If you’ve only encountered rye whiskey in passing, you may still be familiar with two common descriptions of the spirit: that it’s bourbon’s spicier sibling, and that it’s crucial in the creation of a handful of classic cocktails. While these statements ring true, they also benefit from further elaboration.
The inclusion of rye (the grain) in any mash bill indeed lends a spicy kick, but that characteristic can take on many forms, from savory spice, like caraway and black pepper, to sweet baking spices, such as cinnamon and cloves. Another distinguishing factor that defines many rye whiskeys is fresh, herbal notes — think dill and mint. Though not always present, these notes complement the grain’s signature spice, but it would be a stretch to define them as spicy by nature.
On the cocktail front, it’s true that rye is vital for any properly made Manhattan or Sazerac, and competently takes the place of bourbon in an Old Fashioned or Boulevardier. But were it not for the revival of those cocktails, there’s a high chance that rye would have continued down its path of dwindling popularity to reach near extinction by this point. In short: Rye is essential in these drinks but the drinks themselves are just as important in the whiskey’s modern history.
So rye’s is a complicated tale, and the waters are only muddied further by another point that should be raised: Given the recency of this style’s resurgence in popularity, many distilleries have been forced to source from or contract distill their rye at external facilities — the most notable of which is Indiana’s MGP. Now this is also true in the bourbon industry, but given that even some of the major brands continue to do so with their rye expressions, it’s worth reiterating. So, too, is the simple fact that there’s nothing inherently wrong with this practice, especially as those buying and bottling this juice are increasingly transparent about doing so.
Now that those formalities are out of the way — and for more information, see VinePair’s complete Rye 101 Guide — let’s explore some of the finest expressions on the market. Here are the 30 best rye whiskeys at every price point for 2021.
Old Overholt Bonded Straight Rye Whiskey
Last year, one of America’s oldest whiskey brands entered a new chapter. A formula shake-up saw Old Overholt’s core expression gain a few extra proof points; a new, 114-proof line also launched; and all whiskeys in the lineup are now bottled without chill filtration. The latter factor is key, with more complexity and texture maintained in the final spirit. With attractive herbal notes surrounding a caramel core, the four-year-old, 100-proof Bonded expression punches well above its price tag, and represents the most versatile option among Old Overholt’s stellar, budget-friendly lineup. Average price: $25.
Wild Turkey 101 Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey
This rye ticks all the boxes that a bartender (home or professional) should seek from a well pour. It’s well balanced, with an overall sweet profile accented by fresh herbs and faint savory spices. The ABV content and decent concentration of flavor mean it’s ready for action at cocktail hour, while a fairly lengthy finish ensures it can be enjoyed neat alongside a cold beer. Average price: $25.
George Dickel Rye Whisky
George Dickel finishes this rye using the same chilled charcoal-filtration technique employed for its Tennessee whisky. In this case, however, the base spirit is distilled at Indiana’s MGP distillery — hence no Tennessee on the bottle label. Though restrained on the nose, the palate serves bold sips that hint at maple syrup and toasted oak. Enjoy in your favorite bourbon cocktails for a new twist that doesn’t stretch too far from the realm of familiarity. Average price: $26.
Old Forester Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey
With 65 percent rye included in this whiskey’s mash bill, the palate delivers more distinguishable spice than many other Kentucky expressions. Arriving with notes of dried banana, brown bread, and caramel, this rye has a distinctive personality and offers another worthy option for cocktails. Average price: $26.
Rittenhouse Straight Rye Whisky
Born in Pennsylvania and now owned and produced in Kentucky by Heaven Hill, this rye opens with a remarkably floral nose that tiptoes into botanical territory. With full flavor, 50 percent ABV, and a lengthy finish, the palate confirms why this brand (and expression) has become beloved among bartenders. Average price: $28.
Boardroom Spirits Northbound Rye Whiskey
Though sourced from MGP, this rye has its own unique profile. Mentholated herbaceous notes kick off the aromas, while the palate serves rich doses of caramel and vanilla, along with all the green, spicy hallmarks of rye. Average price: $29.
Bulleit 95 Rye Whiskey
Another MGP-sourced rye, this whiskey also delivers a nice juxtaposition of spicy, herbal notes and sweet tones developed during oak aging. This is a solid, enjoyable rye that feels like you’re getting a bargain. Average price: $29.
Sazerac Straight Rye Whiskey
Produced at the Sazerac-owned Buffalo Trace distillery in Kentucky, this whiskey brand endured when so many others in the rye field fell by the wayside, keeping its signature, eponymous cocktail alive (especially in New Orleans). It has a well-rounded profile and culminates with a heavy dose of spice, offering the ideal option for mixing that very namesake drink. Average price: $32.
