Cocktail Queries is a Paste series that examines and answers basic, common questions that drinkers may have about mixed drinks, cocktails and spirits. Check out every entry in the series to date.
If there’s one contentious topic that whiskey geeks love to discuss, it’s value in whiskey. And as we wrote in our piece on the best pure values in the bourbon world today, value itself is always something of an indefinable concept:
“Value” is notoriously hard to define, given that every consumer has their own idea of what constitutes good value, and what they’re willing to pay for various products. Drinkers who have been around the scene for a long time may find it difficult to accept that any of the whiskeys around right now constitute a great value. That’s thanks to the fact that the price of whiskey has soared in the last decade, as the nation’s rediscovery of brown spirits led to an emerging market for luxe, ultra-premium spirits to cater to the high-rolling whiskey aficionado. These high price tags, in turn, seemed to have a gravitational effect upon the budget brands of yore, pulling them steadily upward. Although attention and debate have often been directed toward the $100 and beyond bottles, it’s been the creep of $10 bottles into the $20 and $30 range that is arguably a bigger deal in the long run.
This was true of bourbon, but it’s especially true of rye whiskey. Once a category poised to go the way of the dodo just a decade or so ago, rye came roaring back during the American cocktail renaissance, transformed seemingly overnight from dusty old bottom-shelf stalwart to the sexy new backbone of the mixology/brown liquor revival.
And unfortunately, that has led to some seriously inflated prices across the board, when it comes to rye. In fact, there’s far less of a traditional “bottom shelf” in rye than there is in bourbon, because even the older brands have risen in price tags to match the majority of the bourbon mid-shelf. This has created a market where the “average” rye is often more expensive than the “average” bourbon, even if it’s bourbon that more routinely commands top dollar on the high end. At the same time, however, a new wave of affordable mid-shelf ryes have arrived in the last few years, which have helped to make the category more accessible to the masses who are still discovering the joys of bourbon’s spicier cousin. Just look for the ubiquitous green labels that every distillery decided goes hand in hand with “rye.”
Here then, are our thoughts on the best current values when it comes to rye whiskey, split into two price tiers.
MSRPs: Less than $40
It’s more difficult to decide on tiers in the rye whiskey world than it is for bourbon, because there’s much less of a “bottom shelf rye” market. Sure, there’s the likes of Beam’s Old Overholt and co., but if we’re being honest, we’re not huge fans of that stuff. Whereas there are $10 bottles of bourbon we’re legitimately happy to drink, quality bottles of rye whiskey start showing up around the $20 mark. And so, we’ve simply divided this into two categories: “Affordable” rye whiskeys, and slightly less affordable ryes in a higher tier that still offer good value for one reason or another.
First up: Ryes under $40, which will be staples for your home bar and whiskey cocktails.
Distillery: Wild Turkey
ABV: 40.5% (81 proof)
Wild Turkey is perhaps the most consistently high-value American whiskey distillery, and you just can’t argue with a classic Kentucky rye at a price that regularly dips below $20. This is available in both the standard 81 proof and as the rye version of Wild Turkey 101, although the latter doesn’t seem to be nearly as ubiquitous as its more famous bourbon brother—and now that the company has just introduced Rare Breed Rye around 110 proof, one would think there’s not quite as much room for the 101 in the market. So we’re assuming you’ll mostly see the classic 81 proof here, which is fine—it’s one of the best you can get at such a low price.
Flavor wise, this is pretty classic Kentucky rye, grain-forward and spicy, with nuances of mint, rye bread and corny sweetness. You might get some apple fruitiness, cinnamon or vanilla, but it’s a low threshold of flavor intensity that you’d expect for the proof. It’s a perfect mixer for your casual weeknight cocktail or mixed drink, which is exactly what it’s intended to be. And the price can’t be beat.
