When it comes to the different types of alcohol, rules often do apply. Not necessarily rules on how to consume the beverages — those may come, go, and evolve — but rules for the composition of the liquor itself. Where the term “whiskey” (or “whisky” if you’re talkin’ certain types) may be used loosely to define a particular type of spirit made from grain mash, bourbon, on the other hand, is a lot more particular. Before we give you our guide to the 10 best high-rye bourbons, let’s explain what makes a spirit bourbon to begin with.
According to the Federal Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits, bourbon must meet six different legal requirements in order to bear the name. Aside from being American-made (it was born in and still is most popular in Kentucky), bourbon must have a mashbill that’s made up of at least 51% corn and must be aged in new charred oak casks. Also, the liquid must enter the distillation process at a maximum of 160 proof, the aging process at a maximum of 125 proof, and the bottle at a minimum of 80 proof. Other than that, however, you can (within reason) do whatever you want to the moonshine.
What Is High-Rye Bourbon?
A Spicier Alternative
Okay, so we’ve figured out what bourbon is. Now, what makes it high-rye? While the exact criteria are not set in stone, the unwritten rule in the distillery community assumes that, other than being at least 51% corn, the mashbill consists of at least 20% rye, and can sometimes go as high as 35%. A typical bourbon mashbill has around 8 or 10% rye as the secondary grain, with malted barley and other cereal grains usually filling up the remainder of the blend. However, rye is not a requisite by any means and is sometimes substituted with wheat instead.
In early America, rye whiskey was the preferred style as a holdover from the old settlers who came to America knowing how to plant the grain and make alcohol from it. However, as settlers discovered land in Kentucky that was perfect for planting corn, the sweet crop became the dominant grain, with distilleries slowly gravitating more toward a balanced residual grain approach ever since Prohibition ended and Americans desired a less robust flavor in their bourbons.
Nowadays, for those rebels who choose to add extra rye to the mashbill makeup, their bourbon has a slightly spicier, even fruitier, flavor due to the added grain content. Rye also typically has a stronger aroma than regular bourbon. Building up your collection of high-rye bottles can be tricky since some high-rye labels might not denote the extra rye content at all, preferring to focus on another style that the bourbon might possess, such as straight, small-batch, or bottled-in-bond.
Redemption High Rye Bourbon
One of the distilleries responsible for re-popularizing high-rye bourbon, Redemption has become a benchmark for this particular style. The Indiana-based company is quite literally raising the bar for rye content with its flagship label, boasting a mashbill that contains 36% of the grain, which is among the highest on the market. The result is a unique profile with a colorful taste that features notes ranging from mint to cinnamon to chocolate. The extra rye content also offers hints of black pepper and fennel on the palate. Redemption swears by its mashbill makeup, which is inspired by recipes from pre-Prohibition.
Old Grand-Dad Bonded Bourbon
A subsidiary of Kentucky’s own Jim Beam, Old Grand-Dad has been making spirits since 1840 and produces one of the top ten best-selling straight whiskeys on the market each year. An excellent budget pick due to how much quality is in every sip, the company’s Bonded Bourbon is aged at least 4 years as per bottled-in-bond regulations and comes from a limited production window of a single season. At 100 proof, this bourbon allows its increased alcohol content to actually complement the spiciness from the rye, which gives off notes of cinnamon, black pepper, and hints of tangy citrus.
1792 Small Batch Bourbon
1792 Bourbon, named after the year Kentucky became a state, is a premium distillery and a subsidiary of Barton that has been offering high-end spirits since the late 19th century. Utilizing the brand’s signature high-rye mashbill tradition, this small-batch label is curated by its Master Distiller who marries select barrels together that have peaked in maturity during the aging process. One of the smoothest high-rye choices out there, 1792’s Small Batch Bourbon has a spiced and oaky profile with balanced notes of vanilla and caramel and a long finish.
