As we learned last week, rye whiskey can really carry a cocktail. It's bold, spicy and dry, and those characteristics provide a firm foundation on which to build a complex flavor profile. Sweet and citrus fruits nicely soften its sharp edges, while bitter and herbal ingredients can help pick out and amplify many of rye's deeper-seated elements, like notes of pepper and baking spice.
But not all rye whiskeys are created equal...even if several mainstream brands taste suspiciously similar. Which rye is right for you?
Before getting into any specific recommendations, it's useful to first understand how the market for rye whiskey arrived at its current state. As a spirits category, domestically made rye was an early-American favorite; before Prohibition, rye outsold bourbon in the United States. But then demand for rye dried up, particularly during the 1970s and '80s, while spirits like vodka and tequila wooed away drinkers.
After the breadth of the category had dwindled to endangered-species levels, with only a few distilleries carrying the torch, the impetus of the contemporary cocktail revival has brought rye whiskey back to the forefront. You'd be hard-pressed to find a modern cocktail bar these days that doesn't feature rye on its cocktail menu, especially during the colder months of the year (to me, though, rye is an all-seasons tipple). It's often the base spirit of choice for classics like the Manhattan, the Old Fashioned, and the Sazerac—as well as their myriad modern variants.
A Run on Rye
The run on rye over the past few years has had substantial effects on the market. Longtime producers have struggled to keep up with increasing demand. Since rye whiskey has be to parked in a barrels for some length of time, generally a few years, ramping up production can't really help to alleviate a present-day scarcity.
Wild Turkey discontinued its longstanding and well-liked product offering of 101-proof (50.5 percent ABV) rye whiskey back in early 2012, in favor of an 81-proof (i.e., lower-alcohol) bottling—presumably to help stretch its supply. Dismayed by the loss, bartenders took to social media to campaign for their beloved 101's return—and the people at Wild Turkey listened; since late last year, the higher-proof rye has been quietly resurfacing at bars and restaurants in select markets.
Meanwhile, several newly established rye whiskey brands have joined the fray. But a new brand doesn't always equate to a new distillery—some seemingly upstart labels are simply bottling a product that was distilled at and purchased from another source. Iowa-based Templeton Rye, among others, sells whiskey that's born at a large-scale facility located in southern Indiana and known for a grain recipe that's very heavy on the rye (upwards of 90 percent of the mash bill).
4 Excellent Rye Whiskeys to Fit Your Budget
Rittenhouse - $25
Thankfully, even in spite of the heady market conditions, where prices have been inching up year by year, a few value brands remain. Consider Rittenhouse Bottled-in-Bond Straight Rye Whisky, which at 100 proof has the potency to stand up to the dilution that comes with shaking and stirring cocktails over ice and still pack a flavorful punch. This Kentucky-made rye has a sugar-maple aroma, is toasted and peppery on the palate, and has a menthol-vegetal finish. Admittedly, Rittenhouse is feisty stuff, but in bold, brooding whiskey-based cocktails, feisty is a good starting point. Its price tag of about $25 makes Rittenhouse a favorite all-purpose mixing whiskey.
Old Overholt - $22
Old Overholt (about $22), another widely available value brand, is consistently priced a few dollars lower than Rittenhouse, but at 80 proof it contains 20 percent less alcohol by volume—making the savings not quite as big as they may seem.
Knob Creek - $42
A lot of the newcomers to the rye whiskey market are clustered in the $35 to $45 range. Knob Creek Rye (~$42) is a strong contender from this group. It belongs to the Jim Beam family of whiskeys and, like Rittenhouse, is bottled at a cocktail-friendly 100 proof. The Knob Creek is a straight rye whiskey (meaning it has spent at least two years in a barrel), and the toasted-wood flavor is quite prominent.
Sazerac - $35
Another great buy—if you can find it—is Sazerac Rye, 90 proof and aged for six years. (I hesitate to quote a price because it can vary widely, but at sub $35 it's a steal.) It's full of vanilla and caramel aromas, has a balanced profile and lingering finish, and yet is surprisingly restrained for being 45 percent alcohol. It's the rare rye whiskey that performs expertly in cocktails but can also be enjoyed neat.
Classic Rye Cocktail: The Manhattan
Those are my four picks for a rye that can fit your budget. Do you have a favorite?
(Image credits: Roger Kamholz)