A
t one time in our history, rye was synonymous with American whiskey. Right around the founding of our country, in the late 1700s, distillers in the rye-growing regions of Pennsylvania and Maryland created a market so reliable that rye was used to barter. When rye became the first domestic good taxed by the newly formed US government, the backlash was such that it led to the Whiskey Rebellion.

But then Prohibition decreased production and, afterwards, bourbon, produced from corn grown in the newly farmed Midwest, supplanted it as America’s favorite liquor (until vodka came along much later). Corn was easier to distill than rye and produced a sweeter liquor, especially popular during a time when drinkers favored sweeter cocktails (the first martinis, or martinezes, used sweet vermouth in favor of today’s much more popular dry vermouth).

Rye hung on for a number of years by way of only a few distilleries, and only in small production. At one point, rye produced by Wild Turkey, Jim Beam and Old Overholt represented the lion’s share of options for drinkers of the spicy brown whiskey. As recently as 2006, in an article by The New York Times about its resurrection, rye survived only “by whiskey lovers who want to preserve its singular, almost exotic essence.”

Then something happened. The sweet-toothed, older, bourbon-drinking generation gave way to a generation that reached for more spice and flavor. Since 2009, rye sales have increased 536 percent, reaching over half a million cases in 2014, according to the industry group Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. Now, in 2016, the number of quality ryes on the market is completely novel for the modern American drinker. The best ryes, which take six, seven and sometimes 10 years to produce, are now here. The fruits of distilling labor in the late 2000s, when demand for rye spurred distillers to barrel more rye, have arrived.

Below are the best dozen ryes that most people living within the US will be able to purchase. Liquor distribution is hard to pin down, so we can’t guarantee every bottle on this list will be at a liquor store near you, but none of these will have you paying an arm or a leg on the secondary whiskey market. In each case there’s an alternative that, whether due to age or higher proof (and therefore more exclusivity) is pricier but tastier, if you can find a bottle.

Old Overholt

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The Commodity Bottle: Old Overholt is cheap and easy to drink. It’s a perfect bottle for anyone transitioning from bourbons (which are less spicy) to rye. First made by Abraham Overholt in 1810 and produced in the Jim Beam portfolio, we recommend it for a light, summery Old Fashioned with a bit of spice to combat the sweet.

The (Slightly) Harder-to-Get Alternative: Old Grand-Dad 114 (a budget, high-rye bourbon)

Age: 3 years
Proof: 80
Distillery: Jim Beam

Sazerac Rye

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Perfect for Sipping: This is the namesake of the Sazerac cocktail, among the oldest American cocktails and one that still turns heads, especially in New Orleans. Once considered among the best bang for your buck in the rye world, it’s suffered from a cult status, and the price tag has risen over the years. It’s complex, both spicy and a little sweet, and tastes very similar to Old Overholt and Rittenhouse. In fact, a general rule would be to buy Old Overholt to save money, Sazerac for an easy sipping rye and Rittenhouse for rye based cocktails.

The Harder-to-Get Alternative: Sazerac Rye 18 Year-Old

Age: NAS
Proof: 90
Distillery: Buffalo Trace
Mashbill: Buffalo Trace standard rye recipe (rye, barley and corn)
MSRP: $26.99

Rittenhouse Bottled-in-Bond Straight Rye

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Perfect for Cocktails: If you drink rye, you’ve probably had some Rittenhouse. It’s made with a mashbill of 51 percent rye (called “barely legal”) along with Old Overholt and Sazerac, so it tends to be sweeter and more accessible than ryes which made almost entirely from rye and tend to be extremely spicy. At 100 proof, we recommend this for cocktails in order to keep the proof higher.

The Harder-to-Get Alternative: Rittenhouse 25 Year Old Straight Rye

Age: 4 years
Proof: 100
Distillery: Heaven Hill
Mashbill: At least 51% rye, corn as the secondary grain, malt barley as the third
MSRP: $27.99

High West Whiskey Double Rye!

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The Innovator: David Perkins is a creative distiller, and Double Rye! was among his first to push the envelope. He blends 2-year-old rye sourced from MGP with a mashbill of 95% rye and 5% barley malt and a 16-year-old rye from Barton Distillery with a mashbill of 53% rye and 37% corn. The result is a bit sweeter than your average rye, with some new-make taste which might turn off some, but balanced with complexity from the older juice. He’s a master blender and we can’t wait until the time comes for him to bottle his own distillate.

The Harder-to-Get Alternative: High West Rendezvous Rye

Age: 2 and 16 years
Proof: 92
Distillery: MGP and Barton
Mashbill: Younger rye: 95% rye, 5% barley malt; Older rye: 53% rye, 37% corn
MSRP: $35

Russell’s Reserve 6 Year Old Rye

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The High-Class Original: Despite rye’s current popularity, for a time it was represented consistently by only three brands: Jim Beam, Old Overholt and Wild Turkey. Then the bourbon boom spilled over into rye, and Eddie Russell stepped up rye production. With an excess of rye, he decided to let some barrels age a bit longer. The most interesting thing is that Wild Turkey only uses two mashbills (one for rye, one for bourbon) and one yeast. So to taste their lineup is to taste differences that purely came from aging. Their rye is 51% rye, 37% corn and 12% barley, leading to a more complex, sweet and bold rye that’s ideal for cocktails.