Distillery: George Dickel (via MGP of Indiana)
ABV: 45% (90 proof)
The elephant in the room, when it comes to American rye whiskeys, is always MGP of Indiana. The midwestern mega-distillery provides its famous 95% rye (and 5% malted barley) whiskey to an uncountable number of other distilleries both small and large, and was indispensable in allowing many young craft distilleries to get into the rye game. As a result, there are a crazy number of ryes on the shelf, especially under the $50 mark, that all contain similar MGP juice, whether it’s Bulleit Rye, Redemption Rye, Templeton Rye or many others. Everyone has their favorite of these MGP ryes, but the one that doesn’t always get noticed is the best pure value of the bunch: Dickel Rye.
This is a decently aged (five years) version of the MGP rye, bottled at a respectable 90 proof, and finished with Dickel’s typical Tennessee whiskey-style charcoal filtration. Oddly, it doesn’t exactly present like most of the other, comparable MGP ryes that are heavy on that famous “dill pickle” note—rather, it’s more rich and redolent in brown sugar, while also being citrus forward. We get flavors of flamed orange peel and dark fruit (cherry), followed by the expected rye spice and black pepper. On a budget, this is one of the best pure values in rye today, and it can go toe to toe with many bottles that are twice the MSRP.
Distillery: Heaven Hill
ABV: 50% (100 proof)
Rittenhouse Rye has been around the block a few times, but it’s as good as it ever was and then some. Heaven Hill’s classic cocktail rye is bottled in bond and can boast the 100 proof point that this entails, which makes it an obvious choice for “up” drinks such as the classic Manhattan, where you don’t want a weaker rye to get lost against sweet vermouth. Rittenhouse has been a bartender favorite for decades, which led to its rediscovery and increased appreciation in the last decade … which also sadly led to price increases. Still, in the context of the modern market it remains an excellent value, especially if you find it for less than $25.
On the palate, Rittenhouse is a bit unlike other Kentucky-style ryes in the sense that it seems significantly more rye forward than some of them, being less defined by corny sweetness and more purely rye spicy. As we observed when Rittenhouse Rye won our blind tasting of rye whiskeys for less than $25:
Peppery spice and green apple fruitiness merge with orange peel, grain and earthy rye bread, while the high proof hides itself surprisingly well. Dried fruit, grass and pepper linger on the palate long afterward, rounding out a profile that begs to be mixed into any classic cocktail. For under $25 you can’t do better than this, as far as rye whiskey is concerned. Rittenhouse is the bottom-shelf rye king.
Also of note: If you enjoy the flavors of Rittenhouse but want to trade a little bit of proof for extra aging, Elijah Craig Rye is a very smooth choice at just over $30.
Distillery: Old Forester
ABV: 50% (100 proof)
For a while, there seemed to be a significant gap between the bottom shelf ryes and the premium ryes, but companies like Heaven Hill and Old Forester (Brown-Forman) have worked to fill in that space in the last few years, and Old Forester Rye immediately became a very popular and budget-friendly bottle in this space when it was introduced in 2019. Like the Rittenhouse, it weighs in at a cocktail-appropriate 100 proof, and its very development says a lot about the fact that rye whiskey is here to stay, considering that it was the first new mashbill with the Old Forester name on it in just shy of 150 years. It’s a unique mashbill for Kentucky as well, with 65% rye—more than most of the 51% ryes that are typical of the state.
On the palate, this one is a bit thinner of body than most corresponding Old Forester bourbons, but bold in terms of its spicy profile. As we wrote when first reviewing it:
Big black pepper spiciness announces the presence of the rye, with additional notes of apple and rye bread, supported by hints of maple sweetness. As I return to it, I find more of those floral impressions from earlier, and a pine-like woodiness that seems “fresh” and pleasant, if young. Alcohol heat is moderate—it’s there, but this goes down easy for 100 proof. I’m struck by how spicy this is overall, but for the most part it’s a purely peppery sort of spice—not big on the baking spices, aside from some light cinnamon.