Elijah Craig Straight Rye Whiskey
A fairly recent introduction from Heaven Hill that debuted in 2019, this 47 percent ABV charms with a mix of floral, herbaceous, and savory notes. Heady butterscotch flavors bulk up the body, while a sweet cherry note on the finish suggests the first port of call should be mixing in a Manhattan. Average price: $33.
High West Whiskey Double Rye!
This Utah whiskey’s name refers (in part) to the two ryes used in its final blend. The first, and younger, of the two is sourced from MGP, while the latter, older constituent was distilled by High West. The name is further reflected in the whiskey’s profile, which lands among the spiciest ryes on the market. Notes of cloves, cinnamon, and caraway are particularly pronounced. Average price: $36.
Pinhook ‘Hard Rye Guy’ Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey
Distilled at Kentucky’s Castle & Key distillery, this rye whiskey is expressive and immediately inviting. Stone fruit, toffee, and eucalyptus notes define the nose, while the palate is well rounded and energetic, with an impressive depth of flavor and complexity. Average price: $37.
Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey
Distilled from a 53 percent rye mash bill, this rye shows gentle spice and exceptional balance across nose and palate. Most of its spice can be grouped into the baking category, with cloves and cinnamon aromas leading the nose. Rich banana and chocolate chip notes on the palate promise to further please those with a sweet tooth. Average price: $39.
Knob Creek Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey
At this price point, drinkers should start to expect a whiskey that will hold its own in cocktails but also perform valiantly when enjoyed neat. With rich, toasted caramel notes, a heavy dose of sweet spices, and an impressive depth of flavors, Knob Creek’s rye delivers on both fronts. At 50 percent ABV, sipping over ice isn’t out of the equation either. Average price: $40.
Castle & Key Restoration Kentucky Rye Whiskey 2021 Batch #1
The third release from Castle & Key’s Restoration Rye series, and the first of 2021, this whiskey contains 63 percent rye in its mash bill. A small batch blend pulled from 80 barrels, it ignites the senses with intense floral and stone fruit aromas, and a savory spiced palate. If this is a sign of things to come, add this distillery (and release) to your watchlist. Average price: $43.
Burnside Whiskey Oregon Oaked Rye
From Portland’s Eastside Distilling, this is a great example of a producer releasing a unique sourced whiskey by means of a distinguishing proprietary process. In this case, that comes from finishing in Oregon Oak, or Quercus Garryana. It takes a while for the subtle influences of that oak to emerge — we get woody notes that pair well with the green character of rye — so spend some time with each pour and appreciate how it opens up over time. Average price: $43.
Traverse City Whiskey Co. North Coast Rye
This craft Michigan offering contains a blend of 100 percent rye and straight rye whiskey (i.e., at least 51 percent rye in the mash bill). The overall, and expected, result is spice — and lots of it. We’re talking nutmeg, cloves, and star anise on the nose, and more savory spices with a streak of dill pickles on the palate. If you’re looking for an independently made outlier, this is a great option. Average price: $44.
New Riff Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey Bottled-in-Bond (Spring 2021)
From Newport, Ky., this whiskey contains an unusual 95 percent rye and 5 percent malted rye mash bill. Made using the sour mash technique, and bottled without chill filtration, its bold character shines with minty, peppery aromas, and a broad range of baking spices and caramel on the palate. At 100 proof, it hits a perfect stride for cocktails and sipping. Average price: $48.
Russell’s Reserve 6 Year Old Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey
Though it arrives on the lower end of the alcohol spectrum (90 proof), this whiskey suffers no lack of character or concentration. It is, however, a decidedly Kentucky-style rye: fruit-forward and rich, with just a hint of prickly spice. While more than capable of impressing during sipping occasions, we advise holding off on the ice. Average price: $48.
Tattersall Distilling Port Wine Barreled Straight Rye Whiskey
Launching in October 2021, the port wine barrels in which this whiskey spends the last two years of maturation have a profound impact on this 100 percent rye (made from 85 percent grain and 15 percent malted rye). The spirit pours a striking deep amber with vibrant red reflections. Its profile is punchy, complex, and nuanced, while its earthy and vegetal notes will appeal as much to Scotch drinkers as those who typically drink rye or bourbon. Average price: $50.
WhistlePig ‘Piggyback’ Rye
A 100 percent rye whiskey that’s imported from Canada, this release from Vermont’s WhistlePig distillery was crafted with premium cocktail creation in mind. Sweet aromas of maple and cinnamon jive wonderfully with its zesty citrus notes, setting the stage for its decadent palate. Aged for a minimum six years, and bottled at exactly 48.28 percent ABV, this rye is, indeed, ideal for high-caliber whiskey cocktails. Average price: $50.
