“Why wouldn’t you focus on the original spirit of America?”
That’s what Fort Hamilton co-founder Alex Clark asked earlier this summer when I visited the up-and-coming (but tiny in scale) Brooklyn distillery. He was talking specifically about his own brand, but we could apply his rhetorical statement to rye whiskey in general.
Rye pre-dates bourbon, and there are several regional styles (meanwhile, bourbon is mainly centered around Kentucky, although that’s certainly changing). And in the past years, distillers have been bolder regarding the proof, mashbill and finishing the rye in different barrels. For a historical spirit, a lot about rye in 2022 feels new and exciting.
More Year-End Whiskey Lists
The 12 Best Bourbons of 2022It was a good time for the bourbon industry to get a little weird
Below, 12 of our favorite rye whiskeys of the year. Almost the same rules as our best of bourbon line-up: We’re not sticklers for release dates (at least one of these came out at the tail-end of 2021). These bottles are listed in no particular order. But unlike the bourbon list, our friends up north make a couple of appearances.
Chicken Cock was the house whiskey at the Cotton Club (a legendary Prohibition-era speakeasy) and supposedly a favorite of Duke Ellington. A 100-proof Canadian Straight Rye Whiskey aged for 20 years, the limited-edition Cotton Club release is both earthy and citrus-y, while a hint of vanilla slips in on repeated tastings. Outstanding, but also a bit pricey — the bottle does come with a commemorative tin, reflective of the tin cans the whiskey would arrive in via Canada during Prohibition.
Broken Barrel sources younger bourbons and ryes from Kentucky and Indiana and then adds different barrel staves from three to 21 months to create unique taste profiles. A standout is Heresy, a 105-proof Kentucky Straight Rye whiskey (95% rye, 5% malted barley) that’s undergone additional oak stave treatment utilizing ex-bourbon, new French oak and Sherry cask oak. It’s fruity and spicy while offering a sweet kick and a warm finish.
Released at the tail end of 2021, this limited-edition release from George Dickel General Manager and Distiller Nicole Austin is a 100-proof, 13-year-old rye; while lacking the ceramic bottling of a much-loved earlier release this exquisite expression features notes of cloves, cherry, pepper and vanilla, with an oily mouthfeel. It’s an extraordinarily interesting release that’ll coat your palette longer after your first sip (if you can find a bottle).
Pinhook’s claim is that they showcase the best attributes of each year’s crop of barrels over a consistent flavor profile — making each year a unique release, much like wine. While only aged a minimum of two years, the 2022 vintage of Pinhook Rye is spicy and delicious, with notes of pear, cloves, apple and black pepper. A drop or two of water really opens it up (note that for a rye, there’s a good percentage of corn and malted barley in the mashbill).
For this specialty release, the rye-forward whiskey brand utilizes a technique inspired by the French sur lie winemaking process — the backset that comes off the still during distillation (the “whiskey lees”) is added into the barrels before aging to impart additional flavor. The result? A 47% ABV winner that’s a bit oily, a little creamy and features a lot of butterscotch and a touch of spice.
The 2022 edition of this award-winning Canadian whisky is once again crafted from 100% prairie rye mashbill and Rocky Mountain spring water. It’s spicy, full of chocolate, dark fruits, vanilla and wood. Somehow powerful and yet perfectly balanced.
A new permanent expression in the Tennessee whiskey brand’s line-up, the rye (100% rye mashbill and 100 proof) is sourced from Canada, aged in New York and then rested in used Uncle Nearest barrels. A lot of bready dough on the nose and a delectable balance of sweet and spicy on the palate, with notes of vanilla, anise and mint.
A re-release of last year’s hit collaboration, this rye is a union between Dickel’s column-distilled rye and Three Chamber distilled rye (Three Chamber was a popular still used by American distillers to produce rye whiskey before Prohibition). It features a lovely and unexpected chocolate character within the baking spices, oak and dark fruit notes.
This year’s Boss Hog entry from WhistlePig is a single barrel, bottled at proof and crafted by the Vermont distillery’s female whiskey makers, who were inspired by Greek muses. It’s a rye double finished in barrels that formerly held Greek fig nectar and Tentura, which the distillery describes as “a Greek style liqueur inspired by Ancient Patras.” Floral, fruity and full of baking spices, it offers a different perspective on rye.
Not technically an Empire Rye, this Brooklyn-based distillery — which ages some of its barrels on the second floor of an industrial park — uses a classic winter rye in its mashbill and runs the stills “somewhat inefficiently to create something oilier with richer texture,” as their co-founder Alex Clark told us (the barrels are also smaller, 30-gallon affairs). It’s one of the most approachable ryes I’ve ever tasted, a wonderful sipper full of brown sugar, fruit, mint, char and some herbal notes.
The Maryland distillery took a blend of its 5- and 6-year-old straight rye whiskeys, placing some in South American rum barrels and the rest in Jamaican rum barrels, aging both for an additional 10 months. The final result, at 49% ABV, really showcases the rum influence. This is tropical with a nice hint of butterscotch; any whiskey substitution for rum you’re looking for in a Tiki drink should start here.
The first rye expression in Jefferson’s Aged at Sea line, where barrels are put on ships and sent around the world to get “hyper-aged” (and survive hurricane season). This rye was aged 4-5 years in new char 3 bourbon barrels, then double-barreled in a split between new char 3 and new toasted barrels. The “buttery caramel popcorn” notes you’ll find in the previous 25 Aged at Sea releases is present here, but the warm spice of the rye is never lost (particularly on the nose). A standout in a long-running series of excellence.
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