Distillery: Buffalo Trace
ABV: 45% (90 proof)
This one costs a bit more than it used to, but compared to the inflation of other products rolling out of Buffalo Trace, it still represents a good value. “Baby Saz,” as it’s often known, uses the same mash bill as is found in highly sought-after Antique Collection whiskeys such as Sazerac 18 Year and Thomas H. Handy Rye, as well as the Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye—it’s simply presented at a lower proof point and with no age statement, although it’s reputed to be between 4-6 years old. That makes it a decent value based purely on the specs, but it’s also much better value than most Buffalo Trace products—just don’t get suckered into being gouged by some package store for it.
Flavor-wise, this is a fruit forward rye, with appealing notes of stone fruit and orangey citrus mixing with traditional Buffalo Trace bourbon tones of caramel and vanilla. You’ll get a hint of darker fruit as well, and maybe some baking spice notes of anise and clove, along with the peppery rye. All in all, this lands on the sweeter side of the younger rye spectrum, and makes for an easy sipper. You may want more proof points for making literal sazerac cocktails, but this will certainly make a very easygoing drink if you choose to use it for that.
Distillery: High West Distillery
ABV: 46% (92 proof)
High West is a great example of distillery that built itself up via sourced whiskey, but always sought to make that whiskey their own by transforming it in some way before it was released to the public. The classic Double Rye! is just what it sounds like—two different rye whiskeys, blended together. On the older end, you have well-aged MGP 95/5 rye with a 7 year age statement, but then High West is also chipping in their own house-distilled young rye, which has the added unique factor of being made with 20% malted rye.
The result is a complexity that is hard to get from just one distillate, which is something that makes Double Rye! stand out at this price point. It has a spicy complexity on the palate, with lots of anise, dill, cinnamon and herbal/vegetal notes, supported by slightly richer tones of cocoa and vanilla. This is a drier sort of cocktail rye, more in line with the MGP house style overall, meant for cocktails or for neat drinking if you’re the sort of whiskey geek who appreciates the sometimes divisive flavors of pure rye.
Distillery: Pinhook Whiskey
ABV: 49.5% (99 proof)
Pinhook’s horse-themed lineup of products are currently being distilled at Castle & Key Distillery, but their mash bill is different from Castle & Key’s own flagship products. This one is a 60% rye, 20% corn and 20% malted barley rye, essentially splitting the difference between the old-school Kentucky rye style and modern high-rye styles, with a greater contribution from the malted barley. What we have here, then, is a young rye whiskey around two years of age, at a sturdy 99 proof, with a fairly unique mash bill. It provides good uniqueness for this segment, and some fun flavors, as we wrote when first sampling it:
On the nose, Pinhook Straight Rye plays up the honey and caramel, slathered across buttered rye toast. There are hints of fresh apple and florals, and the suggestion of more than a little sweetness. This definitely reads more like classic Kentucky rye than the ultra spicy, drier style made popular by the likes of MGP of Indiana, with less pepper and hot cinnamon and more sweetness and toastiness, along with a floral quality that may hail from the larger percentage of malted barley in the grist. On the palate, I’m getting apple and pear, along with toffee, pepper and lots of vanilla. Over time, chocolate caramel candies are emerging. There’s a very pleasant, moderate residual sweetness, with notes of toasted rye bread and moderate black pepper, along with candied citrus and fairly heavy toffee.
MSRPs: $40 and above
“Top shelf” is quite relative here, as a $35-40 bottle belongs more accurately to the mid-shelf, but we had to put the cut-off somewhere. These ryes tend to have some factor that makes them unique and sought-after, whether that’s a higher age statement, stronger proof point, or special process that sets them apart in some way. As the MSRPs climb, it’s hard to project any sort of true, objective “value” when compared to the more affordable ryes above, but each of these has specific reasons for us to recommend it.
