MAYBE IT’S THE COOLER WEATHER, LONGER NIGHTS, OR THE WEALTH OF FESTIVE GATHERINGS, BUT THE HOLIDAY SEASON SEEMS LIKE IS THE PERFECT TIME TO BRUSH UP ON YOUR WHISKEY GAME.
But where to start? The world’s most popular brown spirit makes for an almost impossibly diverse spirits category, sometimes divided by country of origin (see: Irish or Canadian whiskey) or type of grains used in the “mash bill” (that’s the mix of grains the distiller uses to make the spirit). When it comes to American- made whiskey, bourbon, which must be made from mostly corn, tends to get the lion’s share of attention. But don’t overlook Rye whiskey, its lesser-known cousin, made from a majority of rye grain.
While Bourbon tends to have sweet vanilla and oak overtones and Scotch brings smoky notes, rye tends to skew a little spicier, a little fruitier, which makes it a favorite in the craft cock- tail world for sipping neat or inclusion in bold spirit-forward cocktails, such as a Boulevardier or Old-Fashioned. (Having trouble picturing the flavor? Think dark toasty rye bread.) But don’t stop there—rye shines in simple mixed drinks, giving a heady kick to a whiskey buck (whiskey, lime, and ginger beer), or a whiskey highball, if you’re looking for something more refreshing.
Rye has a long history in the United States. In the early 19th century, states such as Pennsylvania and Maryland dominated production, making rye more popular than even bourbon. Prohibition would largely wipe out stocks of rye. The spirit was largely forgotten until the recent craft cocktail renaissance, in which bartenders and mixologists championed its return amid the clamor for all sorts of brown spirits after a streak of vodka dominating the public imagination.
When it comes to picking out the right bottle, there are a few terms to keep in mind. “Straight rye whiskey” means that the spirit has been aged for at least two years and has no flavor or color additives. “Bonded” means the rye has been aged for at least four years and bottled at 100 proof. Keep an eye on the ABV too, especially if you’re putting in cocktails: a rye at 110 proof will pack more of a punch than an 80 proof version.
If you’re curious to learn more, pick up one of the recommended bottles below to experiment with at home. Or, if you’re in the market for an educational—and fun— theme for a holiday get-together, grab a few bottles to set up whiskey tasting to compare and contrast.
5 RYE WHISKEYS TO TRY NOW:
Dave Pickerell was the head distiller at Maker’s Mark for 14 years before signing onto this Vermont-based project, which sources rye and whiskey from Canada and ages and blends it onsite. The straight rye has notes of thyme, butter- scotch and baking spices, and makes an excellent pick on its own or blended into cocktails. Don’t forget to try the limited release FarmStock series too, made with grains grown on their own Vermont farm, or the sturdy Boss Hog, which is bottled with 14 years of age at 120 proof.
Made from a mix of rye, corn and barley, this solid brand from Heaven Hills is made in Kentucky and has fruity notes with just a hint of spice. The mellow flavor and value-oriented pricetag means this is a good pick for blending in cocktails.
HIGH WEST DOUBLE RYE
This Utah-based outfit may be a relatively new kid on the block, but its experimental whiskeys and ryes made from blending whiskey from Kentucky and Indiana have gained an appreciative following. The Double Rye is made from blending two different ryes for a spicier profile, with notes of caramel and vanilla. Their well-regarded Rendezvous bottling gets its complex profile from a blend of a number of ryes.
This bottling made with a high corn to rye ratio, a mild 80 proof, and a 200 year old history comes up again and again when top level bartenders recommend a solid budget pick to keep on the back bar.
This rye has an old name—a previous version had been made in Maryland since Prohibition—but Heaven Hills recently relaunched the label with six years of age at 110 proof, making for a compelling whiskey to drink straight.