The Harder-to-Get Alternative: Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Rye

Age: 6 years
Proof: 90
Distillery: Wild Turkey
Mashbill: Proprietary — however: “We are different because we use some corn in our Rye mash…it makes our Rye more well rounded. It starts with a little sweetness before it turns to the sharper taste of the rye.” — Wild Turkey Master Distiller, Eddie Russell.
MSRP: $47.99

Smooth Ambler Old Scout Rye

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The West Virginian Newcomer: Smooth Ambler came along in 2009 and has quickly become a favorite of bourbon junkies. They don’t distill their own stuff, but are very upfront on this — they call this series Old Scout because they are “scouting” whiskeys they admire, blending and bottling them to their own taste. A straight rye whiskey, this is big and bold and perfect for classic rye lovers, although it should be noted that this specific bottling is discontinued. But be on the lookout for more rye from Smooth Ambler.

The Harder-to-Get Alternative: Old Scout Single Barrel Rye

Age: 7 years
Proof: 99
Distillery: MGPI, Lawrenceburg Indiana
Mashbill: 95% Corn, 5% Malted Barley
MSRP: $39
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Pikesville Straight Rye

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The Reinvented Champion: Not long ago, Pikesville Rye was a bottom-shelf rye from the Potomac region. First distilled in 1895, the name was aquired by Heaven Hill in 1982, who began distilling it on site in Kentucky. Then, just last year, Heaven Hill launched an older, higher proof, and much better version nationwide. The bottle was named runner-up for Jim Murray’s 2016 World Whisky of the Year, even though its price tag stays well below $50.

The (Very Slightly) Harder-to-Get Alternative: Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye

Age: 6 years
Proof: 110
Distillery: Heaven Hill
Mashbill: At least 51% rye, corn as the secondary grain, malt barley as the third
MSRP: $49.99

Willet Family Estate 3 Year Old Small Batch Rye

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The Surprise Youngling: Willett, led by Drew Kulsveen, is a fantastic distillery. The family, which has distilled for 120 years, reopened their still in 2012 and their made-on-premise rye batches have been just as promising as their older ryes which they purchased from MGP and barreled on site. The younger ryes (there is a two and three year) have a distinct, rough taste that deserves to be drank straight.

The Harder-to-Get Alternative: Willet Family Estate 9 Year Old Small Batch Rye

Age: 3 years
Proof: 111.2 (varies at cask strength)
Distillery: Willett
Mashbill: Proprietary — however it marries two mashbills, one that is 74% rye and one that is 51% rye
MSRP: $37-$42

WhistlePig 10 Year Old Straight Rye

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The Foreigner: There’s a lot of hate surrounding WhistlePig. For one, it’s not distilled at the Vermont distillery, but rather imported from Canada, a fact that prudish snobs bristle at because Canada has more relaxed regulations on what can go in a rye (caramel coloring is allowed, for example). At first, the distillery printed that the rye was made in Vermont, which literally isn’t true, and then subsequently explained it as a finicky requirement of the US Treasury Department’s Tax & Trade Bureau. It’s also pretty expensive. But I don’t buy into drama. I don’t care much for overregulation in markets, especially among small businesses, and I don’t seem to get as personally offended by labeling as some other whiskey writers. WhistlePig produces great rye. It won’t be the cheapest in the store, but this list is full of cheap alternatives. Plus, it was featured in Breaking Bad because it was creator Vince Gilligan’s favorite whiskey. So drink the pig and stop worrying.

The Harder-to-Get Alternative: The Boss Hog 2014

Age: 10 years
Proof: 100

Angel’s Envy Finished Rye

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The Carribean Bottle: This rye is sweet. This is not your spicy, hair-on-your-chest rye. It’s more of an after-dinner rye, a cocktail rye. The sweetness comes from the vintage rum casks that Lincoln Henderson finishes this rye in, and the result won’t please some rye fans, but will win other over that are looking for more of a dessert, less of a barstool brooding aid.

The Harder-to-Get Alternative: A Midwinter Night’s Dram or WhistlePig 12 Year Old World

Age: 6 years in new American oak charred barrels, 18 months in Caribbean rum casks
Proof: 100
Distillery: Unknown (Note: Angel’s Envy is one in Louisville this fall)
Mashbill: 95% rye and 5% malted barley
MSRP: $69.99

E.H. Taylor, Jr. Straight Rye

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The Spicy Older Brother: Sazerac is likely Buffalo Trace’s most well-known rye. For E.H. Taylor, Jr., Buffalo Trace pays homage to the original recipe, dropping the corn and only balancing rye and barley for a spicy, clean rye. It’s not cheap and won’t be available at every store, but is worth the price.

The Harder-to-Get Alternative: Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye

Age: NAS
Proof: 100
Distillery: Buffalo Trace
Mashbill: Buffalo Trace’s variant rye recipe (rye, barley but no corn)
MSRP: $69.99

Michter’s Limited Release US*1 Barrel Strength Rye

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Pricey but Great: Michter’s has made a lot of bourbon bloggers upset due to a perceived lack of transparency when they just began distilling, rebooting the Michter’s name in 2004, after closing in 1989 after operation since about 1753 near Schaefferstown, Pennsylvania. But despite their whiskey being produced in Kentucky, not Pennsyvlania, it’s extremely tasty, and carries a hefty price tag. In May 2015, the distillery released Michter’s US*1 Barrel Strength Rye Barrel, which notably enters the barrel at 103 proof (lower than most distillers), which costs Michter’s in barrels and warehousing, but which they believe creates “yields a richer, smoother, more full-bodied whiskey.” We tend to agree.

The Harder-to-Get Alternative: Michter’s 10 Year Straight Rye

Age: NAS
Proof: 111.8 (varies, most barrels in the 2016 release range between 110.2 and 114.8 proof)
Mashbill: Proprietary — “has more of some other grains in it than an Indiana style 90% rye would have”
MSRP: $75
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