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Best rye whiskey: our expert picks the ideal rye for a Sazerac, Manhattan, or simply neat

Drier and more complex than bourbon, rye whiskey is a mixologist’s dream and absolutely at home in Manhattan, Old Fashioned and Sazerac cocktails, but it’s also increasingly valued as a sipping whiskey.

Published: August 26, 2022

From the Jack Daniels and Jim Beam expressions that grace just about every back bar in the world, to the higher end whiskeys such as Woodford Reserve, Maker’s Mark and Bulleit- when it comes to American whiskey, the most common variety is bourbon, the corn-based iteration of whiskey matured in a charred oak barrel.

However, as palates have become more sophisticated and we’ve all started to get a little bit more experimental with our spirits, particularly when it comes to cocktails, we’re starting to see a lot more variety making its way into our bars, supermarkets and homes.

Although living in the shadow of its corn-based brethren for a great many years, rye whiskey is now having something of a moment. Drier and more complex than bourbon, rye whiskey is a mixologist’s dream and absolutely at home in Manhattan, Old Fashioned and Sazerac cocktails, but it’s also increasingly valued as a sipping whiskey.

So what is rye whiskey?

Much as you might expect, this is whiskey that is made predominantly with rye, as opposed to corn. In fact, legally it must be distilled from at least 51 percent rye grain, with the remaining percentage usually topped up with a mixture of corn and malted barley. The resultant spirit generally has a spicier, drier taste, redolent of cloves and caraway seeds in addition to the more traditional American whiskey flavours of vanilla, toffee and oak. If you’ve tried rye bread, you’ll have an idea of the kind of flavours we’re talking about here.

Rittenhouse Straight Rye 100 Proof Rye Whiskey

Rittenhouse Straight Rye 100 Proof Rye Whiskey
Rittenhouse Straight Rye 100 Proof Rye Whiskey

Best rye for a Manhattan

BUY HERE

There’s something ineffably classy about a Manhattan. We always feel a little better dressed, a little better looking and a great deal more charming with one of these to hand. Whether you’re after the dry, sweet or perfect variety, you want a rye that will bring some peppery spice to the proceedings, performing a form of alchemy with the vermouth and bitters and creating that magical fusion of grain and grape.

Personally, we’re rather partial to a sweet Manhattan, with Cocchi Vermouth di Torino and finished with a Luxardo Maraschino cherry and a dash of juice from the jar, but you do you. Whichever variety you choose, Rittenhouse Rye is the ideal companion. Smooth toasted rye dominates, but is supported by nutmeg, cinnamon and ground white pepper at the front and then a long, lingering finish of dark chocolate, oranges and caramel. In harmony with vermouth and bitters, this just sings.

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BUY HERE Rittenhouse Straight Rye 100 Proof Rye Whiskey

Sazerac Rye

Sazerac Rye
Sazerac Rye

Best rye for a Sazerac

BUY HERE

It seems all too obvious to reach for a bottle of Sazerac when making a Sazerac, but after a blind tasting where we mixed it up with a range of other ryes, this one just kept getting our vote. There’s something about its sweet, peppery, herbaceous quality that marries perfectly with the cognac, and highlights the aniseed notes of the absinthe.

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It’s not just for Sazeracs though – this is a lovely sipping rye, not as ‘chewy’ as some can be, but light and smooth. Our initial sip brought out the flavours of cocktail cherries, maple sauce and brown sugar, but there’s a long, dry (almost astringent) finish that tempers the sweetness and left us thinking of leather armchairs and oak casks.

BUY HERE Sazerac Rye

High West Rendezvous Rye

High West Rendezvous Rye
High West Rendezvous Rye

Best rye for an old fashioned

BUY HERE

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Aaah, the Old Fashioned. Such a simple cocktail, but its very simplicity means that your choice of base spirit will completely change its character. Switch out the usual bourbon for (actually more traditional) rye, and it’s a different beast entirely.

In order to perfect our Rye Old Fashioned, we tried several different bottlings (we know, it’s a tough job, but somebody has to do it) and while all were interesting, High West Rendezvous blew our socks off. The distillery prides itself on the high rye content in the mash bill, which means that this whiskey really makes the Old Fashioned its own. The aromas of sandalwood and leather announce its presence, and a sip will deliver cedar, spice, a little aniseed and a long, dry finish. If you ever thought bourbon was a little too sweet for your tastes, you’re going to feel right at home with Rendezvous.

BUY HERE: High West Rendezvous Rye

WhistlePig 10 Year Old Rye Whiskey

WhistlePig 10 Year Old Rye Whiskey
WhistlePig 10 Year Old Rye Whiskey

Best Canadian rye

BUY HERE

Finding the distinctive peppery spice of a rye whiskey can be tricky when it comes to Canadian bottlings. It’s long been legal to use the terms rye whiskey and Canadian whisky interchangeably, even though the majority of bottlings are corn based and so closer to bourbons in flavour.

