Rye Whiskey

The Rye Revival– Revisited
Best Rye Whiskey

By the 1780s, around 5,000 log stillhouses were operating in Pennsylvania and Maryland producing the fragrant whiskey that came to be known as “rye”. Mostly by German immigrants that had been using rye in the production of schnapps and vodka back in northern Europe. 70 years later in San Francisco during the Gold Rush Era, bars lined every block of the Barbary Coast— and the bartenders’ staple was rye whiskey. Rye was usually served straight, but the distinctive flavor made it a perfect mixer during the early years of the cocktail. Three of the most popular classic cocktails were originally created for rye whiskey — the Old-Fashioned, the Manhattan & the Sazerac.

Before the Prohibition, there were over 50 brands of rye. When Prohibition outlawed the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages in 1920, many enterprising residents of small towns across America chose to become outlaws – They produced thousands of kegs per month, supplying Al Capone and other gangs who in turn filled the demand of speakeasies throughout Chicago, New York and all the way west to San Francisco.

After prohibition ended and liquor became legal again, most American whiskey distilleries ceased production, and rye whiskey practically disappeared. By the 1980s, production of rye whiskies had all but vanished from its Mid-Atlantic homeland. For almost six decades since WWII, (with the exception of a brief cocktail-crazed period during the “Mad Men” era in the late 50’s), bourbon had taken over as the American whiskey of choice.

Then America’s drinking habits began to change. Around the beginning of the new millennium, we saw an emergence and popularity of mixology and cocktails. Foodies and gastronomes started a slow food trend— which carried over to a heightened interest in artisanal, hand-crafted spirits. Suddenly, there was a wave of sybaritic epicureans seeking new taste sensations and rediscovering old ones.

It was only until 2006 that small batch rye whiskey finally returned to the market, available for the first time in 85 years. Branching out from a handful of large, established bourbon companies, small batch distilleries have popped up across the country. These modern pioneers have dusted off old family records and great grandpa's handed-down recipes to create spirits deeply rooted in tradition. Specialty rye had been reborn, even though bourbon and Tennessee whiskey still accounts for 3/4 of American whiskey production. A decade ago in this country you could only find six brands of rye. Now there are more than 50, and rye whiskey has become the go-to craft spirit of the moment.

Rye whiskey is made from fermented mashed grain that is at least 51% rye grain by law, sometimes with barley, corn and other grains blended in. Most of the newer, small-batch brands use 100% rye. Ryes must be distilled at less than 80% ABV (160 proof), and aged in new, charred oak barrels, used one-time only. Ryes labeled as "straight" must be aged for at least two years.

Rye was once a standard ingredient in Canadian whiskey, but now usually contains mostly corn and wheat— and can still be legally labeled “rye whiskey" in Canada.

Rye whiskies are typically dry, peppery, and grainy, with complex flavors bursting with fruit, walnuts, and spice. This distinctly bold assertive character is embraced by a dedicated and growing following of discerning whiskey fans.


The Great Rye Whiskey Tasting of 2013


The Tasting:
The Fifty Best held a “blind” tasting of 24 American rye whiskies with 18 pre-qualified judges. Strict tasting rules were applied. The order of service was established beforehand by lottery. Each of the ryes were poured into fresh glasses from new sealed bottles, and served at slightly above room temperature. Only ice water, neutral unflavored crackers and bar snacks were available to cleanse the palate. The judges tasted through three flights of 7 ryes and one flight of 3 ryes.

The judges wrote down their impressions of each product on score sheets. The scoring was done on a 5-point system, with 5 as the best. Double-Gold, Gold and Silver medals were awarded according to a set range of final point scores received from the judges. There were no Bronze medals awarded in this tasting.

The tasting notes that follow are summaries of the judges’ opinions, with all replicated commentary eliminated. The states of origin are identified for each brand.


Here are the final results:

Dark Horse Reunion


Dark Horse Reunion

Nose: Dried cherries, subtle caramel, toffee, maple, cola, corn, sandalwood, floral, oak, nuts.
Palate: Dark chocolate, toffee, sugar cane, corn, grain, earthy, grappa, Angostura bitters, black pepper, spicy.
Finish: Toffee, spicy, clean, smooth, short.

Double Gold Medal
Double Gold medal

Rough Rider Bull Moose
(New York)

Nose: Grassy, mossy, nutty, clove, rye, oak.
Palate: Dried fruits, cherry, dried banana, ripe banana, vanilla, honey, toffee, hazelnut, nougat, grain, herbs, mint, pepper, rye, toast, spice, dill, eucalyptus.
Finish: Cinnamon, buttery, honey, zesty, smooth, short.

Double Gold Medal
Double Gold medal

Rough Rider Bull Moose

Hudson Manhattan

Hudson Manhattan
(New York)

Nose: Cranberry, cherry, prune, plums, apricot, dark chocolate, walnuts.
Palate: Raisin, prune, dried fruit, plum, raspberry, caramel, honeycomb, toffee, cocoa, nougat, nutty, cashew, herbal tea, grain, cinnamon, spicy, leather, tobacco, zesty.
Finish: Spicy, peppery, honey, sweet nuttiness, rye, toast, smooth, lingering.

