About the Author: Adam Terry is a thirtysomething salesman in the heating and manufacturing industry, and he’s also Dappered’s resident shoe & denim expert. He enjoys bourbon, boots, sneakers, raw denim, and working on on his
dad bod father figure.
While our Dappered buddy Jason P. shares an affinity for bourbon during the holidays, you really can’t go wrong with a rye whiskey either. If you’re in the mood for an adult beverage to help combat those bitterly cold Winter evenings, a savory rye whiskey – either neat, on the rocks, or in a cocktail – can bring a warming “Kentucky Hug” to your chest along with some very unique flavors. Before digging into two handfuls of recommended rye whiskies, let’s take a quick refresher on what exactly rye whiskey is:
- A mash bill with a minimum of 51% rye. As with bourbon, the mash bill is the grain recipe used to create the whiskey. For rye whiskey, we need the mash bill to contain at least 51 percent rye grains with corn and malted barley typically rounding out the rest. Some rye distillates are considered “high rye” with a 95% rye, 5% malted barley (or 5% malted rye!) blend, while others are considered “low rye” with a rye content under 60%.
- Proof and Barreling Requirements. Rye whiskey, as with bourbon, must be distilled no higher than 160 proof (80% ABV). It must enter charred, new oak containers at 125 proof (62.5% ABV) or lower, but can be bottled at any proof above 80 (40% ABV). Whiskies can gain or lose ABV during aging through evaporation, nicknamed the Angel’s Share, but it’s not uncommon to see barrel proof rye whiskies at 130 proof!
- Aged in newly-charred oak barrels. A whiskey is “straight” if it has aged for at least two years, but the label must state the age if it’s less than four years old. Once it turns four years old, it could be marketed as Bottled in Bond if it’s proofed down to 50% ABV and was distilled in one season by one distiller. Youthful rye whiskies tend to hide their age better than youthful bourbons; the rye grains naturally have a savory grain flavor (like rye bread), whereas youthful bourbons can taste like freshly cut grass or wet hay.
- Country of Production. Unlike bourbon, rye is not an inherently American thing. In fact, Canadian rye is extremely popular, although they have different regulations than we do. However, if the rye is distilled in America, it’s still considered an American whiskey.
Since rye grains make up the majority of the mash bill, common flavors include black pepper, clove, allspice, tobacco leaf, spearmint, anise, dill, and other herbal notes. However, many of the “low rye” whiskies also include the sweeter notes of honey, maple syrup, almonds, bitter chocolate, and fruity notes like orange, lemon, and green apple.
Like Jason, I’ve also tried to stay true to Dappered’s affordable quality theme by recommending commonly available and relatively affordable choices. While rye whiskey is typically more expensive to produce and, apples to apples, usually costs a few dollars more than their bourbon counterparts, you should still be able to find most of these at a local watering hole near you. Prices were taken from local Nashville, TN stores or from the national retailer Total Wine. Consider these prices a running average – they may not represent prices in your neck of the woods. Apologies in advance if you live in Los Angeles, New York, or Honolulu!
Note: For anyone who’s a little more whiskey curious or for anyone shopping for a loved one who really enjoys whiskey, I’ve also included alternate or upgraded picks for each standard selection. These alternates are usually from the same distillery, but crank flavor and proof up a couple of clicks. Rye not give some a try?!
I know what you’re thinking: “Jack Daniels?!” Yes, this is a great 4-6 year old rye whiskey. For those that might be moving over from bourbon and want to dip a toe in first, the 70% rye mashbill keeps things in the sweet and savory “boozy maple syrup” wheelhouse. Our state’s infamous Lincoln County Process is a charcoal filtration step that’s done before the whiskey enters the barrel. This helps round off some harsh edges from distillation, “mellowing” the juice a little bit. This bottle can usually be found for under $25 and it’s a simple, easy sipper – something you can enjoy while sitting on the back porch without having to think too hard about it.