Rabbit Hole ‘Boxergrail’ Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey
Distilled from 95 percent rye and 5 percent malted barley, this rye offers the perfect bridge for bourbon drinkers looking to take their first steps into the category. Its nose is light and floral, while more heady notes of sweet vanilla and baking spice emerge on the palate. Tart cherries pop up throughout the experience, adding a layer of juicy, mouthwatering fruit. Average price: $51.
Widow Jane Oak & Apple Wood Aged Rye Whiskey
Brooklyn’s Widow Jane inserts applewood staves into its barrels during maturation of this sourced rye, then cuts the finished spirit to proof using limestone water from the Rosendale Mines, located 100 miles north of New York City. The aromas are rye-forward with a hint of homemade cornbread. The palate serves equal helpings of sweetness and spice, with dusty dark chocolate emerging on this finish. We love it in an Old Fashioned. Average price: $55.
Stellum Spirits Rye Whiskey
The minimalist design of this bottle and its label belie a carefully blended whiskey with tons of character. Containing a high-rye distillate from Indiana, and barley-forward ryes from Kentucky and Tennessee, its aromas of dill, caraway, and caramel arrive with dazzling complexity. The palate serves further layers of intrigue, while the 58.12 percent ABV content barely registers. This one’s a sipper. Average price: $55.
Frey Ranch Straight Rye Whiskey
This 100 percent rye whiskey isn’t just distilled, aged, and bottled at Nevada’s Frey Ranch, but all the winter cereal that makes up the mash bill is also grown by the producer. Those things would count for nothing, or at least very little, if the quality of the spirit didn’t also deliver, but it does. Herbaceous and peppery, with tons of character and energy, this is a serious rye that all whiskey aficionados will savor. Average price: $66.
Crown Royal Noble Collection Rye Aged 16 Years
A quick look at the numbers and things don’t seem to add up here: Not only will you struggle to find another easily obtainable rye on the market at this age, but when you do, you can expect to pay three or four times this price. Those digits are only the beginning of this bottle’s wonderment, however. After encountering its inviting kettle corn, violet, and candy aromas; complex mature-oak complexity; and sweet, pepper-spiced palate, you’ll be wanting to stock up on this by the case load. But be considerate, and leave some for others to enjoy! Average price: $73.
Templeton 10 Year Reserve Rye Whiskey
This single barrel (sourced) whiskey arrives at a bold 52 percent ABV, which energizes the texture of the whiskey on the palate. By contrast, the aromas and flavors are somewhat delicate, with hints of candied banana, caramel, and spicy pepper running throughout. Though racy and long-lasting, given the overall nuance of this spirit (not to mention the price), reserve this bottle for sipping occasions. Average price: $89.
Barrell Craft Spirits Seagrass Rye Whiskey
With a blend of American (Indiana and Tennessee) and Canadian rye whiskeys, each component of this spirit is finished separately in Martinique Rhum Agricole casks, apricot brandy casks, and Madeira barrels. While there’s a lot going on in the production of this whiskey, the final blend works — and magnificently so. Granted, it’s not a “classic” style of rye, but not only has the Barrell Craft Spirits team reached impeccable balance with this unique expression, the influence of the different casks interacts seamlessly with the base rye(s). Buy this bottle now. Average price: $90.
Angel’s Envy Finished Rye
While we’re on the topic of outliers, here’s another unconventional rye that, after tasting, you can easily pick out blind from a lineup of dozens of whiskeys. Finished in rum casks, it kicks off with hits of maple, brown sugar, cloves, cinnamon, and every other baking spice you can imagine. The palate continues in similar fashion, and lands with even more intensity than the nose. If you’re all about fall desserts and scented candles, you’ll love this whiskey. Average price: $93.
Peerless Distilling Co. Small Batch Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey
Made using the sweet mash technique, and bottled at 54.7 percent ABV without chill-filtration, this is a “serious” bottle of rye. Its character is intense, with spicy rye notes leading the charge, followed by caramelized brown sugar and bitter citrus peel. The spice and alcohol combine to ignite the palate (without the “burn” of cheap booze) and elongate the finish. If you like higher-ABV bourbon, you’ll love sipping this. Average price: $106.
Michter’s 10 Year Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey
Let’s first address the elephant in the room: You will likely not encounter this bottle at its $170 MSRP, nor will you regularly see it on store shelves, such is the fervor with which the whiskey-collecting community has taken to this expression (along with a few other Michter’s bottles). Economics and the subjectivity of “affordable” aside, the quality of this whiskey is unquestionable. A distinct cherry aroma meets sweet and intense herbs on the nose, and the two continue their dance well onto the finish. Add in nuanced notes from oak and maturation, the spirit’s silky texture, and gentle spiced finish, and we only begin to scratch the surface of its depth and complexity. Average price: $342. (MSRP $170)