Double Gold Medal
Double Gold medal

Widow Jane
(New York)

Nose: Banana, cherry, honey, vanilla, oaky, lightly herbal.
Palate: Cherry, raisin, honey, creamy, vanilla, almond, nutty, grain, mint, dill, spice.
Finish: Spice, buttery, velvety, rye, smooth, medium.

Double-Gold Medal
Double-Gold medal

Widow Jane

Defiant Rye


(New York)

Nose: Caramel, brown sugar, maple, molasses, honeysuckle, vanilla, custard, dried plums, walnut, new wood.
Palate: Caramel, vanilla, crème brûlée, brown sugar, nougat, ripe banana, coconut, dried dark fruits, cinnamon, cloves, toast, walnuts, leather.
Finish: Clean, fresh, smooth, grain, wood notes, lingering.

Gold Medal
Gold medal

Thirteenth Colony Southern

Nose: Subtle cherry, buttery, caramel, honey, subtle licorice, mint, herbal, clove, dill, crisp.
Palate: Caramel, vanilla, honey, molasses, chocolate mint, dried fruit, rum raisin, banana, green apple, ginger, spicy, eucalyptus.
Finish: Peppery, oaky, dry, medium.

Gold Medal
Gold medal

Thirteenth Colony Southern Rye

Koval Aged Rye

Koval Aged

Nose: Lemon meringue pie, lemon, apricot, toasted bread, nutmeg, black pepper.
Palate: Custard, caramel, crème brûlée, vanilla, brown sugar, nougat, Toasted Honeycomb cereal, wheat, sweet corn, almond, ginger, pepper, rye, oak, balanced.
Finish: Spicy, smooth, short.

Gold Medal
Gold medal

James Oliver

Nose: Cocoa, vanilla, cloves, green tea leaves, cut grass, floral, subtle.
Palate: Honey, vanilla, pistachio, banana, date, fig, dried dark fruit, walnuts, herbal tea, herbs, peppermint, spice, toast, leather, zesty, lovely wood.
Finish: Spice, peppery, rye, grain, medium.

Gold Medal
Gold medal

James Oliver Rye

Templeton Rye


Nose: Herbal peppermint tea, soft citrus, coconut, melon, honey, cola.
Palate: Peppermint, tea, lemon, honey, vanilla, banana, cherry, plums. cola, rye flour, grain, cinnamon, spicy.
Finish: Clean, spicy, silky, short.

Gold Medal
Gold medal

Ole George

Nose: Plum, prune, caramel, vanilla bean, creamy, walnut, sandalwood, clove, rye, oak.
Palate: Cherry, plum, fig, banana, dark chocolate, sugar cane, vanilla, toffee, cream, rye grain, mint, spices.
Finish: Sharp spice, smooth, very nice, medium.

Gold Medal
Gold medal

Ole George Rye

Ceran St. Vrain's Taos Lightning Rye

Ceran St. Vrain's Taos Lightning
(New Mexico)

Nose: Caramel, custard, vanilla, banana, Good Humor Toasted Almond, light floral, leather.
Palate: Raisin, dates, apricot, black cherry, fig, rum raisin, candied fruit, toffee, chocolate mint, sugar cane, Wather's Original candy, walnut, flour, grain, very spicy, smooth, balanced.
Finish: Clean, light, vanilla, butterscotch, peppery, lingering.

Gold Medal
Gold medal

Old Scout
(West Virginia)

Nose: Caramel, toffee, vanilla, coconut, banana, cola, cherry notes, light herbal, clove.
Palate: Caramel, toffee, vanilla, cherry, apricot, green apple, explosion of fruit, ripe fruit, dried fruit, subtle mint, hint of cinnamon, nutty, almond, grain, ginger, dill, brine, sea salt, leather, silky.
Finish: Spicy, almond, roasted nuts, cinnamon, toffee, lingering.

Gold Medal
Gold medal

Old Scout Rye

Knob Creek Rye

Knob Creek

Nose: Almond, cherry, green apple, toffee, nougat.
Palate: Plum, caramel, honey, butter, creamy toffee, herbal tea, coffee, cinnamon, almond, cashew, nutmeg, clove, chewy, viscous.
Finish: Black pepper, spicy, sugarcane, smooth, balanced, lingering.

Gold Medal
Gold medal

Corsair 100%

Nose: Banana, apricot, hints of cherry, almond, caramel, hint of honey.
Palate: Caramel, toffee, vanilla, creamy, molasses, apricot, mango, pineapple, cherry, fruit cake, corn, cola, lightly nutty, clove, cinnamon, ginger, spice, fresh, light.
Finish: Dry, soft, lingering.

