Over the past few years, American rye whiskey has come roaring back in popularity. Along with an influx of craft operations distilling, sourcing, and blending small-batch rye, big names like Knob Creek, Wild Turkey, and Jim Beam have gotten in on the action as well, resulting in probably the biggest market since pre-Prohibition. What’s so appealing about rye, besides all those old westerns where gunslingers sidle up to the bar and order a shot and then another and another, is its flavor profile.
Rye, which must be made from a mash that is at least 51 percent rye, is much spicier and less sweet than bourbon (which is 51 percent corn), giving it an edge that many find to be more complex and interesting to drink. It’s also the traditional bedrock of some classic cocktails, like the Manhattan and the Brooklyn. There are many delicious high-end ryes available, like Whistlepig, Sazerac 18, and Michter’s, but by no means do you need to spend a lot of money to get a quality rye whiskey. Here is a list of some of the best budget ryes, all of which won’t set you back more than about $30. Sidle up, cowboy, and pour yourself a shot.
In my opinion – and I share this with many a bartender and mixologist (and, reputedly, Old West icon Doc Holliday) – Old Overholt Straight Rye Whiskey is the absolute best workhouse budget rye. Smooth and flavorful, with a slightly fruity, peppery bite and thin, drinkable mouth feel, Overholt is really one of the best for making a Manhattan or Old Fashioned (it’ll drink neat just fine, but for that you might want to go with something a little more sophisticated). Some people argue that Rittenhouse (to be discussed later) is the go-to budget rye, but for me Old Overholt steals the show. This is a no-frills whiskey that manages to be balanced and complex despite its low, low price point.
Wild Turkey is a legendary whiskey, the favorite drink of cultural luminaries like Hunter S. Thompson and ZZ Top. Wild Turkey 101 has been my go-to bourbon for years now to bring backpacking. Pour a bottle in a travel flask, hike for hours in the majestic outdoors, set up camp, and sit back and enjoy – a thin, lumpy Thermarest on the rocky ground never felt better. Not surprisingly, Wild Turkey Rye – both the 81 and 101 versions – is a solid option for cocktails or drinking on its own. I prefer the 101 for its extra alcoholic kick in the nose, but the 81 drinks just as well. Both are spicy and flavorful, the result of a skillful blend of four-to-five-year-old rye whiskeys. But for a real treat, check out the slightly more expensive Russell’s Reserve six-year-old rye. This is a truly excellent whiskey that is incredibly smooth and surprisingly mild, and can stand with any small batch, limited edition rye out there.
Knob Creek Rye
This has to be one of my favorite ryes from the big brands (Knob Creek is part of the Beam Suntory family). It may crack the $30 mark, depending on where you buy it, but those extra few bucks are well worth it. Just the right amount of spice, a hint of floral, and a smooth, lightly syrupy mouth feel—despite it being 100 proof. Knob Creek Rye is best enjoyed neat or on the rocks (I hate wasting a really good rye by mixing it in a cocktail), but any way you can get this in your mouth is a good way.
Jim Beam Rye
Keith Richards be damned, Jim Beam far surpasses Jack Daniels in the inexpensive, late night at the bar, “I shouldn’t have had that third shot” bourbon category. The brand’s 80 proof, four-year-old rye isn’t half bad either. Slightly on the fruity side – almost fruitcake-y, actually – Jim Beam Rye is smooth with soft caramel hints and is extremely drinkable.
George Dickel Rye
Dickel is technically a Tennessee whiskey, not bourbon – the distinction is basically that the whiskey is made in Tennessee, and is charcoal filtered. You’d think that their rye might be on the aggressive side with a bold mash that is 95 percent rye and 5 percent malted barley. But the fact is that Dickel Rye is surprisingly mellow and light, with sweet hints of fruit, wood, and cherry mingling in the nose and on the palate.
Rittenhouse Rye is “produced in the tradition of the classic Pennsylvania or ‘Monongahela’ rye whiskys,” according to the Heaven Hill website. What does that mean? Rittenhouse is kind of like a dry white wine of rye whiskeys; it’s not as sweet as Old Overholt, but it’s just as flavorful. It’s understandable why many would turn to this rye as a budget bar staple. Like Wild Turkey, it comes in two versions – 80 proof and “Bottled-In-Bond” 100 proof.