ABV: 42.5 (84.8 proof)
Michter’s has to be considered one of the whiskey industry’s biggest success stories of the last two decades, going from a non-distilling bottler to a well-liked Kentucky mainstay on the Bourbon Trail, with thousands and thousands of barrels socked away and currently maturing. In its earlier days, the company was built entirely off sourced whiskey across its entire product lineup. They then swapped over to contract distilling their own proprietary spirit at a Kentucky distillery that was operating under capacity, before building two distilleries of their own. Today, their flagship line of “US1” whiskeys, including the bourbon, rye and sour mash, are all produced in house.
This is a younger NAS rye, with a lower proof point, so one might initially wonder about its position on a list of “value” ryes, but we shouldn’t overlook that this is one of only a handful of regularly available single barrel ryes out there in the marketplace. For those who are interested in the delicate variations offered by single barrel selection, that makes Michter’s an interesting option—as does its easygoing but surprisingly complex flavor profile of earthy, fruity and spicy notes. You get some caramel candies, citrus and rye spice, but also a more savory tobacco and wood note that belies the spirit’s young age and relatively low proof point. At this proof point, it’s especially well suited to neat drinking, no ice required. You certainly have to respect what the company has achieved to date, being able now to stand up alongside some of the biggest names in the field.
Distillery: Heaven Hill
ABV: 55% (110 proof)
Pikesville Rye has a pedigree that is impossible not to like—it’s the same mash bill and distillate as Heaven Hill’s popular Rittenhouse, but simply bigger and bolder, with a 110 proof point and a six year age statement. It’s the rare case of genuinely taking a good thing and making it even better, amplifying the classic Kentucky rye flavors of Rittenhouse to make something punchy enough to stand out in any cocktail application, regardless of what other flavors you use.
As for the flavors, the extra age and proof points tease out more fruitiness and richness from the Rittenhouse profile, with more of a dark fruit syrup (black cherry, red licorice) backbone dueling with apple pie filling and substantial rye spice, making this feel like the midpoint between “rye whiskey” and “high-rye bourbon.” Despite the proof point, it’s actually quite an engaging and approachable rye for neat drinking as well, with lovely layered flavors of vanilla and orchard fruits. This is just a balanced offering for any use, really, equally pleasant for cocktails or neat drinking that will please both bourbon and rye fans.
Distillery: J. W. Rutledge Distillery
ABV: 48.5% (97 proof)
High Plains Rye is a newer product from former Four Roses master distiller Jim Rutledge, a complex blend of straight rye whiskeys from many sources. There are actually five different ryes in this, from very common ones such as MGP of Indiana’s classic 95-5 rye, to rye whiskeys from Kentucky, New York and Ohio. All have different recipes, ranging from 51% ryes to 100% ryes. Essentially, this bottle is like a survey of the entire concept of American rye whiskey. Thankfully, it also tastes quite nice as a versatile cocktail rye. As we wrote when first tasting it:
On the nose, the first thing you can’t miss here is that this is a very rye forward rye whiskey in the classical sense—it is really quite redolent in everything the rye grain brings to the table. I’m getting fresh rye bread with caraway, in addition to lots of black pepper and more herbaceous notes of mild dill and rye grass. There’s also some stone fruitiness here as well, and a more subtle roastiness that contributes just a wisp of chocolate—it’s like the ghost of cocoa moving through. On the palate, this is as spicy as you might expect, with an interesting combination of flavors that again highlight the key component, rye. There’s a small amount of sweeter toffee on the front end giving this one a bit of richness, but that impression pulls back pretty quickly into more herbaceous and spice-driven flavors of green tea, dried herbs, citrus and stone fruit. Something here has me thinking “apricot” in particular. Black pepper and cinnamon are present in abundance, while the finish turns more roasty, oaky and lightly astringent, drying the palate slightly between sips in a way that thankfully isn’t too aggressive. This rye whiskey isn’t particularly old by any standard, but I have to say that it seems to present as older than it actually is.
