The Best American Craft Rye Whiskeys on the MarketBy Jake Emen
American rye whiskey was dominated for so long by such a select few legacy producers that the category carried with it little excitement or diversity. Then came the cocktail revolution. What followed was a near instantaneous clamor for the long-overlooked American whiskey that made those classic cocktails sing. Right in the wake of that came another crashing wave — the craft distillery boom.
Soon there were more rye whiskeys than consumers or bartenders could keep tabs on. Of course, much of that first wave was dominated by sourced whiskeys — products made at MGP in Indiana; by Alberta Distillers in Canada; or by one of the Kentucky powerhouses which had remained making the stuff the whole time.
There are entirely valid reasons for this. Rye is far more cumbersome to work with in the distillery than bourbon. Also, the aforementioned big producers had decades of experience and factory-like efficiency, with the resulting low prices and high quality to match. The public caught onto the game, and truth be told, it’s a no harm no foul situation. Well, as long as the brand in question wasn’t lying about who made the juice or from where it came.
Craft Rye Whiskey Coming of Age
As the years have passed, though, much of the best rye whiskey coming from the US is made at craft distilleries. The result is a wide breadth of rye whiskey in terms of style and flavor. This differs from the almost single-minded, heavy-spice 95% rye, 5% malted barley that became ubiquitous and even definitive of the category for a time. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
For the purposes of this craft rye whiskey guide then, products known to be 100% sourced aren’t included. However, there may be space for blended products incorporating parcels of whiskey which have been sourced alongside self-distilled product, or even blended products sourced from more than one producer. In other words, you need to do more than buy a few barrels from a big producer, even if you do finish it afterword.
What follows is an alphabetical list of some of our favorite and very best American rye whiskeys from craft producers.
Best American Craft-Distilled Rye Whiskeys
Eastland Distilling in Portland is putting to use a unique and indigenous type of oak which many whiskey drinkers have first come across via Westland Distillery: Quercus Garryana. Here the distillery takes a blend of rye whiskeys and finishes the combination in the garry oak. This imparts some of the distinctive and signature flavor notes from that wood variety, and offers a fresh take on the category.
Castle & Key is a wonderful study of contrasts. It’s a startup distillery, but one with a historical legacy par excellence. It’s a craft distillery, but it has the capacity of a behemoth. With its Restoration Rye series, the distillery’s inaugural whiskey lineup, it showcases the best of all those worlds. Flavor profile varies from one seasonal batch to the next, and that’s by design. The team flexes its blending muscles to showcase the wide range of styles it’s able to produce, tweak and highlight.
Catoctin Creek made rye whiskey the core of its product line from the start, with Roundstone Rye being its flagship. The 80-proof offering is the most easily found, though perhaps the most fun can be had with the rest of the product line. In detail, there’s a 92 proof Distiller’s Edition, a Cask Proof offering around 58%, and a rarer yet bottled in bond offering called Rabble Rouser. In fact, the distillery has even partnered with GWAR for its Ragnarok Rye series. The Virginia distillery has now expanded its production capacity and presence, so expect the offerings to only improve from here.
This selection uses a high-rye mash bill. But as is befitting for one of the earliest Pennsylvania craft distilleries, Dad’s Hat aims for the Monongahela or Pennsylvania style of rye, with an 80% rye, 15% malted barley and 5% malted rye mash bill. The juice has continued to take strides forward over the years. Look out for the brand’s Bonded rye, as well as a number of finishes, especially the Port Wine Finish.
Far North is inspired by its Scandinavian roots, but also by its far north home in Minnesota. In fact, it’s the northernmost distillery in the contiguous United States. Additionally, the estate distillery grows its own grain and experiments with different varieties. With Roknar Rye, it deploys AC hazlet winter rye and Minnesota heirloom corn. Then it’s finished in cognac casks, delivering a rye fit for the Nordic gods.
High West was long known for its innovative blending and finishing processes. In more recent years, it’s fortified its existing product line with an increasingly large component of self-distilled juice. The mission was at first to carefully match the product it’s already released in prior runs. But going forward, the goal is to improve it further as more of their own stock comes of age. Double Rye is currently made with a blend of 95% rye from MGP along with its own 80% rye, 20% malted rye. The resulting whiskey has a combined age range of between 2-9 years.
