Bourbon’s edgier, rebellious cousin, rye is enjoying something of a renaissance right now, with sales surging and demand increasing as drinkers fall for its opulently spicy charms, and a new wave of craft distilleries create exciting, innovative spirits.
Rye whiskey traditionally falls into two categories. American rye whiskey must be made with at least 51% rye, while the remainder of the mash bill (the mix of different grains used in the whisky production process) includes a mixture of corn, malted barley or wheat. There’s no minimum ageing requirement with rye but anything labelled ‘straight rye whiskey’ will have been aged in new charred oak barrels for at least two years.
Canadian rye whisky, interestingly, does not actually have to be made with rye. The legal requirements are that the whisky must have a profile characteristic of Canadian whisky, which includes some of the flavour traits that rye provides, but this is achieved through blending. Typically, Canadian whisky is a blend of different grains with small amounts of rye used as a flavouring (although now you can also find 100% rye Canadian whiskies), aged for a minimum of three years in oak casks.
The past few years have also seen other countries, from Denmark to the UK, produce stunning rye whiskies.
What does rye whisky taste like?
Rye whiskies have an assertively spicy, savoury, peppery and earthy flavour profile, especially when compared to their bourbon counterparts, which tend to be sweeter and more rounded thanks to their higher corn content. Flavours you might come across when tasting rye include baking spice, nuts, rye bread, pepper, vanilla, citrus, caramel and oak, and whiskies can range from light and easy going to bold and muscular in character. They are delicious sipped neat but work brilliantly in classic cocktails such as the sazerac, manhattan, whisky sour and old fashioned.
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Best rye whiskies to try
This Dutch rye gets its name from the fact that it’s 100% rye, bottled at 100 proof and is 100 months old. It’s rounded, warming and richly fruity, with flavours and aromas of orange zest, peppery spice, oak and creamy vanilla.
Maryland rye is a slightly sweeter style, and this spirit has candied orange peel, cinnamon and nutmeg notes. Try using in cocktails.
This Australian rye has plenty to say for itself, with intense earthy rye bread, raisin and spicy notes.
This four-year-old whisky is enjoyably drinkable, with oaky spice, white pepper and green apple notes, alongside caramel and vanilla.
Smoky and honeyed on the nose, this is an intense whisky with a salty edge. An exciting Nordic rye.
Made in Virginia from 100% locally sourced rye, this is a sweety and fruit number replete with flavours of banana bread, baked apple, oak and buttery caramel. Winningly easy-going.
A Kentucky rye with a smooth, rounded mouthfeel, opulent baking spice, butterscotch and vanilla, and touches of caramelised nuts, fruit cake and woodiness.
A lovely, complex whisky from a dynamic new British whisky producer, with herbal, spicy and peppery notes, and hints of banana and creamy custard.
A 12-year-old whisky finished, unusually, in a cask of South American amburana wood – which is typically used to age cachaça. The end result is complex and off-beat: think fragrant woodiness, surprising notes of sweet coconut, glacé cherry and mint, as well as more classic spicy rye flavours.