If you're not a whiskey-obsessive like myself, odds are your interaction with rye whiskey is limited to classic cocktails such as the Manhattan or the Sazerac. While those time-tested concoctions certainly deserve their success, the world of rye has come a long way from the spirits that inspired them. So what exactly is a rye?
The first important distinction to make is one of nationality—in this case, American vs. Canadian. Canada had no distinct regulations for whisky labeling, so it can be hard to tell from the bottle exactly what kind of whisky it contains: "Canadian Whisky" and "Canadian Rye Whisky" could describe the exact same spirit! (Yes, in Canada, like in Scotland, they don't use the 'e'.) The rules in the United States are more restrictive. A rye whiskey made here must contain a mashbill that is at least 51 percent rye, distilled to no more than 160 proof, and aged in charred new oak barrels. After two years of aging, it can be labelled "straight rye whiskey."
Rye is distinct from bourbon or other American whiskeys—it's dry, bold, and spicy, with greener, floral flavors from the grassier grain. And while it can be edgy and brash, rye ages exceptionally well. We've selected a trifecta of tipples that are a great place to start exploring this singular spirit.
Made by the folks at the Buffalo Trace Distillery, Sazerac Rye is a good introduction to rye. Pouring a light copper, it has a bourbon-like aroma with sweet corn and cherry. The taste brings more of the rye into play, with a good dose of spices and charred wood. It has a woody finish, and a fair bit of heat (90 proof!). This is a fantastic value at around $25 a bottle, and a great introduction to rye for the bourbon drinker.
Hudson Manhattan Rye
Tuthilltown Spirits Distillery's Hudson Manhattan Rye is a bit further along the rye spectrum. Packing a little more punch at 92 proof, it the grain character is up front and center with whiffs of charred sourdough. The distinctive rye flavors develop on sipping with a biting vegetal grip on the palate and spices - cinnamon, clove, and spearmint. There's some sweetness at the end with vanilla, honey, and coconut cooling off the initial heat. A lovely sipping rye, very nicely balanced. It sells for about $45 for 375 mL.
High West Double Rye!
Yes, that's an exclamation mark. High West Distillery's Double Rye! is definitely superlative, pushing the boundaries of just how rye-y a rye can get.
A blend of a 2 year-old 95% rye mashbill rye and a 16 year-old 53% rye mashbill rye, this spirit is unapologetically spicy, yet still mellow. The nose doesn't give too much away, with just a hint of the punch that comes on the palate. The green, grassy rye dominates, with a kick of mint, clove, cinnamon, and dark chocolate bouncing around. The real surprise is the floral, almost gin-like botanicals that begin to surface. It finishes softly, with caramel and vanilla flavors lingering. Surprisingly easy to drink despite its explosive flavor, the Double Rye! is not a study in balance and harmony, but rather a celebration in taking rye to the extreme. It's about $38 for 750 mL.
It seems like more new and interesting ryes are coming on the market every day, so get out there and start exploring! Have you tried any new ryes that have gotten you excited?
Samples provided for review consideration.
About the author: Andrew Strenio is a lover of all things potable. Since sneaking his grandmother's bourbon balls, he's moved on to touring distillers and sipping snifters. He works by day making documentary television and films for an independent production company in Brooklyn.