Bourbon may be America’s native spirit, but rye was famous first, dominating the national market until the mid-19th century. When Prohibition shut down America’s thriving whiskey industry, rye’s popularity sank. But over the last couple decades, rye whiskey has come roaring back thanks in large part to the cocktail renaissance.
Rye is a traditional flavoring grain in both American and Canadian whiskies and often adds a punch of spice, even when used in small amounts. In the U.S., rye whiskey must have at least 51% rye in its mashbill, resulting in a spirit that’s less sweet than bourbon, with bold aromas and flavors. And because rye often reaches maturity quicker than bourbon, even new distilleries can produce superb bottlings.
Whisky Advocate’s Summer 2020 Buying Guide offers reviews of more than 130 whiskies, including over a dozen ryes. From cask-strength offerings to innovative cask finishes—plus the first taste of the newly revamped Old Overholt—there’s a whiskey for just about every type of rye fan. And for even more rye, check out the issue’s guide to soaking in the charms of Pittsburgh, the epicenter of the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, and ground zero for Monongahela rye.
Pour a glass of one of these zesty whiskeys—or stir up a wicked Manhattan—as you contemplate your next rye-ward jaunt, whether it’s to the birthplace of this bold spirit or your local liquor store.
Spice Up Your Summertime Sipping With These Rye Whiskeys
Barrell 4 year old Cask Strength Rye (Batch 003)—93 points, 58.35% ABV, $90
There’s much to discover in the depths of this glass, which continues to develop over time. Dark fruit, tobacco, orange pekoe tea, white pepper, leather, dry-roasted peanuts, and varnish unfold on the nose, while the palate is fruity with blackberry, raspberry, blueberry, and orange; it also has dry oak, nuts, tobacco, and a lot of black pepper spice. The finish is leathery and peppery, with cigar and persistent dark berry flavors. A dense, decadent whiskey that makes it all seem effortless. (12,000 bottles) —Susannah Skiver Barton
Hudson Manhattan Straight Rye (Batch 5)—91 points, 46% ABV, $50
A well-choreographed interplay of rich dark fruit—plums, Luxardo cherries, Concord grapes—and deep spices on the nose, along with hints of wood char and licorice; it turns tropical and nutty when water is added. The palate is richly spiced—cedar, ginger, cloves, allspice—and silky with extra-dark chocolate, grilled plums, espresso beans, and hints of aged cigar. It ends rich and toasty, with lush oak, hookah tobacco, and coffee bean. —Susannah Skiver Barton
Sagamore Spirit Calvados Cask-Finished Rye—91 points, 50.6% ABV, $69
Mature but lively character; it has dark fruit, black tea, mint oil, fennel seed, and licorice on the nose. The palate is brawny and robust—it practically eats water—and swells with mint, licorice, root beer, black pepper, baking spice, espresso, and grape Robitussin. The lengthy finish is peppery and rich, with oak, herbs, baking spice, tea leaves, and dark chocolate. —Susannah Skiver Barton
Wood’s 2 year old Alpine Rye (Batch 16)—91 points, 49% ABV, $55
From Colorado-based Wood’s High Mountain Distillery. A nose of apple, brown sugar, and blackcurrant, set against jalapeño spice and smoke. The palate offers flavors of cinnamon and burnt espresso beans, with an alluring smoky bitterness and notes of jalapeño, smoked chiles, and black pepper. On the finish, dried dark fruits and bitter chocolate emerge, with a blast of pepper at the end. Rich, brawny, and assertive, but also supple and well integrated. —David Fleming
Belfour Spirits Limited Edition Straight Rye—89 points, 50% ABV, $299
A nose of lemon drops, tea leaves, light barrel char, and herb-garden notes. The palate is honeyed, with lemon, licorice, herbs, and earthiness, balancing against vanilla cream and spice, all integrating well with the barrel. A lengthy finish is well-textured and spiced, highlighted by notes of tobacco, herbs, and chocolate. Creamy, spicy, and a bit unusual, this whiskey offers spiced complexity and impressive flavor balance on the palate. —David Fleming
Old Overholt Straight Rye—87 points, 43% ABV, $18
Sweet cherries, bubble gum, and fresh blueberry on the nose, along with nougat, honey-roasted peanuts, and milk chocolate. The palate has flavors of clove-studded orange, spice, and the chewed end of a pencil. It’s light-bodied and verges on thin when water is added, so be judicious. The finish is gentle, with peppery oak, cinnamon, and espresso bean. This is a new higher proof and the whiskey is now non-chill filtered, so don’t be surprised by a little haze if you add water or ice. —Susannah Skiver Barton