Whiskey, like most distilled liquors, is made from grain. Depending on the type of grain that’s used, the whiskey will take on those particular characteristics. Corn whiskies, like Tennessee whiskey or bourbon, may have a sweetness and sometimes sour flavor. Barley whiskies, like Scotch, may taste peaty or grassy. Rye whiskies are spicy, like cinnamon, and that flavor gives them their own unique place in the library of whiskies. It’s the primary ingredient in the New Orleans cocktail, the Sazerac. While rye whiskey has been hard to find over the past several decades, it’s making a comeback in the U.S. and many distillers have released brand new ryes this summer.
Though I have famously described myself as a “gin guy” and occasionally a “whiskey hater,” rye’s unique flavor has really won me over, and I’ve enjoyed all the ryes I’ve tasted so far. Some friends and I got together to taste 3 of the top American Straight Rye Whiskies this year, according to the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. We tried:
- Knob Creek Rye, the “Best Rye Double Gold Medal” winner
- Bulleit Rye, a “Gold Medal” winner
- Taos Lightning Rye by KGB Spirits, a “Bronze Medal” winner (we tried both the 5- and 15-year varieties)
The spiciness and flavor of these three rye whiskies is outstanding. I would say the rye taste corrects the flavor objections I normally have when I drink whiskey. It doesn’t have that sweet finish of bourbon or the sourness of Tennessee corn whiskies, but leaves a nice tingle on the tongue. Knob Creek was the smoothest of the 3 brands, though I assume that’s because it contains less rye (Bulleit and Taos Lightning both contain 95% rye, Knob Creek is unspecified). If you normally enjoy whiskey, these three ryes will give you a unique flavor profile that you may grow to appreciate, too. If you’re not normally a whiskey fan, try a sip of rye and see if the difference is significant enough to sway you. These particular ryes are 90-100 proof, so a splash of cool spring water or a bit of ice helps the flavor to blossom before you drink it.
Bulleit, Knob Creek, and Taos Lightning 5-year are all similar in age to one another, and will run you about $30, $40, and $55 respectively. All three are certainly worth their price tags. The first two have national distribution and you can likely get them at your local liquor store. Taos Lightning can be purchased at these retailers in northern New Mexico. From the perspective of age though, the 15-year-old Taos Lightning is particularly unique, as 15 years is a very rare age for a rye whiskey (5 years is more common). The age does make a difference in this case as the older Taos Lightning is quite smooth. The more mature Taos Lightning retails for $85.