
Nose: The nose opens with a Christmas spiced cake with candied cherries, orange peels, roasted walnuts, moist pear brandy-soaked marzipan, and a light hint of homemade cranberry sauce, roasting herbs, and a light sense of fresh pipe tobacco.
Palate: That vanilla gets super creamy on the palate as eggnog with clove and nutmeg drive the taste back to candied pear, cherry, and orange with an underbelly of dry smudging sage, cedar bark, and tobacco leaves braided and rolled into an old cigar humidor with a sweet leathery edge.
Finish: The end marries the candied cherry, spiced chocolate, and vanilla buttercream into a bespoke Black Forest cake with a holiday spice vibe next to soft sweetgrass, more of those roasting herbs, and a whisper of dried ancho chili soaked in pear brandy that’s just kissed with huckleberry pie.
This is not only delicious but it’s one of the smoothest pours I’ve ever had with incredible depth. This is a winner.
Part 2 — The Smooth Rye Whiskey Ranking
10. Heaven’s Door Refuge Straight Rye Whiskey Finished in Sherry Casks — Taste 8
Average Price: $79
This new imagining of Bob Dylan’s signature rye whiskey is made with a 100% rye mash bill. Those barrels are left alone for six to eight years before batching. That whiskey is then re-barreled into an Amontillado sherry cask for a final maturation run.
This is a fine whiskey. It’s not a smooth one though and that’s why it’s here.
9. Old Potrero Single Barrel Reserve Straight Rye Whiskey — Taste 7
Average Price: $86
This whiskey is a bit of a throwback with a West Coast vibe. The whiskey is 100% rye whiskey made at Hotaling & Co. in Potrero Hill, one of San Francisco’s most iconic spots for booze. As of this year, the spirit is being distilled on the waterfront in San Francisco but still carries that Anchor Brewing heritage. With that move, the bottle also got a brand new design that leans into San Francisco’s sea-faring history.
This is also a fine whiskey with a great grainy vibe. But the end is so hot and cinnamon-heavy that I can’t call it “smooth.” So while it’s a nice one, it’s ranked lower on this panel.
8. Barrell Rye Cask Strength A Blend of Rye Whiskeys Batch #004 — Taste 5
Average Price: $84
This brand-new blend of ryes from Barrell Craft Spirits combines four styles of rye. The main component is five, six, and 10-year-old Indiana rye mixed with a five-year-old Tennessee rye, a 6-year-old Kentucky rye, and a 14-year-old Canadian rye. Once batched, those whiskeys were bottled at cask strength.
This is a very good whiskey that’s not really smooth at all. It doesn’t have rough edges but it certainly has sharp corners. I can see this really working wonders over a big ice cube on a slow-sipping day.
7. Penelope Straight Rye Whiskey Toasted Barrel Finish — Taste 3
Average Price: $70
This is made with 100% Indiana rye whiskey. The whiskey was then re-barreled into fresh heavily toasted barrels (with a tiny bit of char) before batching and bottling with a touch of proofing water.
This was nice but woody (naturally). There was a hint of smoothness sneaking in but I’d never define this as a smooth whiskey. It’s a nice dry rye with a good balance of flavor notes.
6. Brother’s Bond Four-Grain Small-Batch American Blended Rye Whiskey — Taste 4
Average Price: $48
This brand-new release from Ian Somerhalder and Paul Wesley’s Brothers Bond is their first foray into rye. The whiskey in the bottle is a blend of their bourbon cut with a four-year-old 95/5 rye (rye/malted barley). The final product ends up being a 77% rye whiskey once batched, proofed, and bottled.
This had a nice and smooth mid-palate that gave way to a hot and dry finish. Over ice, that creamy mid-point would extend out and this would be a smooth sipper. But I tried this neat so here we are.
5. Chicken Cock Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey — Taste 6
Average Price: $70
This whiskey from a re-invigorated brand is comprised of that famous sourced 95% rye that’s aged (and now contract distilled) at Bardstown Bourbon Company. In this case, it’s aged for around two years before the barrels are blended, proofed, and bottled.
This was smooth, for sure. It hits the middle of the pack simply because it was the middle of the road. This is clearly a cocktail rye that works over a glass full of rocks.
4. 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 truly smooth stuff. This was smooth from top to bottom with enough depth to stand out as a classic cocktail base for killer whiskey-forward cocktails.
3. Hemingway Rye, Signature Edition Straight Rye Whiskey Finished in Rum Seasoned Oloroso Sherry Casks — Taste 2
Average Price: $79
The second release from Hemingway Rye is a blend of six-year-old Indiana rye (classic 95/5 rye/barley) with a four-year-old Kentucky 95/5 rye. Once those whiskeys were batched, the rye was re-barreled in Oloroso sherry casks that held rum.
This is delicious whiskey. The cask comes through a tad on the finish, adding a tannic factor, but a big rock will calm that right down.
2. Starlight Distillery Old Rickhouse Bottled-In-Bond Double Oaked Rye Whiskey Toasted Series — Taste 9
Average Price: $49
This new release from Indiana’s Starlight Distillery is a blend of their 90/10 and 80/20 (rye/barley) rye whiskeys that are 4.5 to 6.5 years old. Those whiskeys were then finished in heavily toasted French Canton barrels for a final mellowing before a touch of proofing water and bottling.
This has the perfect balance of smooth and deep. This is pretty much a perfect sipper with just the right kick at the end. This is the good stuff.
1. Jack Daniel’s Twice Barreled Special Release Tennessee Rye Whiskey Heritage Barrel Rye — Taste 10
Average Price: $75
This whiskey starts off with Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Rye Whiskey which is hewn from a mash of 70% rye, 18% corn, and 12% malted barley with Jack’s own yeast and lactobacillus strains. After a slow drip-drop filtering through 10 solid feet of sugar maple charcoal (which strips oily graininess and highlights sweet fruitiness, among other notes), the mellowed juice is filled into “Heritage Barrels.” Those barrels were seasoned in the open air for years. Once coopered, the American white oak barrels are heavily toasted and lightly charred. That toasting allows the sugars to caramelize and become more easily available to the distillate while the light char means less filtering as the whiskey moves in and out of the wood.
This is pretty much a perfect whiskey that’s incredibly smooth, balanced, and deep. It’s a delight to sip and keeps rewarding when you come back for more.
Part 3 — Final Thoughts on the Smooth Rye Whiskeys
Brass tacks, the top four are the whiskeys you want to focus on if you’re looking for “smooth”. Each one offers something a little different in their profile, but each one of those profiles is outstanding.
Look, there wasn’t a bad whiskey on this list. But when it comes to finding a perfectly balanced smooth rye whiskey — you have to find that Starlight or Jack Daniel’s. They’re stellar whiskeys, period.