Basil Hayden’s Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
First debuting in 1992, Basil Hayden’s, a subsidiary of Beam Suntory, has made high-rye bourbon its calling card. This Kentucky-grown small-batch whiskey won’t be the most complex option out there, but its balanced profile allows for many return visits over time. Sweet and spicy with both brown sugar and black pepper notes, the distillery’s flagship bottle used to claim 8 years of aging but they’ve recently stopped putting that distinction on the labels. One of the easiest high-ryes to sip, this straight bourbon can also serve as a perfect cocktail ingredient.
Hirsch The Horizon Bourbon
While 95% of all bourbon is made in Kentucky, the spirit can be and is crafted elsewhere. One of the best non-Kentucky high-rye distilleries out there is Indiana’s own Hirsch, whose The Horizon bottles have a 94:6 ratio of two different straight bourbons: one distilled from a mashbill containing 21% rye (aged 4 years) and the other distilled from a mashbill containing 36% rye (aged 6 years). The result yields a high-rye bourbon on the lower end of the spectrum that would average out to just under 22%, but nonetheless possesses a balanced profile with a slight spiciness to go along with notes of vanilla and caramel.
Jim Beam Signature Craft High Rye
Part of the brand’s experimental Harvest Bourbon Collection, Jim Beam’s Signature Craft High Rye maintains the same characteristics as your standard Jim Beam bottle, but with a dry, spicy rye profile. Aged for 11 years, this straight bourbon only comes in 375mL bottles but packs a lot of oaky flavor in the process, with notes of cinnamon, maple, and caramel. The Harvest Bourbon Collection consists of six different styles, each boasting a unique mashbill composition. The line has since been discontinued, but bottles are still readily available at retailers.
Deadwood Tumblin’ Dice 4-Year Bourbon
After founding Redemption in 2010, David Schmier left to establish his own midwest independent label in 2017 called Deadwood, under which the Tumblin’ Dice label has become its flagship. Distilled from a mashbill containing 36% rye, this straight bourbon is sourced from only 20 barrels to give off a dry palate filled with cinnamon, banana, and vanilla notes. The fire from the 100-proof liquor will appease bonded whiskey enthusiasts and allows Tumblin’ Dice to be enjoyed perfectly on the rocks.
Four Roses Small Batch Select Bourbon
Blending six different barrels, Four Roses Small Batch Select is an affordable choice for those looking to beef up the top shelves of their high-rye collections. Each of the six barrels contains a different mashbill makeup and each is aged at least six years. The result is a unique palate that’s less spicy than its contemporaries, offering notes of fruit, oak, cinnamon, and spearmint, with a bouquet of holiday aromas that include nutmeg and clove. This small-batch bourbon is a great middle-ground for those who want a mellow profile.
Bulleit Barrel Strength Bourbon
A high-proof version of one of the most popular brands on the market, Bulleit’s award-winning Barrel Strength Bourbon is a force to be reckoned with. Despite the uncut nature of the liquor, this Kentucky-born bourbon still boasts a surprising complexity considering its range of 120 to 125 proof. Notes of maple, oak, and nutmeg give way to a long, toffee finish. A distillery that’s become synonymous with high-rye bourbons, with its flagship label containing a mashbill of 28% rye, Bulleit has perfected its craft over its nearly-200-year history and continues the tradition here with one of its newest creations.
George Remus Repeal Reserve Bourbon
The best thing about high-rye bourbons is even the most premium picks won’t break the bank. Named after the famous Chicagoan bootlegger, Indiana’s George Remus Bourbon has used its expert craftsmanship to put together the best high-ryes you can find — if you can find it. A marriage of five different bourbons, each put into aging somewhere between 2005 and 2008 for this 2021 limited release, Repeal Reserve, which commemorates Prohibition repeal in the 1930s, combines mashbills that range from 21% to 36% rye for an average that would be nearly 30% rye. The end result is an unbelievably-curated straight bourbon that your taste buds won’t soon forget. Perhaps the most refreshing whiskey on the market, George Remus’ high-rye medley lends to complex notes of leather, glazed nuts, and chocolate.
The Complete Guide to Bourbon Styles
Now that you’ve gotten acquainted with high-rye bourbons, it’s time to learn about all of the other types of bourbons that are out there. To do that, have a look at our complete guide to bourbon styles.