Gold Medal
Gold medal

Corsair 100% Rye

Copper Fox Rye

Copper Fox

Nose: Nutmeg, honeycomb, maple, toffee, Turkish delight, prune, plum, subtle cola, pine.
Palate: Cherry, plum, prune, raisin, fig, corn, mulled wine, cloves, dried herbs, light ginger, spicy, walnuts, woody notes, oak, mahogany, bourbon barrel, leather, smoky.
Finish: Smooth, bourbon barrel, wood, lingering.

Gold Medal
Gold medal


Nose: Blackberry, citrus, apricots, roasted nuts, toffee, honey, sugarcane.
Palate: Dates, fig, raisin, maple, toffee, creamy, cola, almond, subtle mint, peppery, spice, fresh oak, silky, zesty.
Finish: Soft, spice, peppery, medium.

Gold Medal
Gold medal

Sazerac Rye

Feisty Spirits Rye

Feisty Spirits

Nose: Vanilla, banana, coconut, citrus, corn, almond, cactus, grain, oak.
Palate: Vanilla, caramel, butterscotch, banana, apricot, dried fruit, almond, rye, grain, dill, spicy, woody, oak, balanced.
Finish: Nutty, spicy, peppery, soft, medium.

Gold Medal
Gold medal


Nose: Dried fruits, banana, Graham cracker, rye flour.
Palate: Butter, chocolate, cocoa, honey, sugar cane, toffee, raisin, plum, walnut, almond, clove, nutty, oaky, peppery, spice.
Finish: Tangy, citrus, light pepper, wood, oaky, medium.

Gold Medal
Gold medal

Prichard's Rye

Yellow Rose Rye

Yellow Rose

Nose: Cola, soft spice, oak, grain, very subtle
Palate: Coconut butter, cream, vanilla, apricot, green apple, cashew, almond, nutty, sweet potato, sweet rye, toasted cracker, anise, cinnamon.
Finish: Spice, dry, medium.

Gold Medal
Gold medal


Nose: Vanilla, coconut, grape, plum, agave, grain, nuttiness.
Palate: Caramel, vanilla, creamy, custard, toffee notes, sugar cane, corn, cinnamon, pepper, agave-like, eucalyptus, nutmeg, spice, toast, nutty, oaky.
Finish: Smooth, light, balanced, short.

Gold Medal
Gold medal

Monterey Rye

Koval White Rye


Koval White

Nose: Vanilla, caramel, custard, banana, herbal.
Palate: Buttercream, caramel, vanilla, custard, crème brûlée, sugarcane, coconut, creamy, velvety, herbal, citrus, grain, rye flour, fresh wood.
Finish: Nutty, spicy, peppery, soft, medium.

Silver Medal
Silver medal


Nose: Almond, banana, very slight vanilla, minty, light oak.
Palate: Black cherry, stewed fruit, burnt raisin, cherry, plums, green apple, pear, melon, citrus, creamy vanilla, honey, brown sugar, mulled wine, flax, cloves, peppery, silky, balanced.
Finish: Walnut, pepper, spicy, smooth, lingering.

Silver Medal
Silver medal

Masterson's Rye

Elk Rider Rye

Elk Rider

Nose: Vanilla, roasted nuts, pecan, corn, leather, damp oak, barrel, new wood.
Palate: Apricot, plum, cream, clay, pretzel, walnuts, cinnamon, spice, herbs, light, very smooth.
Finish: Fresh, clean, grain, citrus, medium.

Silver Medal
Silver medal


Nose: Eaux-de-vie, aged figs, anise, pisco, grain.
Palate: Milk chocolate, cocoa, eaux-de-vie, anise, green olives, grassy, herbal, grain, true rye, peppercorn, old wood, silky, balanced.
Finish: Vanilla, marzipan, anise, soft, short.

Silver Medal
Silver medal

Commander's Rye




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Comments and Suggestions:

Sun. September 21, 2014 8:21 AM - by: Jean-Paul
Hello I would recommend to taste High West 16years Rye and Sonoma County Rye. Kind regards Jean-Paul
Thu. July 17, 2014 6:42 PM - by: Sharon Ehni
In Scottsdale this winter, I purchased a bottle of "Canadian Gold, very light Canadian Whiskey" at Total Wine. I LOVE IT! I cannot find it in Portland/Beaverton. Does any place near Beaverton carry this tasty whiskey?
Wed. February 19, 2014 6:33 PM - by: Steven Amick
Picked up a bottle of James Oliver rye across the river in Camas, Washington, and fell in love! Fortunately, though it's made in Kentucky, it's aged and bottled in Tigard, a Portland suburb, by Indio Spirits, which makes lots of other good hooch and has a tasting room. (Don't everyone move here, though.) I just ordered some of that delicious JO rye from my friendly local Oregon Liquor Control Commission-licensed store in Oregon City and can't wait to: A) get it, and; B) cruise over to Tigard with some friends for a tasting party. Yum!

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