Like bourbon, rye whiskey has experienced a major increase in popularity over the past few years. It’s likely that this popularity is due to the resurgence of classic cocktails, since many of the original recipes call for rye whiskey.
Under federal law, rye whiskey is made from at least 51% rye, whereas bourbon must be made from 51% corn. It can be more difficult to produce—once ground and cooked, rye gets sticky and can clog stills. But when it’s done right, the resulting whiskey is a gorgeously spicy spirit with hints of vanilla and a stout, peppery backbone.
To give you a sense of what exists on the high end, we’ve put together a list of ryes we hope to get a hold of one day.
LeNell’s Red Hook Rye
Unless you know, or knew, LeNell Camacho Santa Ana (then LeNell Smothers), you’re unlikely to find a bottle of her Red Hook Rye. For four years while running her Brooklyn-based package store, LeNell selected and bottled a barrel of Willett rye. Despite the differences in taste and character from batch to batch, many aficionados consider this whiskey to be the essence of its genre.
This rye was released as the last in the Oldest Rittenhouse Rye series. The story goes that a private customer bought 95 barrels of rye from Heaven Hill for a private bottling. The customer didn’t return until after the barrels were far past their prime for the intended use. Heaven Hill sampled the barrels, bought them back, and released them in three small batches. The 25-year was considered the best, and its age, story, and high ratings drove demand.
Thomas Handy Sazerac or Sazerac 18
As part of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, this rye whiskey flies off the shelves after its release. It’s tasty, to be sure. If you get the chance, check out the Thomas Handy from 2011.
Van Winkle Family Reserve Non-Chill Filtered Rye (1985)
Any whiskey from the Van Winkle lineage might seem to have an unfair advantage, but the rye is supposedly one of the distillery’s best. Produced for one of Julian Van Winkle’s French clients, the whiskey will cloud when cooled due to the filtration process.
Willett 24 Year 94 (or 110) Proof
These unicorns among unicorns were bottled for Bonili, a Japanese liquor distributor. Both of them are from the same production run, but were bottled at different proofs to capture a different part of the whiskey’s character. Some drinkers complain that the Willett 25 year rye has developed a funk from too much time in the barrel, but that the Bonili 24 year doesn’t at all.
Thanks to Nathan McMinn for the Rittenhouse 25 backstory, Rush Thrift for help with the Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye and to Birmingham Bourbon Club for many, many suggestions.