Our Guide to Rye Whiskey for Sipping or Mixing
We explain how rye is made and aged, which will help you understand why this spicy, robust whiskey is worth exploring.
Shortly on the heels of the bourbon boom came the rye renaissance, with demand for rye whiskey growing year over year during the past decade. If you're just beginning to learn about American whiskeys, check out our explainer on the difference between bourbon and rye. If you're interested in better understanding the latter, this is a good place to start.
Is Rye More American Than Apple Pie?
Rye may be trending, but it's far from new. In fact, it's older than the United States itself. Beginning in the 1700s, Irish and Scottish colonists used their whiskey distilling know-how to transform the New World's abundant rye grasses into a powerful potable. By (modern) law, American rye whiskey must be made from at least 51 percent rye grain, with the remainder of the mash bill made up of corn, malted barley, and/or wheat. There are some whiskeys with even higher proportions of rye—all the way up to 100 percent. The higher the rye content, the more peppery and assertive the flavor of the whiskey.
Just like bourbon, all American rye is aged in charred new oak barrels for at least two years, picking up flavor nuances and its amber color from the wood. Some rye distillers, such as Whistle Pig, further age the whiskey in casks that previously contained other elixirs—such as cognac or madeira—adding new dimensions of flavor, aroma, and color to the finished spirit.
How to Enjoy Rye Whiskey
Rye lovers enjoy it neat or on the rocks, just like any other good whiskey. We love rye for cocktails, too, where its pronounced bite comes through loud and clear against the backdrop of other mixers. Some classic rye cocktails include the Vieux Carré, the Sazerac, and the Manhattan. Plus, any cocktail you ordinarily make with bourbon can also be made with rye, which will make the drink a little less sweet and a little more spicy. Try a rye Mint Julep, Boulevardier, or Old Fashioned to add an extra kick to your cocktail hour.
Which Rye to Buy?
Ready to start sipping your way around the world of rye whiskey? We can help guide you. For mixing, like in the Rye-Whiskey Switchels shown above, we like Rittenhouse Rye ($27.99, wine.com). Its rye content is on the lower end of the ratio so it's got a balanced, spicy-but-sweet flavor profile, and its friendly price tag means you don’t have to save it for special occasions.
For sipping, consider treating yourself to Redemption 10 Year Barrel Proof Rye ($104, wine.com), a potent powerhouse with a long, mellow finish that contains 95 percent rye balanced out with just five percent malted barley. (Remember that aged spirits take time to age and the current shortage of aged rye whiskeys mean prices are high.) Also check out WhistlePig Distillery's portfolio of notable rye whiskey, including their Old World Cask Finish Rye ($129, wine.com), which is aged 12 years and finished in port, Madeira, and French sauternes barrels.