Complete Guide to Rye Whiskey
whiskey tips

A Guide to Drinking Rye Whiskey: The Overview

The natural introduction to American Whiskey in the 21st century seems to be through bourbon.  It’s sweeter and milder compared to other whiskies, thanks to the high percentage of corn, and makes for a good starting point for many would-be whiskey connoisseurs.

After you’ve gotten to know some of the different bourbons available, you may begin to notice an intense, peppery flavor cutting through the corn sweetness in some offerings.

The more you sample, the more you’ll come to appreciate the bold spice of those bourbons with high rye content, such as Four Roses Single Barrel Bourbon, or Bulleit Bourbon.

That’s how you know that it’s time to start drinking rye.

When you have come to that conclusion, follow this quick guide to drinking rye to truly appreciate this long overlooked spirit.

A Tale of Two Whiskeys

If you want to begin drinking rye, you should first understand what rye is, and how it differs from bourbon.

Rye and bourbon are both American Whiskeys, and are made in much the same way.  Both start life as a fermented grain mash, and with the help of water and heat, ferment into alcohol.  After distilling, both spirits are stored in charred-oak barrels, and aged.

Neither allow for additives.

If you really want a guide to drinking rye, you should understand that the main distinction from bourbon is the grains used in the mash.  Bourbon must be at least 51% corn, while rye must be at least 51% rye.

Related: How is Bourbon Made?

There’s a wide variety of mashbills for both spirits, and as a result, a lot of potential for cross over in taste.  And unless you’ve only been drinking wheated bourbons, you’re probably already used to, albeit in smaller quantities, the rye flavor.

A Note From Canada, Eh?

While many Canadian whiskies are referred to as “rye”, they can be tricky because they may not actually be made with over 51% rye.  Canadian whisky generally contains a high percentage of corn spirits, and can contain caramel and flavoring.

So long as they look, smell, and taste like rye, and have a bit of rye in them, Canadian regulations say they can be labelled as Canadian Rye.

While there are some delicious Canadian spirits out there that have high rye content (Canadian Club, for example), for the purpose of our guide to drinking rye, we’ll be focusing on American Rye.

Know Thy Rye

A guide to drinking rye isn’t complete without explaining mashbills.  Because rye can have such a variance in the mashbill, it’s important to understand more about the rye you are drinking.

The more rye grain used, the spicier and drier (less sweet) the rye becomes.  

Rye whiskey was distilled in the late 1700s and early 1800s in Maryland and Pennsylvania.  Traditionally, Maryland rye incorporated a lot of corn (or malted barley – there is some dispute about that), whereas Pennsylvania used 80-100% rye.  That gave Maryland a sweet, more rounded out taste, compared to the spiciness of Pennsylvania rye.

Prohibition killed the majority of these distilleries, and most reincarnated brands (or those lucky enough to continue production for medicinal purposes) popped back up in Kentucky.  But thanks to a new generation of rye drinkers, Maryland and Pennsylvania are making a comeback.

Sagamore Spirit is sticking to their home state’s traditions, distilling rye using high corn content.  Meanwhile Dad’s Hat is producing classic high rye whiskey.  In Kentucky, you can find a good mixture of everything in between.

As a guide to drinking rye, you will need to research the mashbills.  The only way to know what rye you prefer is to sample them.

What’s in a Number?

Bourbon, particularly wheated bourbon, gets better with age.  That’s because the barrel flavors can impart on the milder, sweeter corn whiskey, allowing it to pick up notes of vanilla.  Typically “good” bourbons are aged a minimum of 8 years, and some “really good” bourbons may age for as long as 20 years.

It’s interesting to note that rye does not have to be aged the same amount of time to develop its flavor.  100% rye can reach maturity within 2-3 years, which means that it’s a lot more accessible, and affordable, to drink good rye.

The less rye in the mashbill, the longer the aging process should be.  And with a guide to drinking rye, you can easily find terrific ryes that cost less than $50 per bottle.

Because rye does not have the same barrier to entry as bourbon, many craft rye distilleries are popping up around the country.

As you begin your rye journey, check out some of the smaller producers winning big awards, such as Koval Rye which was recommended by Rolling Stone as one of 5 must-try artisanal American whiskies in late 2020.

How to Order (and drink!)

The first thing you need to think about before you order (or purchase) a rye whiskey is whether you’re going to be sipping your whiskey, or if you’d prefer to have a cocktail.  Both are perfectly acceptable options, and this guide to drinking rye will guide you through both.

So many traditional whiskey cocktails, like Old Fashioneds or Manhattans, originally used rye, not bourbon.  If you want to experience these cocktails as they were first intended, order them with rye.  Sazeracs and Waldorf cocktails also make for excellent choices at a bar.  If you prefer a mixed drink, try rye and ginger or rye with a splash of soda water.

On the other hand, drinking rye neat (sometimes called “straight”) or on the rocks will allow you to really get to know the flavors that rye has to offer.

Any guide to drinking rye would be remiss to not mention that most bartenders will recommend drinking out of a lowball glass at room temperature.

Just like bourbon, adding a few drops of water to your rye is scientifically proven to heighten the taste and aromas of the whiskey.

While drinking whiskey on the rocks was once frowned upon, it is completely appropriate to order a rye on ice.  The rye offers up different flavors cold, and will dilute it slightly.

If At First You Don’t Succeed:  Rye, Rye, Again

Like many spirits, rye isn’t often love at first sip.  You can follow the guide to drinking rye, but sometimes it takes a few tries before you can genuinely appreciate the flavors.

Once you get over the underlying spice, most whiskey drinkers come to love and appreciate their rye, and it becomes an easy addition to the bar for sipping and mixing.

If you feel that bourbon is ultimately what your heart calls you to, try incorporating some of the higher rye bourbons into your bar rotation for a little variety.


Stay Gold

About Todd Smidt

Todd is a man of simple tastes: traveling, words, whiskey, & dad jokes. He enjoys first-rate banter, long walks along the coast, High West, and Vonnegut. He spends his free time traveling the world, drinking whiskey, and writing about it.

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