Rye is a big deal lately. It may have been America’s favorite whiskey before Prohibition, but the spicy spirit was left on life support by the Noble Experiment and took the next 80 years to start recovering. But recover it has: According to the latest numbers from the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, rye sales more than quintupled between 2009 and 2014. A decade ago, there were barely a handful of rye brands on the market, and today there are more than 100.
So you need to start paying attention. And now’s a great time to start—rye’s sharp cinnamon, nutmeg and even clove notes make it a beautiful fall beverage. And with all the new brands coming on the market, you have lots of choices. Here are five to try that all came out this year.
PIKESVILLE STRAIGHT RYE WHISKEY ($50)
Around the turn of the 20th century, Maryland was a hotbed of rye distillation, and Pikesville, founded in 1895, was one of the state’s most popular brands. It even survived Prohibition, hanging on until the 1980s, when the Maryland distillery closed and Heaven Hill (the owner of Evan Williams, Elijah Craig and other bourbon favorites) bought the brand. A revived Pikesville, distilled in Kentucky and aged for three years, was sold only in Maryland for years, but this new version rolled out nationwide in September. It’s six years old and a powerful 110-proof, though its relatively low rye content (just 51 percent) tempers the mellow spice with nice honey and cocoa notes.
RAGTIME RYE ($44)
Ever since renowned spirits expert Allen Katz started the New York Distilling Company in 2011, savvy drinkers have been drooling over its rye whiskey, which the distillery steadfastly refused to bottle until it spent enough time in barrels to be just the right level of delicious. We’ve had to comfort ourselves with NYDC’s tasty gins in the meantime, but the rye was finally released last month, and the anticipation was worth it. The whiskey strikes a lovely balance between sweetness and spice, with notes of caramel apples and cherry backed up by a pleasant peppery burn.
WOODFORD RESERVE RYE WHISKEY ($38)
You know of Woodford Reserve as one of the finest bourbons on the market, but early this year it launched its own entry into the rye boom. (The brand claims that this bottling has been in the works since 2006, which if true makes it less a jumping on the bandwagon than a prescient prediction for whiskey trends.) The mashbill is 51 percent rye and 33 percent corn, giving the finished product a bourbon-like sweetness matched by mint and clove flavors that still make it clear this is a rye whiskey. In addition, you’ll find some intriguing almond notes that are fairly unusual in American whiskies.
CORBIN CASH MERCED RYE WHISKEY ($50)
Fourth-generation sweet potato farmer David Souza dreamed of making whiskey from his crop when he started his Sweet Potato Spirits distillery in California. Though he is turning the roots into an excellent vodka and even a barrel-aged liqueur, only spirits made from grains can legally be labeled as whiskey. That’s why he created this bottling, distilled from rye grown in between sweet potato plantings on the Souza family farm. It’s made from 100 percent rye, so the sharp spice is most definitely at the forefront, but with plenty of caramel and oak from up to four years in barrels.
RUSSELL’S RESERVE SINGLE BARREL RYE WHISKEY ($60)
Jimmy and Eddie Russell, the father-and-son master distillers at Wild Turkey, are certainly no strangers to rye, having made it in addition to bourbon for their entire decades-long tenure. This latest spirit, though, is extra-special. They choose fine barrels from optimal locations in the distillery’s warehouses and bottle them one at a time at 104-proof, which strikes a good balance between overpowering the palate with alcohol burn and overdiluting the spice. The Russells’ bourbon is already pretty spicy, and this rye only raises the bar, though it also offers vanilla and a hint of smoke to balance the peppery flavors.
AND NOW, A WORD FROM SOME BARTENDERS