People have been brewing alcohol for a long time, but rye whiskey isn't as old as some of the other types of alcohol on the market. That said, it experienced a revival in recent years as collectors searching for new tastes have turned to recipes from before Prohibition.
Templeton Rye Whiskey
Rittenhouse Rye Bottled-in-Bond
High West Double Rye
Lot 40 Rye Whiskey
What Is Rye Whiskey And How Is It Made?
Like all whiskey, rye whiskey is an alcoholic drink made from fermented grain mash. This particular blend must be at least 51% rye - most brands add malted barley to finish it off, and occasionally small amounts of wheat or corn. It's essentially the opposite of bourbon, which uses corn as the main ingredient and rye as a smaller flavoring.
From there, the resulting mix is distilled to the maker's choice of alcohol by volume, but never more than 80% (160 proof). From there, it's aged in charred, new oak barrels, but it can't be added to them at anything more than 62.5% alcohol (125 proof).
Unlike other varieties of alcohol, rye whiskey does not age once it's bottled. It only ages while stored in a cask. This means that older drinks are not necessarily better.The process of making rye whiskey is comparable to any other whiskey - there are plenty of steps involved, but as brewing goes, it's straightforward. However, the United States almost lost rye whiskey to history.
Brewing began soon after North America was settled by Europeans, with Pennsylvania and Maryland as the heart of production. Pittsburgh, in particular, became the center of production, and it wasn't long before they were making about half a barrel for every single person in the country.
If this sounds like a lot of alcohol, well, it was - but drinking alcohol was generally safer than drinking the often-contaminated public water supplies. It wasn't until 1854 that most places began treating their water. Distilleries continued to grow over time.
Unfortunately, records of the time are sparse, but old newspaper ads suggest that Moore and Sinnott was the largest distillery in the world, and it's believed to have made as many as 30,000 barrels each year. For context, the Heaven Hill distillery currently produces about 400,000 barrels annually.
However, distribution came to a screeching halt in 1920 with the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution - or, as it's more commonly known, Prohibition. Only a few brands of rye whiskey survived the era, and even some of the most famous Pennsylvania names still around (like Old Overholt) ultimately wound up moving to Kentucky.
Rye whiskey made in the United States should not be confused with Canadian rye whiskey, which retains the name for historical reasons. Most of these drinks are blended whiskeys that mainly consist of corn or wheat drinks mixed with a bit of rye for flavoring. That said, a few are 100% rye.
Rye Whiskey never truly recovered from Prohibition, and on a percentage basis, it's nowhere near as popular now as it was then. That said, the 21st century has seen a surge in popularity among drinkers and distillers alike, and many companies are experimenting with the production of rye drinks. Only time will tell if this is a fad or the start of a true renaissance for this drink.
What Makes Rye Whiskey Unique?
Two major categories set rye whiskey apart from other drinks.
The first - surprising nobody - is the ingredients used to make it. Rye whiskeys are made from at least 51% rye mash, and many of them use considerably more. As with the Canadian drinks mentioned above, it's not unheard of for a drink to be 100% rye. That said, you may not find the percents on the bottles, so contact the individual manufacturers for more information.
The second factor that sets rye whiskey apart is the flavor. While the exact flavor depends on the whiskey in question, most rye drinks have a fruity or spicy flavor. It's quite distinct from bourbon (which is distinctly sweeter), and today, most agree that rye tends to create drier (i.e., less sweet) drinks. This is particularly noticeable when making cocktails since the amount of sugar is often key to the overall flavor.
As a drink category, the price of rye whiskey varies widely. Some brands are famously affordable (such as Old Overholt, which is often sold for less than $20 a bottle), while premium and limited bottles can sell for hundreds or thousands of dollars.
Remember, as with all alcoholic drinks, the price isn't correlated directly with quality. There are many fantastic rye whiskeys available at prices the average person can afford.
Public Perception (Rye Whiskey Reviews)
Here are some reviews of rye whiskey to get you started, listed in no particular order. All reviews are accurate as of the time this guide was written (10/16/18) but may have changed since.
Drinking Rye Whiskey
Before we get to the reviews, though, there are a few things to know about drinking it.
Templeton Rye Whiskey
Flaviar gives this an 8/10 after 247 votes. Templeton Rye Whiskey has an aroma of summer grass and honey, and a flavor of baking spice, toffee, and butter. The finish is smooth and spicy, but well-balanced overall. Reviewers note that it's delicious by itself (typically over a single large piece of ice) or mixed into cocktails.
