The 8 Best Rye Whiskeys to Drink in 2021

The best of bourbon’s spicier sister

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Our Top Picks

Best for Old Fashioned: Woodford Reserve Rye at drizly.com

"A tasty glass neat, this whiskey’s notes of apple, mint, honey, tobacco, and rye also elevate an old fashioned."

Best American: High West Rendezvous Rye at drizly.com

"Bottled at a pleasant 92 proof, this is a bottle for rye aficionados who love spice."

Best High Proof: Knob Creek Cask Strength Rye at drizly.com

"With every sip, there’s seemingly more depth to discover."

Best for Sipping: Willett Family Estate Four Year Rye at drizly.com

"Ordering a Willett Rye was once a strong signal to the bartender that you were in the know and a serious whiskey drinker."

Best for Beginners: Old Forester Rye at flaviar.com

"If you don’t have much rye experience, the exceptionally affordable Old Forester Rye is a good place to start."

Best Kentucky: Wild Turkey Master’s Keep Cornerstone at drizly.com

"A limited release of the brand’s Master’s Keep series that dropped in 2019, it’s shocking there are any bottles left."

Best Top Shelf: Lock Stock & Barrel 16 Year Rye at drizly.com

"Distilled from 100 percent rye cold-weather aged in charred American oak barrels long enough to get its driver's license."

Best Cheap: Old Overholt Bonded Rye at drizly.com

"The original version is an affordable, easy drinking rye, but for a few dollars more, the Bonded expression is a quality upgrade."

The rise and fall of American rye is a long and complex tale, but as our tastes and economics wax and wane, so has the spirit’s popularity. 

While Prohibition nearly killed off the style, these days, thanks to our unquenchable thirst for whiskey, rye has been resurrected. Bourbon’s spicier sister is now on the hot list, and production is up 1,275 percent since 2009, according to the Distilled Spirits Council’s most recent data

It’s a versatile style, great for sipping and dynamite in cocktails. So if you haven’t tried it yet or are just looking for the next one to try, we've done the research for y. Here are eight bottles of the best rye whiskeys to explore. 

01
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Best for Old Fashioned: Woodford Reserve Rye

Woodford Reserve Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey
Courtesy of Reserve Bar

It would seem that most bar menus these days feature a bourbon old fashioned, but one made with rye gives the classic cocktail a spicier edge. If you haven’t had it yet, try Woodford Reserve’s Rye Whiskey, which earned a gold medal at the 2020 San Francisco World Spirits Competition. Woodford is "a tasty glass neat, but this whiskey’s notes of apple, mint, honey, tobacco, and rye elevate an old fashioned." The grain’s spice adds balance against the sweetness of the sugar and cherry, while the bitters play into the richness of the tobacco.

02
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Best American: High West Rendezvous Rye

High West Rendezvous Rye Whiskey

Courtesy of Reserve Bar

Utah-based High West calls Rendezvous Rye its flagship whiskey, and it’s certainly one most brands would love to claim. Rendezvous is a blend of four- to seven-year-old high rye whiskeys, and since 2018 that includes one of High West’s own making.

Bottled at a pleasant 92 proof, this is a bottle for rye aficionados who love spice. The peppery goodness is one you feel from the second the whiskey hits your lips, and it lasts long after you swallow the last drop. In between, cinnamon, mint, and anise swirl around sweeter notes of cocoa, vanilla, and fruit. 

03
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Best High Proof: Knob Creek Cask Strength Rye

Knob Creek Cask Strength Rye
Courtesy of Drizly

Knob Creek Cask Strength Rye is simply one of the best whiskeys around. The first batch of this limited release was Whiskey Advocate’s runner-up for 2018 and notched a best-in-class at the San Francisco International Spirits Challenge before it had even launched. The second batch, which landed a coveted spot in Jim Murray's Whiskey Bible in 2019, is out now.

If you haven’t had it, this rye should be at the top of your shopping list. A boozy treat, as the name implies, the whiskey is uncut. The ABV is the same as it emerged from the barrel—a whopping 127 proof. If you were to taste it blind and had to guess its price, you likely would venture twice as much as the retail cost. Aged nine years in the oldest standing rack house at the Jim Beam distillery, the Cask Strength Rye is a massive mouthful of flavor—oak and char, clove and dill, caramel and cream. With every sip, there’s seemingly more depth to discover.

04
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Best for Sipping: Willett Family Estate Four Year Rye

Willett Family Estate Bottled Rye 4 Year

Courtesy of Drizly

Ordering Willett Rye was once a strong signal to the bartender that you were in the know and a serious whiskey drinker with an appreciation of value. Today, that same glass is going to cost you at least twice as much, but calling it off the shelf still gets you the same cred as a connoisseur.

The Four-Year Rye is a single barrel offering, so each batch is different from flavors to ABV (usually from 55 to 56 percent). But it’s always fruity with a heavy dose of peppery spice that will tickle any rye lover’s fancy. Bottles aren’t always available, so if you see one, grab it off the shelf and run to the register.

05
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Best for Beginners: Old Forester Rye

OLD FORESTER
Courtesy of Flaviar

The spiciness of rye whiskey can be a bit of an acquired taste. But once it grabs your tastebuds, you won’t want to let go of your glass. If you don’t have much rye experience, the exceptionally affordable Old Forester Rye is a good place to start.

