Spirits Critic Picks Best Rye Whiskeys He's Ever Tasted
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Spirits Critic Picks 10 Best Rye Whiskeys He’s Ever Tasted

With its spicy aromas and cocktail-friendly nature, rye whiskey is having a moment — and the trend isn’t going anywhere.

Though bourbon may be the darling of the American whiskey world, it seems like producers everywhere are hopping on the “other whiskeys” bandwagon. Rye whiskeys must be made from a mashbill that’s at least 51% rye.

Part of rye whiskey’s appeal is the balance of complexity and spice, coupled with the fact these spirits can often be enjoyed at younger ages than bourbon due to how rye’s maturation process works. The reason for this is that higher percentages of rye grains in a spirit’s mashbill demand less time in barrel to develop tannin and complexity than corn.

In an increasingly oversaturated market, Whiskey Raiders spirits critic Jay West is here to share his favorite ryes ever. Of the thousands of spirits West has tasted during the tenure of his career, these are the 10 best rye whiskeys he has tasted — in no particular order.

10 Best Rye Whiskeys Spirits Critic Jay West Has Ever Tasted

Booker’s Rye

Best rye

(Photo: Beam Suntory)

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This limited-edition rye was distilled by the late Booker Noe in 2003. Booker Noe died just one year later, and his son, Fred Noe, nurtured the spirit throughout the rest of the maturation process. The highly celebrated release from Beam clocks in over 130 proof, but you’d never know it.

Booker’s Rye is on the sweeter end of the rye spectrum. West describes the nose as possessing aromas of spicy clove, maple and some faint banana bread. On the palate, the rye is sweet and thick with aromas of fruity cream.

Due to its limited production size and the hefty demand for bottles of the stuff, Booker’s Rye costs a pretty penny. Yet, despite the shocker of a price tag, West doesn’t mince words when describing its general deliciousness.

“This is a fantastic rye. I’ll be straight, I like it a lot,” West wrote in his review. “I’d drink it all the time if I could.”

Four Gate Split Stave by Kelvin Release 10

Best rye

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If you’re the type who likes to drink their dessert, the Four Gate Split Stave by Kelvin Release 10 may be the perfect rye whiskey for you.

The Four Gate Split Stave by Kelvin Release 10 was aged for seven years in specialized casks that were broken down and then rebuilt by Kelvin with alternating toasted and charred staves. The folks over at Four Gate claim this specific technique adds marshmallow and créme brûlée overtones.

West concurs and cites aromas of rich and creamy nougat on the nose. The palate also tilts heavily towards the dessert end of the spectrum with some orchard fruit tones like pear in conjunction with plenty of baking spices. But don’t let all that sweetness fool you: This rye is no slouch in terms of complexity. The rich and lengthy finish hosts plenty of burnt sugar and toffee aromas.

Four Gate Split Stave has an ABV of 56.25% and is equal parts decadent and complex.

Barrell Craft Spirits Seagrass

Best Rye

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Barrell Craft Spirits Seagrass is proof that there’s beauty in the madness. This bold blend of Canadian and Indiana rye whiskeys was finished in a mixture of Martinique Agricole rhum, Madeira and apricot brandy casks. This is a quirky combination, without a doubt, and the resulting rye is crazy — but in a good way.

West has no shortage of praise for the Barrell Craft Spirits Seagrass and gives this rye from the Louisville-based bottler a house score of 9, which is nothing to sneeze at. He describes Barrell Craft Spirits Seagrass as “all-star material.”

Bottled at 59.2% ABV, Barrell Seagrass has a powerful and fragrant nose with plenty of grassy citrus qualities interlaced with brown sugar. The palate is big and boisterous, with all the spice rye enthusiasts love. Seagrass has a long finish that really shines with what West describes as “admirable spiciness.” Picture loads of tree fruit aromas, coupled with brown sugar, grassy funk and some pepper at the end.

Van Winkle Family Reserve 13 Year Rye 2015

Best Rye

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Most whiskey fans will find it unsurprising that an offering from the Van Winkle made the list.

This 13-year-old rye whiskey is an older release from Buffalo Trace and the Van Winkles, and though it bears a 13-year-old age statement, it’s thought that the liquid may be a bit older. Buffalo Trace is the sole supplier of rye for this line, making it a rare find and one of the older American ryes around.

Bottled at 95.6 proof, the Van Winkle Family Reserve 13 Year has loads of rye’s signature spice in its aroma profile, with wisps of old tobacco smoke and toffee. The palate is thick and rich, with syrupy qualities and loads of cocoa. The Van Winkle Family Reserve 13 Year Rye has a creamy finish with an herbal throughline.

“If there is a single Van Winkle that lives up to any sort of the pedestal they are put on, I think it’s this one,” West wrote in his review.

Buffalo Trace Antique Collection: Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Rye 2020

Best Rye

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The Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Rye was named after the New Orleans bartender who first used rye whiskey in the Sazerac cocktail, according to Buffalo Trace. This rye is both a symbol of New Orleans and Handy’s legacy.

The barrels were filled at 125 proof in 2014, but after five years of aging, the whiskey crept up to 129 proof. A blend of Minnesota rye, Kentucky corn and North Dakota malted barley, the 2020 Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Rye was aged in new White Oak barrels. The yearly releases of the Thomas H. Handy offerings are pretty heavily hyped, and 2020’s is one hypebeast rye that definitely lives up to all the attention. So much so, in fact, that West describes it as “The best Thomas Handy rye I’ve had in a long time” and even dropped an “Oh shit” reaction while tasting its complex palate.

