Kentucky distillers saved the American Rye whiskey category from oblivion. During the 1970s as the Pennsylvania and Maryland distilleries were closing and everyone considered Canadian whisky as “rye whiskey”, Kentucky distilleries picked up many of the brands that were made in those States and started to produce them in Kentucky.
If they had not done so, the category of American rye whiskey would have died out as the last bottles of rye were sold without being restocked. Even so, the category became a very small percentage of the whiskey market. I remember Jimmy Russell once saying that when rye began to grow again in popularity that he tripled his production of rye whiskey that year – he made rye three days a year.
Rye whiskey has grown by leaps and bounds. Many artisan distilleries started making it for a couple of reasons: first, they wanted a whiskey they could sell at a young age and rye tends to taste better at two years of age than Bourbon. Next, they wanted to produce a whiskey that did not have to compete in the crowded Bourbon market. The big distilleries were still making rye whiskey, but their primary focus was still Bourbon. This is still true today. I doubt Wild Turkey makes rye whiskey more than one week a year.
I made this list with the following criteria. First, it has to be a rye made by a Kentucky distillery on a regular basis. Next, it is a brand that they bottle and sell themselves, not a brand they make for someone else. Finally, it is a brand of rye I like and drink fairly often. The list is in alphabetical order as I consider them all very good and they have all been a favorite on any given day.
- Heaven Hill: Pikesville Rye. 110 proof. Six Years Old.: This Heaven Hill distilled rye whiskey is full of flavor – caramel and baking spices with rye grass and oak. A great rye for a whiskey sour or old fashioned cocktail, but also very good neat with a cigar on the front porch on a summer evening.
- Michter’s Distillery: Michter’s Single Barrel Rye. 84.8 proof. No Age Statement. Okay, I am stretching my criteria a little here. This whiskey that is being sold today was contract distilled to their specification, but they will very soon have their own distilled whiskey in the bottle. It is very good rye whiskey. They have several versions such as a Barrel Proof and Toasted Barrel versions of the rye. They are all excellent. Lots of caramel and citrus fruit with a nice balance of rye grass, oak and baking spices. This whiskey makes an excellent Manhattan cocktail and you can step it up a notch by using the Barrel Strength Rye and make Rosemary’s favorite Manhattan.
- Old Pogue: Old Maysville Club. 100 proof. No Age Statement. This rye whiskey is made from an old family recipe using 100% malted rye. This one is the least available as the Old Pogue distillery is very small and makes only a few barrels per week at the distillery. The flavor is rye grass with lots of vanilla, citrus and a hint of chocolate malted milk ball candy. It is excellent neat on a cold winter’s evening in front of a fire.
- Kentucky Peerless Distillery: Peerless Rye Single Barrel. 108.8 proof. Four Years Old. Peerless makes this in both a single barrel and small batch expressions. They use a sweet mash fermentation and bottle all their products at barrel proof. This means the proof may vary from bottle-to-bottle. They are all excellent rye whiskeys. The flavors in this Westport Whiskey & Wine barrel selection are rich caramel, a little orchard fruit – app–es and pears, with some sweet oak and baking spices. Another favorite neat with a cigar, but it also makes an excellent old fashioned cocktail.
- Wilderness Trail Distillery: Wilderness Trail Family Reserve Rye. 97 proof. Three Years Old. Wilderness Trail now has four year old versions of their rye, but I use the three year old first release as my example as it is so good. At that time they were entering their rye whiskey into the barrel at less than 100 proof and it shows. There are a lot of the sweet vanillas and caramels from the oak without a whole lot of wood tannins. This rye whiskey is one of Matt’s favorites. He likes it neat or in one of his famous whiskey sours with the egg whites included.
- Willett Distillery: Family Estate Small Batch Rye. 107 proof. Three Years Old. Willett distills several versions of rye whiskey, but this bottle is one of Rosemary’s and my favorites. It is a marriage of their 95% rye mash bill and their rye/corn/malt mash bill. It is like a Christmas cookie in a bottle with lots of brown sugar and spice with a hint of citrus and dates. I always drink this one neat.
These are six of my favorite rye whiskeys made in Kentucky. I hope you enjoy the list.
Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller