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The Mount Rushmore of Rye, According to 7 Whiskey Experts

If there’s one thing whiskey fans love, it’s superlatives. Oldest, highest proof, rarest — we covet them all. Identifying “best” is a whole different ball game. Taste is, after all, subjective. But that doesn’t make it any less fun to try.

When I spoke to top experts while assembling the Mount Rushmore of Bourbon, several said that bourbon has the public’s attention, but America’s epic ryes may eclipse even the best corn-based mash bills. It quickly became apparent we needed to put together the same list, only this time with rye.

As with any list primed to spark debate, we should outline some ground rules:

The rye must be a specific bottling OR bottled within an identifiable range of years.
All spirits must be American rye whiskeys. America has its own rules regarding rye, but unlike bourbon, it doesn’t have a monopoly on the term.
It must be a rye whiskey under the definition during the period in which it was bottled.
Interviewees could only choose rye whiskeys they’ve personally sampled.

The picks below cover a wide range of whiskey history, from whiskey distilled in the late 1800s to bottlings as recent as 2022. Interestingly, there was significantly more overlap among expert picks than with bourbon. There was an especially heavy bias toward highly aged Kentucky rye distilled in the early to mid-1980s, with some now-legendary bottlings commanding top dollar at whiskey auctions.

Note: Quotes corresponding to the listings under each section are the subject’s own words and have been lightly edited for style and clarity.

Tzvi Wiesel

Founder: BAXUS

LeNell’s Red Hook Rye, Barrel #1, 23 years old (Undisclosed source, rumored to be Bernheim, bottled by Willett for LeNell Camacho Santa Ana): “While certain whiskeys are famous for their marketing, LeNell’s Red Hook Rye is famous because it is simply the best. This consolidated single barrel was one of four selected by Lenell Camacho Santa Ana, a legend and pioneer whose shop helped usher in the era of premium American whiskey, and bottled under her “Red Hook Rye” label. The 23-year-old rye delivers one of the most flavorful, rich experiences in whiskey, and despite measuring in at 135.2 proof, no water is necessary.”

Michter’s 25 Year Rye, 2008 Release, Barrel #7404 (Undisclosed source, bottled by Michter’s): “One of the blessings of having great friends is that they share great whiskey; one of the curses is that some of it you’ll never taste again. While I have yet to find an age-stated Michter’s that I did not love, the 2008 inaugural release of Michter’s 25 Year Rye takes the cake. Bottled at 117.3 proof by Willett, it is not only a true “single barrel” release, it is also by far the richest Michter’s 25 Year Rye to ever grace the market. The last release of their 25 Rye was 2014, so maybe this will be our lucky year?”

Old Overholt 14 Year Old Rye, 100 proof, 1929 bottling (West Overton Distillery): “While many people are familiar with the tattered white labels of the tall Mellon Overholt bottles that have appeared at auction, not as many have seen the petit pints that were lying patiently aging throughout Prohibition. This 14-year-old “medicinal” rye bears the iconic Old Overholt logo that we still see today. Bottled in bond at 100 proof, this famous Pennsylvania Rye presents all of the delicious rye spice, despite having been bottled over 95 years ago.”

Single Cask Nation 12 Year WhistlePig Rum & Vermouth Finish, 2020 Bottling (Undisclosed source, bottled by Single Cask Nation via WhistlePig): “Bottled at 100 proof, this single cask selection by independent bottlers, Single Cask Nation, is unlike any other WhistlePig I have had. The unique double cask finish of both rum and vermouth adds the most incredible balance of sweetness, spice, and herbaceousness that is often overshadowed by rye’s signature spice.”

Clay Risen

Writer, Columnist, Spirits Judge, Author of “American Rye: A Guide to the Nation’s Original Spirit”

LeNell’s Red Hook Rye, 23 and 24 years old (Undisclosed source, rumored to be Bernheim, bottled by Willett for LeNell Camacho Santa Ana): “A mythical bottle that’s worth its reputation, bottled from four barrels in the late 2000s. I’ve only had it once and I don’t remember the barrel number, but it just floored me — it was sophisticated, supple, like a very old Armagnac.”

Michter’s 25 Year Rye, 2011 Release (Undisclosed source, bottled by Michter’s): “Honestly, any of Michter’s releases of its 25 year rye could be on this list. But the 2011 stands out for its incredible richness, with a touch of spice laid over a bed of dried fruit and vanilla.”

Vintage Rye 23 (Undisclosed source, bottled by Willett): “This is the bottle that showed me what old rye could be. It tamed the herbaceousness of a young rye and married it with thick strands of tobacco and caramel.”

Rathskeller Rye (Undisclosed source, bottled by Willett): “I had this long ago, at Bill Thomas’s old bar, Bourbon in Adams-Morgan. It’s from the same legendary run of rye as the LeNell’s, but in my memory it was a bit bigger and bolder.”

Aaron Goldfarb

VinePair writer-at-large, Author of “Dusty Booze: In Search of Vintage Spirits”

Pennsylvania-distilled Old Overholt (Prohibition era, West Overton Distillery): “THE name in American rye whiskey, the Beam-Suntory produced “OO,” distilled in Kentucky, is still quite good, but the Pennsylvania product (produced until 1993) is sublime. In fact, it harkens back to an America where distillation predominated on the East Coast, and mostly in the form of rye. Pre-Prohibition or during Prohibition “medicinal” Old Overholt are of particular interest — and incredible quality.”

Sherwood Pure Rye (Pre-Prohibition): “Similar to Pennsylvania, Maryland was once a rye-distilling powerhouse, producing its own unique breed of whiskey. Few of these distilleries have brand names a modern drinker would know, but Sherwood is a (delicious) one that has managed to somewhat remain in the consciousness, thanks in part to a recent “re-release” as part of the Maryland Heritage Series.”

LeNell’s Red Hook Rye, 23 and 24 years old (Barrels #1-#4, undisclosed source, rumored to be Bernheim, bottled by Willett for LeNell Camacho Santa Ana): “The unicorn of unicorn for many vintage enthusiasts (with skyrocketing prices to match), it manages to deliver on even the most lofty expectations. A series of four single barrels supposedly distilled at Bernheim Distillery in Louisville, but hand-selected at Willett by Red Hook, Brooklyn liquor store owner LeNell Camacho Santa Ana (née Smothers) between 2006-2008, each bottling is an example par excellence of what well-aged (24 years or so) rye can taste like.”

Booker’s Rye (Jim Beam): “It almost pains me to pick a modern “hype” bottle, but damn if this 2016 Jim Beam release wasn’t spectacular and one I continue to think about: a 13-year-old, high-proof dynamo of baking spice and peppery heat. (Speaking of hype bottles, Thomas H. Handy rye is perennially the best Buffalo Trace Antique Collection release, even if taters refuse to admit it.)”

Gavin Linde

Spirits influencer

Michter’s 25 Year Rye, 2008 Release (Undisclosed source, bottled by Michter’s): “Just heaven in a bottle, a vanilla pudding with a little spicy orange zest on top.”

Willett Family Estate, Barrel 1776, 25 year old rye (Undisclosed source): “This one you sip and smell, smell and sip, and are just in awe. Brown butter chocolate reduction right here.”

LeNell’s Red Hook Rye, Barrel #2 (Undisclosed source, rumored to be Bernheim, bottled by Willett for LeNell Camacho Santa Ana): “One of those ones you would be happy to drink and never drink again, just to taste it. Toffee pudding in a pour.”

Black Maple Hill 23 Year Old Rye (Undisclosed source, bottled by Willett for CVI Brands): “It’s a refined fruit cake with some chocolate powder on top.”

Caroline Paulus

Editor, Whiskey Historian at Justin’s House of Bourbon

LeNell’s Red Hook Rye, Barrel #1, 23 years old (Undisclosed source, rumored to be Bernheim, bottled by Willett for LeNell Camacho Santa Ana): “A client of mine shared this bottle with me, saying at 136 proof it was too hot for him, but he thought I might enjoy it — and I really, really did. I found notes of dark chocolate covered raisins, an aromatic smoke reminiscent of patchouli and a hint of apple brandy sweetness. White pepper on the finish melted to vanilla ice cream, making this my most memorable rye whiskey experience ever.”

Willett 25 Year Rye, 100 Proof (Undisclosed source, bottled by Willett): “We opened this 100-proof bottle for our Louisville store opening back in 2019 and it didn’t last long. Because this is a barely legal 51 percent rye, it had bourbon sweetness of brown sugar with complex spice notes that reminded me of angostura bitters.”

LDI 95% Rye Whiskey (MGP): “This employee-only release of 23 year rye whiskey from what’s now the MGP distillery is one of the cooler things I’ve ever cracked. At an undisclosed barrel proof, it still had delicate baked pear and apple notes with the distinct lacquered cedar note you can find in today’s MGP ryes.”

Van Winkle 1985 Rye, 2001 Release (Undisclosed source, Bottled by Julian Van Winkle III): “This is a non-chill-filtered, 100-proof varietal of the 13 year rye you see today. The slightly higher 15 year age shows in oak patina notes, and a hint of must that dissipates to delicate cinnamon with a strong peppery tingle on the finish and a lingering warmth make this last on the palate.”

Mason Walker

Entrepreneur, Founder: Bourbon Lore

Willett Family Estate 22 Year Old Rye, Barrel #618 “Doug’s Green Ink” (Undisclosed source, rumored to be Bernheim, bottled by Willett): “From the epic Bernheim-distilled ryes. This particular barrel, along with Doug’s other rye pick, was distilled on April 10, 1984. Bottled in 2006. I personally fell in love with Willett around 2012 and was fortunate to experience some of their most iconic and legendary ryes. The Green Ink being one of my personal favorites with an exceptional nose, a bold and vivacious palate with a finish that keeps on giving. A true legendary rye.”

Old Overholt Rye Whiskey, 100 proof, 1908 Bottling (West Overton Distillery): “As someone who is a huge fan of not only exceptional ryes but the folklore surrounding legendary expressions, the 1908 and 1909 private bottlings done for Andrew Mellon known as Old Overholt are some of the greatest. The last time I cherished a pour of this 1908 Old Overholt that was full of aroma and layered with dusty character, I shared this rye with my closest friends and family celebrating the beautiful life of my father. A memory that I will always treasure toasting one of the greatest individuals I will forever be blessed in calling not only my father but my best friend.”

Very Olde St. Nick Winter Rye, 1990 era (Undisclosed source, bottled for Marci Palatella): “Known as the ‘Winter Rye,’ some of the first 1980s releases don’t have an age statement but some of the 1990s came in around 101 proof. Most likely blended from early KBD’s and possibly even Julian’s sourced ryes. Truly some of the most incredible ryes I’ve ever had the pleasure to sip. Dark, rich, and the perfect blend of sweetness and spice. “

Black Maple Hill 23 Year Old Rye (Undisclosed source, bottled by Willett for CVI Brands): “Much like Willett, I fell in love with Black Maple Hill early on. Their 23 Year Old Single Barrel Rye coming in at 47.5 percent alcohol/95 proof was one of the greatest fireworks displays one could ever imagine on the palate. This 23-year-old silver wax rye is reportedly from the same batch of Heaven Hill rye that produced the legendary Rittenhouse 21-, 23-, and 25-year ryes. Brilliant complexity and a bold flavor delight!”

Sarah Jeltema

Whiskey educator, writer, and judge, President of Women Who Whiskey San Diego, Founder of the First Responder Whiskey Society

Lost Lantern Cedar Ridge 6-year Straight Malted Rye Whiskey, 120.4 proof, 2022 Bottling (Cedar Ridge): “In a world of overly spicy and overly minty ryes, this is one that I think about a lot. Lost Lantern is known for choosing some excellent expressions and this pick is no exception. Very few distilleries work with malted rye grain but Cedar Ridge is known for their craft process. This whiskey is floral with tropical fruits paired with baked sugar cookies and spices.”

Angel’s Envy Rye Finished in Caribbean Rum Cask (Angel’s Envy): “With over 18 months in Caribbean rum casks, this whiskey is sweet. Very sweet. It feels like a syrup in your mouth. But I love it. I use it all the time for rye Manhattans and as a dessert-y nightcap.”

Balcones Rye, 100 Proof (Balcones): “Have you ever wanted to blend roasted cocoa with dill? I didn’t. But after having this rye, I can’t help but love the combo. It uses a blend of different rye grains to produce a 100 percent rye that is shockingly not overly spicy (as many 100 percent ryes are). Instead, it has that rich thickness that comes out of Texas, and reminds me of eating dill-coated buttered popcorn next to dark chocolate.”

Frey Ranch Straight Rye Whiskey (Frey Ranch): “I love a good grain-to-glass, farm-to-table, seed-to-sip, estate-grown whiskey. Frey does this well. Their extreme temperature swings in the high desert of Nevada improve the total digestible nutrients of the soil and so their grain quality is excellent. Take that quality foundation and pair it with a classic rye profile and you get a rye that’s done really well. This 100 percent winter cereal rye has a strong spearmint note and a more classic rye spice profile that is balanced with a warming and long finish.”

The article The Mount Rushmore of Rye, According to 7 Whiskey Experts appeared first on VinePair.

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