Burlington, Vermont distillery Mad River uses a trio of ryes for an all-rye mash bill, incorporating chocolate malted rye and toasted rye into the proceedings. Both malted ryes offer subtle flavor notes to the final product, which has a profile all of its own, incorporating spicy oak alongside cocoa, cedar and incense.
All of the respect in the world goes to New Riff, who didn’t just sit on its whiskey until it was good enough. No, the Kentucky distillery waited until everything it released met the minimum qualifications for being labeled bottled-in-bond. This release is a rare new entrant which contains a 95% rye mash bill. However, the remaining 5% goes to malted rye, not malted barley. Be sure to also try the more limited Single Barrel; a barrel-proof offering.
Allen Katz stayed patient with his Ragtime Rye, refusing to budge for an early release in a way that few craft-sized producers have been able to do. The result was that Ragtime Rye hit the ground running in its initial release; matured in full-size barrels for over three years. In the years since, the product has only gotten older and better. NYDC also offers up a Bottled-in-Bond version as well as limited releases such as an Applejack Barrel Finished expression.
The history of non-legacy producer whiskey distillation in the United States essentially starts right here. Having a few decades under the belt does nothing to take away its craft lineage, though. Old Potrero is pot distilled and made with 100% malted rye, and was originally conceived as a throwback to the very origins of American whiskey. Old Potrero’s 18th Century is also made from 100% rye. But as it’s aged in uncharred barrels and a portion of used barrels, it is not technically an American rye whiskey.
The whiskeys which Peerless is producing have been a revelation for many of the folks who staunchly stand by the outdated notion that “craft whiskey isn’t good (bro).” Peerless uses a sweet mash process, bottles everything at barrel proof, and doesn’t chill filter. As a result, this leaves its flavors as fully intact and robust as possible. Its cask-strength single-barrel picks are where things get really fun, showcasing a widely divergent range of flavor possibilities.
We said no sourced MGP would be included. But what about one of MGP’s own brands? While certainly not craft-sized, the producer is craft-ish in the way that it’s still in the early days of releasing its own labels. Rossville Union is made from a blend of the distillery’s 51% rye and 95% rye mash bills, and is bottled at 94 proof. Meanwhile, a barrel-proof edition offers bang for the buck at 112.6 proof.
The Stellum lineup is a brand offshoot from Barrell Craft Spirits. It’s meant to serve the purpose of steady standbys alongside their exotic and sometimes esoteric one-offs. Stellum Rye is a blend of ryes from Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee — including yes, 95% MGP rye. But the brand also uses older ryes from the other two states of origin. Furthermore, it’s offered at a robust cask strength of 116.24 proof and intertwines the evergreen and rye spice of the MGP with a deeper and more complex set of flavors.
Tattersall uses 100% Minnesota grain for its rye whiskey. But like some of other craft distilleries here, the distillery looks to the old-school Monongahela-style ryes for inspiration. The mash bill is a combination of 85% rye and 15% malted rye, and the standard expression is aged for a minimum of two years in 30- and 53-gallon barrels. The distillery has already released bottled-in-bond bourbons, so hopefully a bottled-in-bond rye follows.
Wigle is yet another Pennsylvania distillery which appropriately pays homage to the state’s long and storied history of rye whiskey production. However, this distiller emphasizes local and organic grains, and also produces a creative range of spirits. But the Pennsylvania Rye is a mainstay, made from 68% local rye, 18% local wheat and 14% malted barley. It’s aged in a combination of 25-gallon and 53-gallon barrels, with a minimum of two years in the former, and three to four years in the latter.
Wilderness Trail is another young major, as in, an upstart with the firepower of the old stalwarts. The distillery has also played the patient waiting game. But with a background in yeast and fermentation, the distillery follows a fine-tuned, sweet mash approach to production. This is a cask-strength offering made from a 56% rye, 33% corn and 11% malted barley mash bill. The whiskey is aged for a minimum of four years, with six to eight years expected to be the new normal.
Can you be one of the one most clamored for distilleries — one with a historic name — and still be a craft producer? You betcha. And there’s a reason that Willett’s products are in high demand, after all. With their Family Estate Rye, all of the Willett you love is offered at an accessible level, both in terms of price and availability. The robust cask strength rye shows well above its 4 year old age.
Want to try some more American craft rye offerings?
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