The popularity of rye whisky is ever increasing. Rye is traditionally associated with America and Canada and was huge before Prohibition banned its manufacture, sale and consumption in the US between 1920 and 1933.
Even once Prohibition was repealed, rye whiskies were seen as the poor relation or cheaper alternative to bourbon. Now, after years in the doldrums, rye is experiencing a renaissance and its continued rise seems inevitable.
New craft distillers across the globe, especially in America and Europe, have reinvigorated the scene. The trend has been noted by many of the big bourbon producers, which have responded with rye releases of their own.
What does modern rye whisky look like? Here we run down 10 of the best expressions currently on the market from both craft and big-name producers.
Arbikie was founded near Dundee, Scotland by three brothers in 2015. It is a single-estate distillery – meaning that in addition to production, all water and cereals are sourced from and grown on the farm adjoining the distillery. Rye whisky was one of its early forays into spirit making and has put Arbikie on the map.
An early limited-edition bottling in 2018 was the first rye whisky produced in Scotland for a century. The 1794 Highland Rye Scotch has since been released as the brand’s core product. Virgin American oak casks have dialled up sweetness and spiciness – think of vanilla fudge, cookie dough, baking spices, earthy ginger and liquorice.
Balcones was well ahead of the American craft distilling curve when founded in 2008. The brand has maintained an innovative progression throughout its history and remains one of the key players on the scene. It is currently lobbying the US Government for legislation to be drawn up to define new American whisky categories.
Balcones Texas Rye 100 Proof is a multi-award-winning whisky made from 100% rye. This has been grown in northwest Texas, with some roasted to give a deeper flavour.
The result is wonderful. Chocolate, cherry and toffee notes sit alongside black tea, coffee and peppery cereals, all finished off with a hint of menthol.
The pioneering big whisky brand that paved the way for others to follow into rye. Bulleit Rye was released in 2011, way before it became a cool thing to do. The mash bill features a high rye content of 95% compared to the American legal requirement of 51%. Prior to this, Bulleit was known for its Kentucky bourbon – this still uses the same recipe as that created by founder Augustus Bulleit in 1830.
Bulleit Rye is produced in small batches and has continually racked up awards around the globe over the last decade. Delicious notes of dark cherry, cinnamon and vanilla mingle with orange zest, cereal bars, all-spice and a hint of tobacco leaf. An absolute stunner.
The Canadian powerhouse brand is at the forefront of the rye whisky scene and has been for decades. Crown Royal was created over 80 years ago in 1939 to celebrate the visit of King George VI to Canada – the first reigning British monarch to visit the country. Rye grain has always played a significant role in its blends.
However, the brand was thrust into the spotlight when the Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye began winning major accolades when introduced in 2015. The high 90% rye content gives the whisky incredible depth and flavour. Imagine vanilla and butterscotch combining with peppery and earthy spice.
The world’s biggest selling American whiskey has also joined the rye bandwagon. The distillery was founded by Jasper Newton Daniel, nicknamed ‘Jack’, in the 1870s in his hometown of Lynchburg, Tennessee. When launched in 2017, the rye was the first new mash bill from Jack Daniel’s for nearly 150 years.
The Single Barrel Rye offers notes of vanilla, dried apricots and toasted hazelnut mixed with peppery rye spice, sweet corn bread, orange oil and clove. As the name suggests, only the best single barrels are selected by the Master Distiller for this bottling.
This superb craft whisky distillery from Finland produces its entire range from rye. The concept was dreamt up by the five founders sitting in a sauna drinking American rye whisky in 2012. The distillery is located in the western town of Isokyrö and only uses Finnish-grown rye to make its whisky, gin and liqueurs.
Kyrö’s range is based around the Malt Rye, which was released in 2020 and instantly won the top Gold Outstanding medal at the IWSC (International Wine & Spirit Challenge). Expect notes of earthy spice, orange marmalade, dark chocolate and coffee. Other offerings include Wood Smoked Malt Rye and several cask finishes.
Another big player to recently join the rye party. Powers Irish Rye is the first ever whisky made from 100% Irish-grown rye grain. It was developed by Midleton distillery in Co. Cork after an archivist uncovered an old whisky-making recipe using rye. Rye crops were then planted in Co. Wexford, close to the ancestral home of the Power family.
Powers is one of Ireland’s oldest whisky brands and was established in 1791 by James Power in Dublin. It remains hugely popular today for its range of single pot still whiskeys. The new Powers Irish Rye offers notes of maraschino cherry, burnt orange and candied ginger with hints of clove and peppermint.
Nine friends founded Stauning in 2005, making it Denmark’s first dedicated whisky distillery. All cereals used in production, both barley and rye, are sourced from farms within a 25km radius of Stauning’s home on the Danish west coast. The brand has gained a reputation for innovation, good whisky and sustainability.
The smoked element in KAOS has used local peat and heather from Jutland. Expect notes of golden syrup, chocolate and vanilla combined with warming spices, cereal bars and lingering sweet smoke.
The Oxford Artisan Distillery (TOAD for short) has been playing around with ancient grain types since its inception in 2017. Rye has been at the centre of this, and the brand has been growing heritage strains that were lost to agricultural history on local farms. The English distillery has gained a cult following as a result.
TOAD’s limited edition and small batch whiskies have catchy names – Easy Ryder and Red Red Rye to name but two. All are made of 90% maslin (a historical mix of 80% rye and 20% wheat grown together in the same field) and 10% malted barley. The latest – The Tawny Pipe – has been matured in ex-Port casks and is rich and vibrant.
Whistlepig’s rye whiskies are distilled and initially matured in Canada. However, the spirits are then transferred to WhistlePig Farm in the American state of Vermont for final maturation. The brand is one of very few in America to consistently show age statements on bottles and has significantly helped bring rye whisky back from the brink.
All Whistlepig whiskies are made from 100% rye. The range is ever-expanding and currently sees stretches between 6 and 18 years of age. Our choice would be the stunning Whistlepig 15 years old – it is pricey but excellent. Butterscotch and toffee notes compete with peppery rye spice, milk chocolate and toasted hazelnut. Exquisite.