Whiskey with a bit of a kick.
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Spicy, bold, and part of America’s spirit history, rye whiskey is becoming an increasingly popular option for both cocktailians and those who prefer their whiskey straight. “Historically, we were a very rye-focused culture before we discovered it was easier in most of the U.S. to distill with corn and barley malt,” says Jena Ellenwood, bartender at Dear Irving and Sparrow Tavern in New York City. “Rye was harder to grow in the soil, and it tended to have more spice than the sweet corn.” Popular in the 1940s and ‘50s, rye went through a bit of a slump until the early 2010s when demand grew again. Now, there are plenty of quality rye whiskeys available on the market, some crafted for sipping straight, while others punch through in cocktails. “With rye whiskey, the question becomes not just one of aroma and flavor, but of body and heat, as well,” says Alicia Yamachika, lead bartender at Nobu Honolulu. Here, the best bottles of rye to drink and mix with.
Best Overall: Basil Hayden’s Dark Rye
Almost decadently rich, this unique rye whiskey is a blend of Kentucky rye, Canadian rye from Basil Hayden's Alberta-based distillery, and a touch of California-made port, which gives it undertones of dark fruit flavors. This isn't your typical rye, but it's still great for sipping on its own or stirring into a cocktail like a Boulevardier or Manhattan. Easy-drinking as it is, this bottling still harbors rye’s signature spice, though it leans more into the holiday spice category than black pepper. Whether you’re new to rye whiskeys or a seasoned rye drinker looking to branch out, this is the bottle to consider.
Runner-Up, Best Overall: High West Double Rye
From High West, Utah’s ski-in distillery, the Double Rye! bottling is heavy on the spice, making it a great option for diehard rye fanatics who are heat-seekers at heart. It’s a blend of two different rye whiskeys (a younger spirit and an older spirit, both aged two years at minimum), and it’s designed to be twice as spicy as your average rye. “It’s a smooth-drinking, easy-on-the-pocketbook rye that is very easy to mix,” says Christian Self, owner of Bevy & Taco’ako in Honolulu. “A blend of two different ryes in perfect harmony, it has just the right level of spiciness." Mix this bottle with classic cocktails like the Old Fashioned or a drink that calls for an amaro, or sip it straight with a splash of water to help tame the heat.
Best for Manhattans: Redemption
Though a whiskey only has to contain 51 percent rye grain to be deemed a rye whiskey in the U.S., Redemption went a bit further, creating their signature bottling with 95 percent rye grain. Perfect for rye purists, it also happens to make a terrific Manhattan, thanks to that heavy rye content. The spice and malty quality of the grain come through, balancing out the fruity sweet vermouth, while the spirit’s cinnamon and nutmeg notes play off the bitters. It also comes in at 92 proof, so watch out for its punch.
Best for Sazeracs: Sazerac
As its name suggests, this rye whiskey is the best pick for Sazeracs. Packed with notes of baking spices, orange and lemon zest, and a hint of vanilla, it's bright and vibrant. This rye harmonizes beautifully with the classic New Orleans cocktail’s Peychaud’s bitters and absinthe, plus it can handle a little dilution from some ice. When using it to make a Sazerac, don’t forget the lemon zest garnish. The rye brings out even more of the candied citrus notes in the whiskey, marrying everything together.
Best Under $50: Ragtime
From Brooklyn's New York Distilling Company, this bottling is made exclusively with New York state rye grain. Ragtime Rye is a craft spirit with a ton of character: it’s robust, warming, and filled with holiday spice. Marissa Mazzotta, bar director at The Shanty, the distillery’s attached bar, recommends stretching it out with bubbly soda water in a Whiskey Highball, though it would also work in a strong, stirred drink like an aptly named Brooklyn. She also advises not to pass on the distillery’s limited edition Applejack Barrel Finished Ragtime Rye. “It’s very versatile, with a slight hint of apple on the finish that perfectly compliments the big rye flavor,” she says.