The mash is 65 percent rye, 20 percent malted barley, and 15 percent corn, which gives the whiskey a brilliant floral quality. It’s also bottled at 100 proof, so newbies can add a bit of ice if they wish. A double gold medal winner at the 2019 International Spirits Challenge, it’s a wonderfully flavorful glass with notes of tangy pepper, cinnamon, vanilla, and buttered rye toast and fortified with herbal dried dill and baked apple with a hint of citrus. 

06
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Best Kentucky: Wild Turkey Master’s Keep Cornerstone

WILD TURKEY MASTER'S KEEP CORNERSTONE
Courtesy of Reserve Bar

Wild Turkey Cornerstone is a showstopper. A limited release of the brand’s Master’s Keep series that dropped in 2019, it’s shocking there are any bottles left, let alone still at the retail price. Eddie Russell, Wild Turkey’s master distiller, begat this master class in alchemy using a collection nine- to 11-year-old ryes. A nectarous dram full of vanilla, apple, honey, pepper, and oak, it’s a whiskey that will insist on a second pour, but show some restraint so your bottle can live to titillate your palate another day. 

07
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Best Top Shelf: Lock Stock & Barrel 16 Year Rye

LOCK STOCK & BARREL 16 YR RYE
Courtesy of Total Wine

 

While ryes have to contain 51 percent rye in their mash bill, only a few use solely the single grain. Lock Stock & Barrel uses spirit distilled from 100 percent rye cold-weather aged in charred American oak barrels long enough to get its driver's license.

This expression nabbed a double gold medal at the San Francisco Spirits Competition back in 2016, and thankfully there are still some bottles to be had. It’s a bold whiskey, luscious with sweet notes of cherries, blackberries, spice, and sassafras, plus a nutty quality that will have you pouring a second glass in short order. There are precious few bottles left, so snag one soon.

08
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Best Cheap: Old Overholt Bonded Rye

Old Overholt Rye Whiskey Bonded
Courtesy of Wine Chateau 

One of Don Draper’s go-to pours in Mad Men was the original Old Overholt Rye. While it’s certainly a bottle for the budget-conscious, that’s probably not why Draper, quite a wealthy man in the show, put it in his glass. For much of the post-World War II era, it was the only domestically produced straight rye on the market; plus, it was originally made in Pennsylvania, where the character spent his adolescence.

Today, Old Overholt is made in Kentucky and is owned by Beam Suntory. The original version is an affordable, easy-drinking rye, but for a few dollars more, the Bonded expression is a quality upgrade and still a serious value. Bottled at 100 proof, it’s a much richer glass, with tasty notes of pepper, caramel, and vanilla with a finish that lasts much longer than the original. 

What to Look for in Rye Whiskey

Characteristics

All rye whiskey must be aged in new, charred, oak barrels. When it's distilled, it must remain below 80 ABV and by the time it goes into the barrel, the percentage needs to drop to roughly somewhere below 63 percent. All of these characteristics typify rye whiskey. It also needs to be made from a grain mash that contains at least 50 percent rye; it can be unmalted (traditional) or malted. If it doesn't meet these characteristics, it's not rye whiskey. Some bottles may say "blended" and those will typically detail the other grain types included.

Styles

Rye whiskey is historically known to have two styles: Monongahela, or Pennsylvania style, and Maryland style. Pennsylvania rye is a spicier profile because most of them were made from 100 percent rye. In Maryland style, the rye whiskey is usually a balance of sweetness and spiciness, thanks to the addition of corn. In more recent years, Kentucky style has emerged, and it uses the lowest possible permitted percentage of rye (51 percent), and incorporating corn and a little bit of malted barley.

Uses

How do you like to use rye whiskey? Maybe you make a lot of Manhattans, old fashioneds, or sazeracs. Do you just want a straightforward, multipurpose rye whiskey where the flavors will shine? Are you coming to rye whiskey as a devoted bourbon drinker? If so, you might want one with corn mixed in, as it will be a bit sweeter than a straight rye whiskey. All of these kinds of questions will help determine which type of rye whiskey you may want.

FAQs

Is rye whiskey good to drink straight?

You can certainly drink rye whiskey straight (neat) or on the rocks. Its flavor is complex and enjoyable on its own, without the addition of other spirits or mixers.

What is single barrel whiskey?

This refers to rye whiskey that is bottled from one barrel, so it then retains the characteristics that distinguish that barrel.

What's the difference between rye and bourbon?

Bourbon is a whiskey that has been produced in the United States that uses at least 51 percent mash from corn in its production. The mash is fermented with yeast (called a sour mash process). Rye whiskey must be made from at least a 51 percent rye mash; it can also use rye and other grains such as corn. Bourbon is sweeter than rye, which has a more pronounced bite to it that can lend some interesting notes to cocktails.

Why Trust The Spruce Eats?

Nicholas McClelland is a passionate whisk(e)y drinker who has written about spirits for Men’s Journal, Fatherly, and Inside Hook. His bar is deep with rare single malts, hard-to-find bourbons, and ryes, but he doesn't believe there's anything too precious to share with friends.

Updated by
Carrie Havranek
Carrie Havranek
Carrie has 10+ years experience as a food writer and editor. Her work can be found in her cookbook, Tasting Pennsylvania, and her site, the Dharma Kitchen.
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