Classic ‘Gateway Rye’ Whiskeys, Blind Tasted And Ranked

If you’re new to whiskey, you might be wary of rye and that’s a shame. Sure, the thought of drinking corn-based bourbon known for its mellow, easy-drinking flavor profile is appealing. But if you’re holding off on trying rye because you’re afraid you won’t enjoy the spicier, cracked black pepper-centric flavor notes, you’re doing your palate a disservice.

That being said, if you are ready to dip your toe into the rye whiskey world, you’re probably going to need a little help. You might not want to walk into your local liquor store or scroll through online retailers and randomly select a bottle. Like with any new (to you) whiskey style, you might not be happy with the results once you crack open the bottle.

Lucky for you, I know a thing or two about rye whiskey. And since I’m all about broadening your whiskey horizons, I decided to blindly taste and rank eight of my favorite gateway rye whiskeys below. Each was selected because of a combination of high-quality (no bottom shelf swill here), balanced-yet-peppery flavor profiles, and reasonable price. Keep scrolling to see how everything turned out.

The Whiskeys Selected:

  • Redemption Rye
  • Basil Hayden Dark Rye
  • Sagamore Spirit Signature Rye
  • Sazerac Rye
  • WhistlePig PiggyBack Rye
  • Wild Turkey 101 Rye
  • Michter’s US-1 Rye
  • High West Double Rye!

The Ranking:

8) High West Double Rye!

High West

ABV: 40%

Average Price: $29.99

The Whiskey:

You shouldn’t be surprised to learn that this whiskey’s name, Double Rye, comes from the fact that it’s a blend of two different rye whiskeys. Each was aged for a minimum of two years and up to seven years. They are a younger, sourced whiskey and an older whiskey, distilled by High West. The result is a spicy, bold, well-balanced sipper.

Taste 8
Christopher Osburn

Blind Tasting Notes:

Bland, muted aromas of wood, slight vanilla, and cracked black pepper are barely present on the nose. The palate isn’t as bland with some honey, slightly herbal flavors, caramel corn, and more rye spice. Overall, it’s pretty light and tastes really young.

Bottom Line:

High West Double Rye! Isn’t a bad bottle of whiskey. It’s just very young and that’s present in the nose and palate. It’s a bit more subdued than some of its longer-aged counterparts.

7) Wild Turkey 101 Rye

Wild Turkey 101 Rye
Wild Turkey

ABV: 50.5%

Average Price: $25.99

The Whiskey:

If you’re a bourbon drinker, you probably already have a bottle of versatile, flavorful Wild Turkey 101. Well, if you love that sweet, surprisingly mellow whiskey, you’ll love its rye cousin. Aged for a minimum of four years in new, charred American oak barrels and made with a mash bill of only 51% rye, this 101-proof whiskey is known for its slightly smoky, slightly sweet, peppery flavor.

Taste 7
Christopher Osburn

Blind Tasting Notes:

This whiskey starts with aromas of sweet toffee, vanilla cream, honey, and charred wood. There’s not much pepper in the aroma. The palate is surprisingly, almost alarmingly spicy with cinnamon, wood char, and cracked black pepper dominating the nose. It’s clear this is a higher proof whiskey and that’s not such a great characteristic.

Bottom Line:

Wild Turkey 101 rye is a better mixer than it is a sipper. The bold proof and spice that comes with it might be a little bold for some palates. It’s not even a very rye-centric whiskey, it’s the higher proof that has the burn.

6) Redemption Rye

Redemption Rye
Redemption Rye

ABV: 46%

Average Price: $28

The Whiskey:

Taking a sip of Redemption’s flagship rye is like taking a step back to whiskey before Prohibition. Even with a mash bill of 95% rye and 5% malted barley, this is a bold, spicy, award-winning whiskey is aged for at least two years in charred oak barrels and is surprisingly well-balanced and multi-dimensional. Albeit, quite young.

Taste 6
Christopher Osburn

Blind Tasting Notes:

The nose is surprisingly spicy with a wallop of cinnamon and pepper paired with citrus zest and some vanilla beans. On the palate, you’ll find some citrus peel, sticky toffee, caramel, and not as much cracked black pepper as I’d prefer.

The flavors aren’t bad, it’s just too watery and muted.

Bottom Line:

While there’s definitely a bold, peppery rye presence in Redemption Rye. It just tastes very young. And that’s because it is. It’s a bit more muted than it would be if it had spent a little longer in the barrel.

5) Sazerac Rye

Sazerac Rye
Buffalo Trace

ABV: 45%

Average Price: $30

The Whiskey:

If you’re a fan of whiskey-based cocktails, you’ve heard the word “Sazerac”. The rye-based drink and this rye from Buffalo Trace get their names from the Sazerac Coffee House that was located on Royal Street in New Orleans in the 1800s. This brand comes in this value bottle with an undisclosed age statement as well as an 18-year-old version.