Rittenhouse Rye Bottled-in-Bond
ModernThirst gives this a 91/100. This is a brand from Heaven Hill, one of the largest distillers in the country. (Remember the 400,000 barrel distiller we mentioned earlier? Yeah, that's them.) A bottle of this usually retails around $, which is a fantastic price if you're looking to get into rye whiskey and don't want to spend too much.
Don't let the low cost fool you, because it's a great drink in its own right. Heaven Hill ages this whiskey for at least four years and bottles it at 100 proof (50% alcohol by volume).
The reviewer noted that this drink is something of a "flavor bomb," featuring a rich and robust flavor reminiscent of Heaven Hill's focus on bourbon. They noticed flavors of butterscotch, bananas, and vanilla.
They also felt that allowing the bottle to stay open for half an hour or so significantly improved the overall flavor and complexity. Indeed, the longer they had it, the better it became.
Considering this review and the low rye percent, Rittenhouse Rye is easily one of our top overall choices - and our #1 recommendation if you've never had rye whiskey before.
High West Double Rye
Total Wine gives this drink a 4.5/5 after 11 reviews. Nine of the reviews were positive, and two were neutral - there were no negative reviews. A slightly smaller number (80%) would recommend it to a friend.
High West Double Rye is a blended drink mixing two straight rye whiskeys - a feisty 2-year-old and a smoother 16-year-old. By combining both spice and sweetness, the result is an affordable yet distinctive taste.
It also has a lower alcohol content than some of the other drinks on this list, making it a good choice for introducing people to rye whiskey or mixing into lower-alcohol cocktails.
Lot 40 Rye Whiskey
Master of Malt gives this drink a 4.5/5 after four reviews. Lot 40 is a Canadian rye whiskey that deserves the name - it's a 100% rye mixture. At around 43% alcohol by volume, it's considerably less alcoholic than some other rye whiskeys, but don't let that fool you.
Lot 40 has an intense flavor from the very start, though it opens up after being exposed to the air for a little while.
Indeed, some people feel this drink has a bit too much heat for their comfort, and we can't blame them. 100% rye isn't for beginners. To maintain quality, these are bottled only from single pot stills.
Price varies a bit, but expect to pay $ to $$ per bottle - which is quite affordable despite its status as an imported drink.
The Whiskey Jug puts this drink at 89/100. It offers a full-bodied taste of pepper, rye spice, licorice, paprika, and caramel, with a finish including more paprika and rye, soft oak, orchard fruits, and nutmeg. What separates this drink from most of the other rye whiskeys on the market is the lack of intense spice. It goes from generally savory to sweet, and finally to an oaky finish in the mouth.
The manufacturer doesn't disclose the exact percent of rye used, but we believe it's on the low end. Much like the Rittenhouse Rye, smaller amounts of rye mash tend to result in softer and sweeter drinks - and they're instantly distinct from a pure-rye blend like the Lot 40.
The rye flavor is still distinct (despite the lack of spice), so overall, it's an accessible drink. Expect to pay $30 to $40 for a standard bottle.
How It Compares
Rye whiskey is an interesting alternative to the competition. Its main competitors are other whiskeys, particularly bourbon since many bartenders switched to the latter after realizing its potential for drinks. Despite this competition, rye whiskey remains a staple on shelves because it's a key ingredient in cocktails like the much-loved Manhattan.
What We Think
It's difficult for us to truly quantify how rye whiskey compares to other drinks. Most of the characteristics of this drink come down to personal preference. Some people prefer a sweeter taste; others enjoy drier flavors. For that matter, some people only use whiskey as an ingredient and merely follow whatever their recipes say.
We're not bold enough to say that one type of alcohol is inherently better than another. In the end, all that matters is whether you enjoy your drink. Whether you're taking it straight from the bottle, pouring it into a cocktail, or even using it in cooking, it's best to try a little of everything and decide for yourself.
Either way, we think it's best to start with a softer choice like the Rittenhouse Rye or the Sazerac Rye before experimenting with the bold, intense flavors of something like the Lot 40. If you're not prepared, the stronger drinks can bowl you over and leave you wondering what just hit you.
Deals And Coupons
As a category, rye whiskeys go on sale on a regular basis - the same as most other drinks. Naturally, you're more likely to find a deal on familiar, affordable brands. Limited-edition bottles tend to retain their prices.
Health Warning: Rye whiskeys are delicious, but please, drink responsibly so you can enjoy your bottle to the fullest. If you're ordering at a bar, make sure you have a designated driver to bring you home.
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