Best Under $25: Old Overholt
A favorite of bartenders and budget-conscious whiskey drinkers, Old Overholt has stood the test of time. Case in point: the brand boasts that it was the most popular spirit in the country after Prohibition was lifted. This rye starts with a cereal sweetness and a touch of vanilla, then finishes with a bracing hit of white pepper. And while you’ll often see it as the stiffer half of a Boilermaker, this rye can also be stirred into a fine Manhattan or a spicy Old Fashioned.
Best Value: Wild Turkey 101
At 101 proof, you are getting some serious bang for your buck with Wild Turkey’s potent rye offering. Still, this spirit is smooth and sippable with flavors of honey and fresh herbs like mint, along with the classic spice on the finish. It’s the perfect bottle to have on hand to give your cocktail an extra kick—and it’s also a great dive bar order. “When I’m lucky enough to find myself in the middle of nowhere shooting a game of pool, [the bar is] usually stocked up with Wild Turkey Rye,” says Josh Jancewicz, bartender at Los Angeles' Gold-Diggers. “In these situations, my go-to is a Turkey and Soda.”
Best Splurge: Lock Stock & Barrel 16 Year
Made by the late Robert J. Cooper (creator of the St-Germain), this high-proof rye would be a collector’s item if it weren’t so darn easy to drink. Just 3,000 cases of the 107-proof, Lock Stock & Barrel spirit were made. Distilled from 100 percent rye, producers aged the spirit in charred American oak barrels for 16 years. The resulting spirit is delightfully spicy, yet easy to sip. It’s balanced out by notes of stone fruit and a touch of honey. The rye’s high proof means it's great for mixing into cocktails with other strongly flavored ingredients, but you should also sip it straight to truly appreciate the balanced flavors and cheek-warming heat.
Best Canadian: Lot No. 40
When it was briefly discontinued in the early 2000s, Lot No. 40 became a precious collectible, prized by fans of the 100-percent rye whisky (spelled sans “e” due to its Canadian origins). Thankfully, it made a comeback in 2012 when the rye was relaunched by Pernod-Ricard. Dry and powerful with notes of fresh-baked bread and lots of zesty spice, it’s great in a Maple Old Fashioned (a nod to its Canadian heritage), but also tasty just poured over an ice cube. A touch of chill and dilution brings out more of the whisky’s fruitier notes while tempering its bold, big-bodied heft.
Best for Sipping: Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel
“I love that Eddie Russell created this despite the fact that his father, Jimmy, who’s been distilling and blending Wild Turkey for 60-plus years, hates rye,” says Ellenwood. On behalf of all rye drinkers out there, we thank Eddie for rebelling against his father and creating this fine, single barrel rye. At 104 proof, it definitely packs some heat, but that’s the essence of rye. Pour it straight and you’ll get the intensity of the vanilla from its time spent in oak barrels, along with earthy, smoky flavors and a nice, dry finish. Of course, you can also take advantage of the rye's power by stirring it into a Black Manhattan (a Manhattan made with amaro in place of sweet vermouth) or Boulevardier.
Best Bottled-in-Bond: Rittenhouse 100 Proof
When you see “bottled-in-bond” on a label, it means that the spirit (typically a bourbon, rye, or apple brandy) follows the regulations put in place by the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897. To be stamped with the honor, whiskeys must be 100 proof, originate from a single U.S. distillery, and be aged for at least four years in a federally bonded warehouse. Rittenhouse follows the letter of the law and the high-quality, spicy spirit is one that bartenders turn to time after time. “It’s my go-to back bar rye and it won’t break the bank,” says Ellenwood. She likes to shake it into both traditional and nontraditional Sours. “It stands up well to citrus,” she says. It’s also Jancewicz’s pick for Old Fashioneds. “It’s cheap, it’s boozy, it’s delicious,” he says. And Neil Heimsoth, beverage manager at White Orchids Thai Cuisine in Center Valley, Pa., holds it up as an exemplary rye overall. “Rittenhouse is my forever first grab,” he says. “It is consistent, cost-effective, and fantastic in all types of cocktails."
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Justine Sterling is an experienced spirits writer and cocktail recipe developer. She has been writing about the wide world of drinking—from new spirits to cocktail trends to wines and beers—for over a decade. Rye first caught her eye in old Humphrey Bogart movies, and ever since her first taste, she’s been seeking out new, spicy bottlings.