Distillery: Barrell Craft Spirits
ABV: 58.12% (116.24 proof)
Stellum is the value-minded offshoot of Barrell Craft Spirits, and a welcome one—where the standard Barrell batches typically have price tags of $90 and above, the $55 mark of Stellum is much more accessible for cask strength rye. Understandably, these are younger than the standard Barrell batches as a trade-off.
What we have here is a cask-strength blend of rye whiskeys from KY, TN and IN, but primarily composed of MGP’s classic 95/5 (95% rye, 5% malted barley) mash bill. The whiskeys incorporated into Stellum Rye fall between 4-10 years of age, and it sits at a cask strength of 58.12% (116.24 proof). Like Stellum Bourbon, it has an MSRP of $55, which isn’t bad at all for decently aged, cask-strength MGP rye. Certainly, that’s a price point that makes this an option for lots of consumers who wouldn’t otherwise check out a $90 Barrell release, making another rye whiskey such as Heaven Hill’s Pikesville an obvious competitor at roughly the same price point. As we wrote when tasting it:
On the nose, Stellum Rye immediately leads off a bit on the hot side for me, with more of an ethanol presence than I experienced in Stellum Bourbon. That heat blows off with a bit more time, revealing notes of green apple, dried herbs, honey tea and rye spice. The herbal notes evoke dill, mint and anise—classic notes for MGP rye. There’s also some hints of red fruit, but they’re subtle. On the palate, Stellum Rye leads off with big notes of warm caramel/honey and red fruit (strawberry), but then quickly transitions into a drier dimension that combines malty, toasty notes, some chocolate (milk chocolate) and lots of herbal and spicy notes. It definitely reads as drier than the richness of Stellum Bourbon, with spice notes of licorice, clove and nutmeg giving way to herbaceousness that evokes thyme and dill. Overall, that makes Stellum Rye a whiskey that is favoring spice and herbal notes most strongly, which is also pretty typical for this kind of very high-rye mash bill.
Distillery: Sagamore Spirit
ABV: 46% (92 proof)
By the time we get to a certain price point, the smaller distilleries are no longer able to compete with the big boys on the technical side of how we most often assess value, which is age statements and proof points. If they want to stay in the running, they have to do something more unique to transform that whiskey, and one of the options to do so is the newly popular process of secondary finishing in a freshly charred or toasted barrel. There are several whiskeys like this that have hit the market, but the “double oaked” quality plays particularly well in this upgraded version of Sagamore Spirit’s flagship rye, which is a blend of self-distilled Maryland spirit and MGP rye. However, the extra aging time in a second barrel really works some magic on this spirit, and what comes out is quite a bit different from what went in. It’s a reinvention of the MGP-type profile that you really have to taste for yourself, coming from a distillery that specializes in rye. As we wrote previously:
The palate here is appreciably complex, with notes of mint, caramel apple, fennel, rye spice and tons of baking spices. This is quite spice-forward indeed, but compared to many MGP ryes it’s also richer and more caramelized, trading the dill note that some would probably be expecting for more of a sweet citrus/candied nuts/marzipan impression that plays well with the pepper and cinnamon. A more decadent take on the familiar MGP profile, it’s a great pick for classic rye cocktails where you want a bit more sweetness and assertive spice.
Distillery: Jim Beam
ABV: 120-127 proof
I can’t say I’m a huge fan of the youngest Beam ryes, such as Old Overholt, but I don’t love young Beam whiskeys in general. When they get some age and proof on them, however, they become much more my speed. The regular Knob Creek Rye Small Batch is an excellent value to be certain, although it lacks an age statement as the Knob Creek Small Batch Bourbon did until it regained its 9-year age statement in 2020. The best pure value among Beam’s ryes? That would belong to the Knob Creek Cask Strength Rye, one of the few barrel proof ryes on the market. This has only been released in a few batches, but it seems like bottles are still out there and sitting on the shelves, if you’ve got the patience to look. At the same time, things are complicated slightly by the existence of the Knob Creek Single Barrel Select Rye, which are selected by specific package store/bar accounts and weigh in at 115 proof. These two are really similar enough that this note applies to either, and the Single Barrel Select Rye can be found for as little as $55, which makes it a particularly good value.
