This list is part of a Paste series of bottom shelf liquor and craft beer style tastings. Click here to view all entries in the series.
You’d be forgiven for assuming that the rye whiskey landscape is basically the same as the bourbon landscape, but the two are more different than initially might meet the eye—and it’s not just the mashbills that separate them. Bourbon’s spicier, cocktail-friendly cousin exists in a world of its own.
For starters, defining “cheap” or “bottom shelf” rye whiskey requires a more lenient starting point than in the world of bourbon. There are fewer rye whiskey brands in general, and although rye was somewhat ignored during the beginning of the brown liquor revival, that only led to its premiumization later when more brands appeared. Today, the primary “bottom shelf” brands of rye—the kinds of bottles you’ll find in the wells of your average bars—simply command a higher dollar price as a result. Something cheap in the rye world—say, Old Overholt or Rittenhouse—is still likely to cost you almost twice the price of the winner of our bottom shelf bourbon blind tasting, Very Old Barton. When it comes to rye, you just expect to pay a bit more.
This is not to say that ultra-cheap (and probably blended with non-aged spirit) rye whiskeys don’t exist, but unlike in the world of bourbon, there really aren’t any major “ultra value” rye whiskey brands, coming from the biggest whiskey distilleries of note. As a result, the ultra-value stuff is especially sketchy and hard to reliably find—you can find tons of listings on Total Wine for obscure brands like “Darby’s Reserve” or “Deadwood Rye” but good luck actually finding those in person, or at a bar.
And then of course, there’s the elephant in the room when it comes to rye whiskey: MGP of Indiana. This mega-distillery doesn’t bottle its own products, but it sells its popular 95 percent rye whiskey at various ages to many different distilleries, including Bulleit, Dickel, High West, Templeton, Redemption and many others, who dilute, bottle and additionally age it as they see fit—some more affordably than others. Several show up in this tasting.
So let’s answer the question: With $25 in your pocket, what’s the absolute best bottle of rye whiskey you can buy?
— This is a tasting of rye whiskeys, with a strict price limit of $25 or less for a 750 ml bottle. Some of the bottles we used in the tasting were merely pints, but every brand on this list was available for $25 or less on Total Wine at the time of purchasing. Please note, the $25 cutoff means certain mid-shelf brands such as Wild Turkey ($26.49), Redemption ($25.99), High West ($32.99), Jack Daniels ($29.99) or James E. Pepper (32.99) missed the tasting by a few bucks, as they can’t reliably be had for less than $25.
— All ryes were tasted neat.
— All rye whiskeys in this tasting were acquired directly from liquor stores in Georgia, with the exception of the Old Forester, which was a press sample.
— Rye whiskeys were judged completely blind by how enjoyable they were as individual experiences and given scores of 1-100, which were then averaged. Entries were judged by how much we enjoyed them for whatever reason, not by how well they fit any kind of preconceived style guidelines.
Distillery: Beam Suntory
ABV: 50% (100 proof)
Price: $22.99 (although bizarrely, Total Wine is selling 750 ml of regular Old Overholt for $20.99, but 1L bottles for $16.99. Explain that one.)
Old Overholt is a legacy Beam brand that has been around forever, a low-rye (likely 51 percent, but not disclosed) example of the style in keeping with the Kentucky tradition of rye whiskeys that have just enough rye content to qualify for the label. It’s a very common well whiskey, although we’re using the more expressive and newer bottled-in-bond (and 100 proof) version. Not that this did it any favors—this young-tasting spirit was the consensus least favorite on the table, and the only whiskey we sampled that none of us would particularly like to taste again.
On the nose, the initial shock is an unmistakable note of sweetened peanut butter, like the interior of a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, which is immediately off-putting. Sweet and buttery, with an impression of peanut shells and dusty leather, this simply wasn’t what any of our tasters were looking for. On the palate it’s overly sweet, like buttery toffee, and although you do get some faint rye bread/citrus impressions, the overwhelming peanut quality is distractingly impossible to ignore. This proved to be a common note of the Beam-style ryes, and we found ourselves rather quickly disillusioned with them as a result.
Distillery: Beam Suntory
ABV: 45% (90 proof)
This is, quite simply, the same distillate as Old Overholt Rye, except aged a year longer and (in this case) cut to 90 proof rather than 100. Those changes actually do have a positive effect—every taster agreed that the end result here was superior to the Old Overholt bottle, and several tasters who disliked the Old Overholt actually enjoyed the Jim Beam Rye. However, the lingering similarities—especially the peanut butter on the nose, although it is considerably fainter here—led to many of the same criticisms. Overall, this supposedly “pre-Prohibition” style rye comes off as a bit grainier, spicier and more rye-focused than the Old Overholt, with a better degree of balance in its flavors, but it still feels dominated more by corn than by rye. Those who liked it appreciated this dram’s easygoing sweetness and silky texture, but those who didn’t were turned off by the lack of fruit notes and the “rye spice” we’ve come to expect from higher-rye formulations. If anything, the performance of the two Beam products on this table is a perfect illustration of how the American taste preferences for rye whiskey profiles have substantially changed over the course of the last decade.
