Bourbon may be America’s native spirit, but rye whiskey is equally ingrained in our distilling roots. While both bourbon and American ryes are aged in new, charred oak barrels, the primary difference is in the proportions of grain used in the recipe: Bourbon is made with at least 51 percent corn, while rye includes at least 51 percent of its namesake grain. This gives rye whiskey its characteristic peppery spice, with sweet overtones and hints of smoky oak that make it the star of classic drinks like the Sazerac and Vieux Carré, or pretty much any spirit-forward cocktail calling for whiskey.
Bartenders riffing on the classics and a renewed interest in whiskey in general have helped spur an ongoing resurgence. And, like bourbon, distillers are finding inventive ways to tweak the ingredients, aging, and blending process in pursuit of enhanced flavors. These three notable recent examples, each with a different approach, will help spice up your collection.
New Riff Kentucky Straight Malted Rye Whiskey
Since its founding in 2014, the Northern Kentucky–based New Riff Distilling has set aside barrels of whiskey it distilled from a variety of malted grains, including the 100 percent malted rye used in its latest release. In the malting process, grains are steeped in water and allowed to germinate, creating enzymes that help convert complex starches into simple sugars. Growth is then halted through the application of heat. When used to make whiskey, the result is typically a sweeter, more delicate aroma and flavor compared to unmalted grain. That’s exactly what I found when I tasted New Riff Malted Rye Whiskey recently while visiting the distillery. Aged six years and bottled at 100 proof, the rye has plenty of underlying spice, yet its typically brash presentation is muted by layers of candied orange, oatmeal-raisin cookie, and allspice. Following its Kentucky-only release earlier this year, look for quarterly releases with broader distribution beginning later this fall.
Blackened x Willet Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey
Involvement in a boutique spirits brand is de rigueur for celebrities these days. But it’s noteworthy when the rock band Metallica orchestrates a meeting-of-the-minds between master distiller and blender Rob Dietrich and Drew Kulsveen, Willett’s master distiller, for the first release in its Masters of Whiskey Series. Dietrich and Kulsveen selected and blended barrels of low- and high-rye whiskies from among those used in Willett Family Estate selections. The mingled whiskey was then finished in casks previously used to age Madeira wine—while also being blasted by a playlist of Metallica music meant to sonically increase its interaction with the wood. A gimmick? Sure. But the resulting straight rye whiskey, bottled at 109.6 proof, is complex and tasty, with notes of butterscotch and cinnamon complementing rye’s telltale spice.
Buzzard’s Roost Very Small Batch Straight Rye Whiskey
Jason Brauner isn’t a traditional rye type of guy. “I can’t sit around and sip on rye,” says Brauner, founder of Bourbons Bistro in Louisville, one of the country’s first whiskey-themed restaurants. “I don’t find those caramel and vanilla notes. It’s a lot more grassy and minty.” So when Brauner launched his Buzzard’s Roost Sippin’ Whiskeys, he created a rye with a bourbon drinker’s palate in mind. Starting with sourced stocks of aged rye, Brauner finishes the whiskey in a “spice rack” of barrels ranging from heavily toasted to lightly charred, each designed to accentuate specific flavors. Each small-batch release comprises a unique blend, but all exhibit a complex interplay of spice, sweet, and smoky oak that make this rye enjoyable neat or over ice.