Alternate/Upgrade: Jack Daniels Tennessee Taster’s Barrel Proof Rye (63.8% ABV, 127.6 Proof) – $45ish
Heaven Hill produces this one in Kentucky and it’s Bottled in Bond – at least four years old and bottled at 100 proof (50% ABV). Rittenhouse’s “barely legal” 51% rye mash bill makes it lean sweeter with notes of toasted marshmallow, fresh fruits, vanilla, honey, cinnamon, coffee, and a touch of mint. Easy drinker and a cheap mixer, especially solid for cocktails like the Manhattan!
Alternate/Upgrade: Pikesville Straight Rye Whiskey (55% ABV, 110 Proof) – $50ish
Old Forester launched this rye just last year, but it’s taken the whiskey world by storm winning critic Fred Minnick’s Best Value Whiskey along the way. OldFo brought the flavor bomb with their 65% rye, 20% malted barley, 15% corn mashbill. This combination brings notes of vanilla, caramel, buttery rye bread, a sprinkling of brown sugar, and a whisper of parent company Brown-Forman’s infamous banana’s foster note. All in all, a great sipper for those with a sweet tooth. Bottled at 100 proof, it also holds its own in cocktails like the Vieux Carre.
Alternate/Upgrade: Woodford Reserve Straight Rye (45.2% ABV, 90.4 Proof) – $40ish
This is our first sourced whiskey on the list and our first 95% rye mash bill whiskey. Bulleit sources their 95% rye, 5% malted barley whiskey distillate from MGP of Indiana, who runs the old Seagrams plant out of Lawrenceburg, Indiana. We don’t have the time or space here to cover the rabbit hole of sourcing whiskey, but I’ll just say that it isn’t inherently a bad thing. Many new craft distilleries use sourced whiskey to get their wheels moving and money flowing while their own distillate ages. Some of the best whiskies ever sold were sourced from elsewhere. Bulleit’s MGP-sourced rye has notes of caramel brittle, floral mint, nutmeg, cinnamon, and dill.
Alternate/Upgrade: Bulleit 95 Rye Straight American Whiskey 12 Year (45% ABV, 90 Proof) – $55ish
Produced by Buffalo Trace for parent company Sazerac (the namesake of the Sazerac cocktail), this one is considered one of the best values in the rye market.. if you can find it. Sazerac rye can be both simple and complex, both a little sweet and a little spicy. The exact details of its “low rye” mashbill are unknown to those of us on the outside of the Buffalo Trace Distillery, but we can tell that it generally leans sweeter more than spicy. I’m picking up notes of orange oil, vanilla, stewed fruits, and some herbal mint. There’s little to no alcohol burn on this one; it’s a very subtle rye.
Alternate/Upgrade: Thomas H. Handy 2020 (64.5% ABV, 129 Proof) – $100+
High West’s Double Rye! is the first bottle on our list to feature a blend of straight rye whiskies. This Batch 20C26 series in particular contains a blend of MGP-sourced 95% rye/5% malted barley and some of High West’s own 80% rye/20% malted rye distillate. All parts are aged between 2-7 years and are non-chill filtered for more flavor. High West has become synonymous with their masterful blending and rectifying of rye whiskies, coaxing out rich flavor notes of mint, clove, cinnamon, orange peel, honey, and a bit of dill or eucalyptus. My wife says it smells like packing tape (not in a bad way, lol) and has a lovely floral/herbal mint flavor.
Alternate/Upgrade: High West’s A Midwinter Night’s Dram (49.3 ABV, 98.6 Proof) – $90ish
Wild Turkey is a strange bird. The Russell family has been making whiskey for over sixty-five years! The core Wild Turkey products are made from just two mash bills, one for bourbon and one for rye, yet Jimmy, his son Eddie, and his grandson Bruce have tactfully stretched those out to produce over 20 different products with our feathered friend on the label. Their rye mash bill is “barely legal” – 51% rye, 37% corn, and 12% malted barley, which tends to shift the flavor profile into the sweeter side of things. This Russell’s Reserve 6 year small batch rye features notes of vanilla, salted peanuts, and really subtle baking spices. At 90 proof, it’s an easy sipper.