This powerful, full-throttle bottle has loads of waffle cone, gingerbread, toffee and créme brûlée flavors on the palate. The nose offers plenty of dessert characteristics, with a bit of gingery complexity. With a long finish described as “a perfect Kentucky hug,” the 2020 Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Rye definitely makes the cut and received a 9 on Whiskey Raiders.

Barrell Craft Spirits 20 Year Gold Label Seagrass

Best Rye

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With a $500 price tag, the Barrell Craft Spirits 20 Year Gold Label Seagrass was created with a specific drinker in mind.

This 20-year rye was meant to be an upgrade of the Gray Label Seagrass (which is an upgraded version of the basic Seagrass), which we will discuss in greater detail a bit later. Bottled at cask strength and aged in the same blend of Martinique rhum, apricot brandy and Madeira barrels, the 20 Year Gold Label has an ABV of 64.06%.

West describes this aged rye as “rich and syrupy on the nose” with aromas of DOLE fruit cocktail syrup, cream and apricots aplenty. The palate is rich and will definitely appeal to fans who love oak, as it has a strong presence in the Gold Label.

With a finish that “nearly lasts forever,” the Barrell Craft Spirits 20 Year Gold Label Seagrass has earned the title of “a damn good rye in a family of damn good ryes,” West wrote in his review.

Buffalo Trace Antique Collection: Sazerac 18 Year Rye 2015


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The Buffalo Trace Sazerac 18 Year Rye was distilled during the spring of 1985 and tanked slightly before 2015.

This rare bottling is the final batch of Buffalo Trace’s tanked rye, and the liquid was sourced from 25 barrels matured in Warehouse K, which is reserved for the distillery’s best whiskeys and was built in 1935, according to Whisky Magazine.

West describes the 2015 offering from Buffalo Trace as, “really something” and noted that he was “sad to expect this bottle to change in future years.”

With a buttery sweet nose and plenty of complexity, the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection Sazerac 18 Year Rye 2015 comes in at 45% ABV. The palate is incredibly bold and powerful, with more oak and spice over fruit, and a long decadent finish with beautifully integrated aromas of clove and oak.

Smooth Ambler Old Scout 10 Year Limited Edition Gift Shop Rye

Best Rye

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For those who love big, bold and herbaceous ryes, the hard-to-find Smooth Ambler Old Scout 10 Year Limited Edition Gift Shop Rye may just be worth the hunt.

Clocking in at a 62.2% ABV with 10 years of aging, this offering from Smooth Ambler is chock full of spicy aromas on the nose, and you can tell it’s going to be an enormous whiskey at first whiff. The spirit hosts an impressive 119.6 proof, and West describes aromas of molasses, brown sugar and clove.

Though there’s very little dill on the nose of the Old Scout 10 Year, the palate gives way to massively rich, herbaceous, syrupy goodness peppered with plenty of dill throughout. The finish is long and thoroughly spiced with an herbal throughline.

WhistlePig Boss Hog IX Siren’s Song

Best rye

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The WhistlePig Boss Hog IX Siren’s Song is one of the most interesting rye whiskeys West has come across. He describes it as the most “bonkers spirit” to hit his desk due to its unorthodox finishing process.

The Vermont-based distillery finished Siren’s Song in a combination of homemade fig nectar and Tentura casks. Tentura is a Greek liqueur that has been around since the 15th Century, according to Taste Atlas. The liqueur is a brandy or rum infused with different spices, and it definitely influences this interesting expression of rye.

The nose has plenty of anise and balsamic notes, with a saline quality that conjures up images of distant ocean shores. The palate packs a spicy whallop, with loads of earthy and savory qualities. This “wildly succulent” expression of rye continues with some more brine, plum and currant.

West describes the finish as “absolutely wild” with a sweet yet savory backbone, coupled with a salty, fatty richness. West is the first to admit WhistlePig’s Boss Hog IX Siren’s Song is not for everyone, but it is guaranteed to seduce the right crowd.

Barrell Craft Spirits Seagrass Gray Label

Best Rye

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“It’s been about 1,700 reviews since a whiskey has broached this point with me, but here we are,” West raved in his review of Barrell Craft Spirits Seagrass Gray Label. “There’s nothing I’d change about Barrell Seagrass 16 yr, and as a result, I’m doling out the big 10/10.”

The rye whiskeys in this blend were distilled in Canada and finished in the U.S. in Martinique rhum, Madeira wine and apricot brandy casks before being blended by Barrell Craft Spirits. Consider this blended rye Seagrass’ dapper older brother in the lineup, due to its elevated 16-year age statement.

The liquid was bottled at cask strength and holds a whopper of an ABV at 65.41%.

With a nose of candied apples, pear and pecan, West describes this nose as “captivating” and surprising given the high alcohol percentage of the spirit. The palate is rich, fruity and bold, with well-integrated tannins and fruit qualities from the rhum casks. The finish is long, powerful and has just the right amount of heat.

Simply put, Barrell Craft Spirits Seagrass Gray Label is “nothing short of perfection.”

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Cynthia Mersten is a writer/editor for Whiskey Raiders and has worked in the Beverage Industry for eight years. She started her career in wine and spirits distribution and sold brands like Four Roses, High West and Compass Box to a variety of bars and restaurants in the city she calls home: Los Angeles. Cynthia is a lover of all things related to wine, spirits and story and holds a BA from UCLA’s School of Theatre, Film and Television. Besides writing, her favorite pastimes are photography and watching movies with her husband.