However, Whistlepig is resolutely rye from snout to tail, with a deliciously spiced aroma that dabbles in allspice and orange zest, before delivering up a soft sweetness with caramel and vanilla on the tongue. This one can be hard to find, so grab a bottle while you can.

BUY HERE WhistlePig 10 Year Old Rye Whiskey

Wild Turkey Straight Rye (40.5%) Whiskey

Wild Turkey Straight Rye (40.5%) Whiskey
Wild Turkey Straight Rye (40.5%) Whiskey

Best for beginners

BUY HERE

With interest in rye whiskey surging, it’s no surprise that some of the Big Beasts of whiskey have turned to releasing their own contributions to the burgeoning marketplace. Bulleit Bourbon, Woodford Reserve and Jack Daniels are just some of the well-known brands that have recently released special bottlings.

We’d like to draw your attention to Wild Turkey though as, if you’re just starting out on your rye journey, it’s an excellent introduction, and a relatively economical one to boot. Crack the bottle open and you’ll be greeted by the scent of carraway seeds and freshly ground black pepper. We added a couple of ice cubes to our glass and once the liquor was slightly diluted, we tasted toffee, vanilla fudge and a slight touch of aniseed or fennel.

A long, dry finish rounded things off. As well as being an excellent introduction, Wild Turkey is also very happy to mix it up and jump into some cocktails – try it in a Manhattan and it’ll bring a nice line of sweet spice to the proceedings.

BUY HERE Wild Turkey Straight Rye (40.5%) Whiskey

Old Overholt Rye

Old Overholt Rye
Old Overholt Rye

Best for light on rye

BUY HERE

If you like a little bit of rye in the mix, but aren’t looking for it to dominate, then we have just the thing for you. Old Overholt is something of a standard in bars in the US, not least thanks to its continued production since the start of the 19th century, but it can be a little harder to find in the UK.

The reason for its State-side ubiquity though, is its lightness and versatility. Lightness, in that it is the usual peppery rye flavour is dialled down a bit, and versatility in that it is both a decent sipping whiskey and a great base for cocktails. We found it went down well neat and that the rye notes tempered the sweetness of the corn base very nicely. Aside from its popularity in the US, Old Overholt’s other claim to fame is that it made a cameo appearance in a couple of Terry Pratchett novels as ‘Old Overcoat’.

BUY HERE: Old Overholt Rye

Michter's US*1 Straight Rye Whiskey

Michter's US*1 Straight Rye Whiskey
Michter's US*1 Straight Rye Whiskey

Best gift for a rye whiskey lover

BUY HERE

If you’re looking for something a little different for a rye-lover in your life, then you might want to consider Michter’s US*1 Straight Rye Whiskey. It has a particularly soft, sweet flavour, reminiscent of butterscotch and Christmas pudding, and a beautiful caramel apple finish.

Every bottle comes from a single barrel, which means the taste will differ a little depending upon which barrel your whiskey came from, but ours was an absolute delight. It’s not too aggressive a rye flavour, but it does have those fruity, orange-y overtones that you would expect, and is absolute dynamite in a Sazerac.

BUY HERE Michter's US*1 Straight Rye Whiskey

New Riff Single Barrel Rye Whiskey 70cl

New Riff Single Barrel Rye Whiskey 70cl
New Riff Single Barrel Rye Whiskey 70cl

Best newcomer

BUY HERE

New Riff came blasting on to the Kentucky scene in 2014 and wears its youth as a badge of honour. Their Single Barrel Rye Whiskey is an absolute gem. Bottled at cask strength following a four-year maturation, this rye is certainly not messing about. It’s another single barrel whiskey so, once again, flavours will differ a little from bottle to bottle, but it is the distillery’s avowed intent to showcase intense and focused spicy flavours.

Our bottle had the usual aroma of pepper and cloves, but the first sip was revelatory – loads of spice (more cloves and peppercorns), and a floral sweetness that we placed somewhere halfway between honey and Turkish Delight. The finish was dry, like toasted rye bread, and left a lingering peppery spice on the tongue. An absolute belter of a whiskey, definitely happy to be enjoyed on its own, but we reckon this would be stellar in a Manhattan.

BUY HERE New Riff Single Barrel Rye Whiskey 70cl

Interested in all things whisky? Check out our round-ups of the best whiskies on the planet

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Best rye whiskey: ideal rye for a Sazerac, Manhattan, or simply neat
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Best Speyside whiskies: from single malt to blended, M&S to Glenfiddich
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With over twenty years experience as a writer, Justin has covered the eating and drinking scene in Edinburgh extensively. Previously writing for The List Eating and Drinking guide, he now resides in Brighton and continues his keen research into whisky consumption.

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