These stronger, older (the Cask Strength Rye is 9 years old) ryes from Beam are very much in the old-school Kentucky style, being quite influenced by all the corn in the mash so that they split the difference between bourbon and rye influences. They combine a slightly musty, earthy rye presence with sweet cornbread and butterscotch, with massively flavorful and somewhat aggressive tones of marshmallow, honey roasted peanut and pepper. There’s certainly no lack of flavor at this kind of price point, and like many Knob Creek products in the $50-70 range, they’re very high in value compared with similar offerings from other distilleries.
Distillery: Wild Turkey
ABV: 52% (104 proof)
Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Rye has a few things going for it. First off, you’ve got the implicit promise that any given single barrel here is the apple of master distiller Eddie Russell’s eye, and this is a guy who knows his rye whiskey. You also have an attractive proof point that, while not as high as the likes of Pikesville or the Knob Creek, is still fairly close to barrel proof for Wild Turkey, which uses a lower barrel entry proof for maximum flavor. Interestingly, this brand doesn’t feature an explicit age statement, that not being something Wild Turkey usually cares to use as a defining aspect of its products, but it can be assumed that the liquid here is typically a year or two older than the rye whiskey in the 90 proof Russell’s Reserve 6 Year Rye—also a great value, by the way.
It all comes together to make for one of the rye world’s most consistently overlooked brands, perhaps because it doesn’t have the big, sexy age statement. Regardless, these tend to be great single barrels, bursting with vanilla, citrus, charred oak and spices (mint, ginger, cinnamon), in addition to an earthier, more herbal dimension operating in the background. This is a rye for neat drinking and quiet contemplation, and although it doesn’t tend to get the same attention as WT’s single barrel bourbons, it’s one to keep an eye out for.
Note: The recently released, brand new Wild Turkey Rare Breed Rye (barrel proof!) would also likely be a great entry here, but I haven’t had a chance to try it yet.
Distillery: WhistlePig (via Alberta Distillers)
ABV: 50% (100 proof)
If I had been writing this list 5 years ago, there’s likely no way that WhistlePig of all things would have ended up on it. As one of the country’s first big exposures to “premium,” high age statement rye, it’s a spirit that always carried a heavy price tag, but here’s the thing … as the entire rest of the whiskey industry saw prices continuously inflating, WhistlePig’s remained more or less in place. So although it may not necessarily have been the best “value” in rye whiskey at the start of the last decade, it actually finds itself as a pretty good relative value here at the end of it. Suffice to say, a $75 bottle is no longer much of a rarity in and of itself. The rest of the scene has simply caught up to these prices over time, and the entire point of this list is to find relative value in this particular moment.
And WhistlePig’s flagship product definitely has value in 2020, based on the specs alone. You won’t find many 10-year age statements in rye whiskey, regardless of where it’s distilled, in the U.S. or Canada. The 100 proof likewise fits nicely, making this offering work as either a super-premium cocktail rye or extremely flavorful neat sipper.
Of course, none of that would matter if the liquid in the bottle wasn’t delicious, and most whiskey geeks have always agreed on that front—totally separate from their own spirit that they’ve been distilling in Vermont since 2015, the stocks of Canadian rye that WhistlePig first tapped into in 2010 are uniquely delicious. The flagship “10/100” possesses a wonderfully spicy profile that hits both the heights of rye spiciness (anise, pepper) and everything else on the spice rack (allspice, cinnamon, clove), with a twist of sweet citrus, butterscotch and vanilla. The brand still has some doubters today, put off by its normalization of expensive rye whiskeys, but the quality of that whiskey has never really been in doubt. And it’s arguably a better value in this moment than it’s ever been before.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.