Alternate/Upgrade: Wild Turkey Rare Breed Rye (56.1% ABV, 112.2 Proof) – $65ish
Here’s our first single barrel whiskey on the list. This one comes to us from West Virginian brand Smooth Ambler and their Old Scout line of sourced, curated whiskies. Their 95/5 rye stock is sourced from, you guessed it, MGP of Indiana. What makes this bottle unique is the single barrel experience. Each barrel of whiskey holds just 150-200ish standard bottles worth of liquid and the best “honey hole” barrels are usually set aside to be bottled separately, rather than batched with dozens or hundreds of other barrels. This allows us whiskey enthusiasts to taste the unique characteristics of each barrel on its own merits, for better or for worse! My wife says this one also smells faintly like packing tape and I think she’s picking up on that light floral/minty rye spice flavor. This particular bottling is 114.2 proof, so be prepared for that Kentucky Hug!
Alternate/Upgrade: Nashville Barrel Co. Cask Strength Single Barrel (Proof varies) – $100ish
Michter’s is one of the most unique whiskey brands in modern times, even though it can trace its (indirect) roots back to pre-Revolutionary war times. Today, Michter’s sources their whiskies from various contract distillers with the rye coming from Brown-Forman, the parent company to Jack Daniels and Old Forester. You’ll certainly notice some similar flavor characteristics to those cousins, but what makes this Michter’s rye unique is the low barrel entry proof. This whiskey enters their barrels at a super low 103 proof, which helps to mellow out the whiskey during aging. To me, this single barrel rye tastes more like a sweet bourbon with notes of brown sugar, chocolate, honey, tobacco leaf, and a pop of rye spice and orange zest on the back end. In addition, the low bottling proof of 84.8 makes this rye whiskey a very, very easy drinker.
Alternate/Upgrade: Michter’s 10 Year Kentucky Straight Rye (46.4% ABV, 92.8 Proof) – $180ish
Here’s something you don’t see every day. Most distillers use the sour mash process where you take a small portion of each batch, called the backset, to help kickstart the next batch of whiskey for fermentation. Wilderness Trail uses a sweet mash process wherein each batch is completely fresh, no backset is used. This process is a lot more delicate in that you need to control for bacteria, yeast, post-batch sanitization, etc. The resulting whiskey – a 56% rye, 33% corn, and 11% barley recipe – can be much more unique! This particular single barrel was one that I helped hand select at the distillery in early 2019 along with some friends and a local liquor store. We tasted through four different barrels of sweet mash rye whiskey and settled on this one because of its sweet vanilla, fruity, floral, and milk chocolatey flavor profile. It’s unlike any other!
Alternate/Upgrade: Peerless Barrel Proof KY Straight Rye (Proof varies) – $95ish
Willett is widely considered to be the most Gucci-like brand of American whiskey, being that it’s highly allocated and priced at a premium above most other competitors. They have a long, storied history and have offered some of the best sourced whiskies ever produced through their Willett Family Estate single barrel bottling series. This bottle of their Exploratory Cask Finish (XCF) series is an MGP-sourced 7 year old rye whiskey batch that was aged in French orange curacao barrels for an additional 90 days. If you love orange/citrus, brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, and a bit of sweet oak.. you’ll love this pour! This barrel finished rye is something very unique and I highly recommend you seek it out and try it at least once. Should you find yourself at Willett’s distillery in Bardstown, Kentucky, make sure to visit their house bar for some top shelf pours.
Pro Tip: Don’t forget about the 50mL “airplane” or 375mL pint bottles! Most liquor stores carry these and they can be a fantastic way to try new whiskies on the cheap before investing big bucks on a full size bottle. Cheers, friends!