Taste 5
Christopher Osburn

Blind Tasting Notes:

A nose of dried cherries, raisins, cinnamon, orange peels, and cracked black pepper greeted my nose before my first sip. The palate has notes of candied cherries, orange zest, butterscotch candy, and a healthy dose of peppery rye. But, like many of the other bottles on this list, it’s lacking in flavor punch.

Bottom Line:

For a bargain bottle, Sazerac is a surprisingly well-balanced (though muted) rye whiskey. There is a decent cracked black pepper backbone, lightly fruity, oaky flavors are also there. I just wish they were more prevalent.

4) Basil Hayden Dark Rye

Basil Hayden Dark Rye
Jim Beam

ABV: 40%

Average Price: $39.99

The Whiskey:

If you’re a fan of Jim Beam’s small-batch expressions, you know all about Basil Hayden (having recently rebranded from Basil Hayden’s). This unique whiskey is a blend of Kentucky rye, Canadian rye, and just a hint of California port. The result is a slightly fruity, spicy, bold whiskey.

Taste 4
Christopher Osburn

Blind Tasting Notes:

Dried cherries, berries, toffee, vanilla, and white pepper can be found on the nose. The palate contains notes of dried fruits, stone fruits, woody oak, and peppery rye — giving this a very complex, multi-dimensional flavor profile. The finish is a warming mix of fruit and spice.

Bottom Line:

If you’re looking for a very fruit-forward whiskey that has subtle cracked black pepper, Basil Hayden Dark Rye is a great choice for you. It’s a decent gateway into rye without really having the spice that some expressions have. If you’re looking for something spicy? You won’t find it here.

3) WhistlePig PiggyBack Rye

WhistlePig PiggyBack Rye

ABV: 48.28%

Average Price: $45

The Whiskey:

While to be called a rye whiskey, it must only have a mash bill of at least 51%, this bold sipper carries a mash bill of 100% rye. Aged for a minimum of six years, this complex whiskey is known for its mix of sweetness and spice that makes it both great for sipping neat and mixing into cocktails.

Taste 3
Christopher Osburn

Blind Tasting Notes:

The nose is a blend of citrus and spice. I found notes of candied orange peels, wintry spices, cinnamon, slight vanilla, and peppery rye. The palate is a rye fan’s dream with a ton of peppery rye upfront. This is followed by caramel candy, oak, and slight notes of candied citrus. The last sip is a combination of fruit, vanilla, and rye spice.

Bottom Line:

WhistlePig Piggyback is a great gateway into rye whiskey because, even though this is a bold, spicy whiskey, there are enough complimentary mellow, sweet flavors to make it a well-balanced, reasonably-priced sipper.

2) Sagamore Spirit Signature Rye

Sagamore Spirit Signature Rye
Sagamore Spirit

ABV: 41.5%

Average Price: $40

The Whiskey:

If you’re going to dip your proverbial toe into the rye whiskey world, why not opt for one that makes a traditional Maryland-style rye whiskey. This award-winning whiskey is a blend of straight rye whiskeys that are matured between four and six years in highly charred American oak casks. The result is a high-rye whiskey known for its spicy, sweet, easy-drinking flavor profile.

Taste 2
Christopher Osburn

Blind Tasting Notes:

Cinnamon, butterscotch, brown sugar, raisins, and peppercorns are prevalent on the nose. One sip and I found notes of toasted vanilla beans, caramel corn, cinnamon, orange peel, almond cookies, and dill-like rye spice. The finish is a mix of caramel candy sweetness and peppery rye spice.

Bottom Line:

You’d have a hard time finding a more well-balanced, complex rye whiskey for the price than Sagamore Spirit Signature Rye. It ticks all of the rye whiskey boxes while still being a great gateway into the style.

1) Michter’s US-1 Rye

Michter’s US-1 Rye

ABV: 42.4%

Average Price: $47

The Whiskey:

Michter’s is a big name in the bourbon world. But, just because of the brand’s prowess with corn-based whiskey, you shouldn’t sleep on its complex US-1 Rye. Made with select, sheared American rye, this single barrel whiskey is aged in new, charred American oak barrels. The result is a sweet, nutty, spicy sipper.

Taste 1
Christopher Osburn

Blind Tasting Notes:

Right away, I noticed a nose of bold, cracked black pepper, dried cherries, raisins, brown sugar, and oak. Sipping it revealed toffee, vanilla beans, cinnamon sugar, caramel corn, candied orange peel, and light, spicy rye. The finish is a pleasing, warming combination of sweetness and spice.

Bottom Line:

When it comes to well-balanced, sweet, spicy rye whiskey, Michter’s US-1 is hard to beat. The best part? It’s not even as expensive as it should be (don’t tell the folks at Michter’s that!).