Distillery: Bulleit/Diageo (sourced from MGP of Indiana)
ABV: 45% (90 proof)
Now here’s a brand you would certainly expect to be a contender. No other rye whiskey has had such a huge, albeit polarizing effect on the industry in the last decade as Bulleit. Using the 95/5 (rye/barley) recipe out of MGP of Indiana to great effect, Bulleit has built a rye empire with this green bottle, to the extent that most of the other rye brands on the table also sport green labels—something we hardly think is a coincidence. And indeed, although many other distilleries also make use of the same rye whiskey from MGP, no brand seems to be so indelibly associated with it as Bulleit Rye. In the world of “cheap” rye whiskey, this is undoubtedly the brand that represents the gatekeeper between “affordable” ryes and premium ryes, and it’s also to thank for helping to change the American perception of exactly what “rye whiskey” tastes like, starting a trend toward higher rye content in rye whiskey. If this was a contest of which brand was most influential, Bulleit would be the easy winner.
In practice, though, Bulleit Rye falls somewhere in the middle of the pack. Slightly charred on the nose, with a subtly ashy character, Bulleit features the complex flavor profile of herbaceous/fruit/spice interplay that you often see in very high-rye whiskeys. Fresh cut grass and hints of dark fruit make an interesting combination with spearmint and pepper, although the overall profile is let down slightly by a hint of medicinal artificiality that was noted on several score sheets. Ultimately, Bulleit proved to be divisive among the blind tasters, just as it often seems to be among whiskey geeks at the bar. With that said, we haven’t seen the last of the MGP ryes.
ABV: 50% (100 proof)
Old Forester’s entry is the newest of this field on the market, and represents the first new mashbill with the Old Forester name on it in just shy of 150 years. And it’s a unique mashbill at that, striking a balance between classic Kentucky ryes and the higher-percentage modern style at 65 percent rye, 15 percent corn and an unusually high 20 percent malted barley. That last element helps it stand out as a unique entry on the table, adding a lightly floral note to the nose, along with hints of maple syrup sweetness, grassiness and white pepper. On the palate, there’s a little bit of banana fruitiness to this whiskey, chased by rye bread, peppercorn and slightly young, green oak. Particularly impressive is how easily it drinks at 100 proof—it’s night and day, compared to the cloying qualities of the 100 proof version of Old Overholt. This profile is equal parts familiar, intriguing and versatile.
The bottom line is that this is a solid, expressive, rye that represents a great value for just over $20, especially when you consider the proof. If you need something to make old fashioneds and Manhattans in bulk, Old Forester represents an excellent budget pick.
Note: I think it’s worth noting that the scores for the #2 and #3 positions were incredibly close, when all was said and done. Between six tasters’ score sheets, they were ultimately separated by only one point.
Distillery: Dickel/Diageo (sourced from MGP of Indiana)
ABV: 45% (90 proof)
This bottle from Dickel features the same “95/5” MGP whiskey found in Bulleit Rye, but its superior presentation (and notably different flavors) are proof of just how much the same liquid can be modified through a distillery’s finishing processes. In this case, Dickel’s filtration through sugar maple charcoal has added both richness and smoothness to this rye, enhancing some of its more indulgent characteristics while simultaneously removing the slight medicinal tones that tasters were picking up in the Bulleit. To be honest, we wouldn’t have thought it would be possible for the same liquid, at the same proof, to present so differently.
On the nose this one is very citrus forward, with a “flamed orange peel” quality that pairs nicely with brown sugar sweetness on the palate—almost bourbon-like, in character. That impression is amplified by the darker fruity qualities of Dickel Rye, which suggest cherries, followed by lemon-orange citrus and black pepper spiciness. This is a richer take on rye, which some may find very surprising, given the way it runs counter to how we expect very high-rye formulations (such as the MGP 95/5) to taste. Certainly, it strikes us as very conducive to making an old fashioned in particular. All in all, Dickel was a very pleasant surprise.
Distillery: Heaven Hill
ABV: 50% (100 proof)
There was a time, a decade ago or so, when you could probably find bottles of Rittenhouse Rye for $10 on the regular, but now it’s barely able to stay within a “bottom shelf” rye whiskey conversation. That’s a testament to this classic rye’s quality—although it may have been a bartender’s secret once upon a time, the word has long since gotten out. And suffice to say, there’s a reason why this stuff appears on seemingly every list of the best budget whiskey. Regardless of style, Rittenhouse is an absolute classic, and it proved it here by being far and away the consensus blind tasting winner.
The funny thing about Rittenhouse is how very rye-forward it seems, in comparison with the other Kentucky-style ryes from the likes of Beam. It’s significantly thinner of body than richer entries such as the George Dickel, but makes up for that quality with a preponderance of rye-driven flavors. Peppery spice and green apple fruitiness merge with orange peel, grain and earthy rye bread, while the high proof hides itself surprisingly well. Dried fruit, grass and pepper linger on the palate long afterward, rounding out a profile that begs to be mixed into any classic cocktail. For under $25 you can’t do better than this, as far as rye whiskey is concerned. Rittenhouse is the bottom-shelf rye king.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.