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6 Rye Whiskeys for Beginners

Rye can be a rather sticky subject for a lot of us, but what is the best rye whiskey for beginners? Rye can be spicy, sweet, or dry, just like bourbon. As such, the question on every rye beginner’s mind is: where do I start?

I am pretty sure that we’ve all been given the wrong advice in the past about spirits. The classic example that springs to mind is when people advise: “Try Laphroaig as your first whisky, I like it”. Laphroaig is a fantastic whisky, but is very much an acquired taste and is not something I would recommend to a whisky-drinking novice. When trying a particular type of whiskey for the first time, you should choose something that introduces you to the flavor without scaring you away with too much intensity. 

With that being said, please see the list below for our perfect recommendations for rye whiskeys for beginners. 

Old Overholt Straight Rye Whiskey – 40% ABV 

BUY NOW: $16.99 

I’ve written about this liquid before as it has a good amount of nostalgia for me. But is it a good rye whiskey for beginners? Yes, absolutely! 

Bottled at 40% and with a history that can rival anything else in the spirits world, Old Overholt is a spirit that can gently ease you into the magical world of rye whiskey. 

Established in 1810 Old Overholt started its life as the whiskey of Henry Oberholzer (Overholt for us non-German speakers). He was a Mennonite farmer who moved to Pennsylvania with a rich family history of growing and distilling corn and rye spirits at his disposal. His face is still on the bottle to this day. 

The brand managed to stay active for five years after the ratification of the Prohibition Act, Warren G. Harding was a fan, but his shares were sold in 1925 to a large company. The brand then suffered more and more as World War II hit. It was subsequently purchased by Jim Bean in the 1970s and is now part of the larger Beam Suntory. 

A 50% ABV version was released in 2017, the style is so gentle and approachable. You’ve got flavors of allspice, toffee, and a little bit of oak pushing its way through. But overall, especially at lower strength, it’s a fantastic rye whiskey for beginners. Whether you’re drinking neat, with ice, or mixing cocktails, it still works a charm. 

Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey – 45.2% ABV 

BUY NOW: $27.99 

Another one that is near and dear to my heart: Woodford Rye. Arguably one of the best American whiskeys on the planet. When it comes to rye, this whiskey has 53% rye in the mashbill. As such, it is more of what we would call a ‘Kentucky-style rye whiskey’. 

This, oddly enough, does have much more impact as a rye drink in comparison to Old Overholt, but is still a brilliant starter product due to the 33% corn in the mashbill, too. That influence of corn vs rye gives you the ideal balance. 

The heavier mint, Christmas spice, and drier notes of rye matched up against those caramel, toffee and generally sweeter notes of corn are an almost perfect trip down the spicy green lane of rye. The careful balance of flavors makes this a perfect rye whiskey for beginners. 

Sazerac Rye – 45% ABV 

BUY NOW: $19.95

You can’t talk about American whiskey without mentioning Buffalo Trace. Sazerac Rye, produced at the Buffalo Trace Distillery, has an incredible history. 

The world-famous Sazerac cocktail originates from Bourbon Street in New Orleans. The Sazerac began as a modification of a French-originated recipe put together by Thomas H. Handy. 

Working with Antoine Peychaud, whose bitters are produced by Buffalo Trace, this cocktail originally centred around Cognac. However, when Handy took over The Sazerac Coffee House, he thought that rye would make a better accompaniment to the drink. Hence why you can get so many variations on a Sazerac: it can be all rye, all cognac, or a split base drink for even more complexity.

The Sazerac Rye liquid is a sort of cross between the Old Overholt and the Woodford rye. It is only 51% rye, so it meets legal requirements for the style, but allows a 39% corn influence to the liquid, too. As such, this class expression is a great rye whiskey for beginners. 

Imagine vanilla ice cream, honey, and some darker, almost Campari-like notes on the finish. This is balanced with black pepper and some Chartreuse flavors. A frighteningly good bottle of rye for the money. For all the hype, it certainly lives up to its reputation. 

Lot 40 Rye – 40% ABV 

BUY NOW: $26.49 

On to Canada we go! 

I need to clear something up from the start for those of you who may not be aware. In Canada, whisky has famously been referred to simply as ‘rye’, a simple yet effective colloquialism. However, not all Canadian whisky is rye. Not when it comes to the physical contents of the liquid itself. 

Luckily we have a point of difference here with Lot 40 Rye. A 100% rye whisky that is one of the most brilliantly affordable and solid session whiskies on the planet. 

The Lot 40 brand was discontinued at some point in the early 2000s but brought back to life in recent years. Distilled in copper pot stills, (unlike its American counterparts which are column distilled) batch distilled by Hiram Walker & Sons in Windsor, Canada. This product is put together to showcase a traditional approach to Canadian rye. 

You might not think that this is a good rye whiskey for beginners as, after all, it is 100% rye grain in the mash bill. However, the huge notes of black pepper, lemon, toffee, vanilla, and brown sugar will be the overall features of this whisky. A bottle of this neat, or in cocktails, it is beyond moreish that you’ll find yourself going back again and again. 

F.E.W. Straight Rye Whiskey – 46.5% ABV 

BUY NOW: $37.77 

Back down south now, although not too far, and into the land of Chicago. F.E.W. Spirits have been doing some incredible things in recent years. The brand was set up by Paul Hletko (a fellow guitar nerd and Smashing Pumpkins enthusiast) in Evanston, Illinois, a city that was a victim of Prohibition for over a century. Ironically, the city is now a hub for craft distilling in the northern United States. 

The brand has an interesting name, the acronym of F.E.W. named so after Frances Elizabeth Willard, a key contributor to the temperance movement. A rather mischievous name, but if you’ve ever met Paul then you’ll know that’s what he’s all about. 

Featuring a whopping 70% rye in the mashbill, this one’s for those of you who want all of the appeals of rye, as well as a high ABV. If you’re already a fan of bolder scotch and bourbon styles, this is certainly the one to get your teeth stuck into. 

Even with this heavier rye content, F.E.W Rye has some very interesting notes of orange juice, fresh apples, and all of the spiced caramel you could ever want. But with that much higher rye content and ABV, the length of the finish is something that is hard to rival. 

Sagamore Spirit Double Oak Rye – 46.5% ABV 

BUY NOW: $44.99 

Now we get into the real history of rye! 

Sagamore Spirits is based out of Maryland and is bringing the old school, East Coast style of rye back to prominence. The brand makes two different styles of spirit at the rejuvenated distillery that opened in 2017. One is 95% rye! The other is a more typical 52% rye with a bigger majority of corn, they then blend these two distinct styles together and bring them down to bottling strength. 

This double oak-matured example is aged in virgin oak before a final four-month stint in toasted oak casks, much like Woodford Double Oak. This thing is a wonderful glass of rich, spicy dessert notes such as – brown butter, warm toffee sauce, gentle rye spices, dark

chocolate, and a long-lasting finish of maple and pecans. A truly delicious and rather old-school rye whiskey for beginners.

Phil Dwyer

Having worked in whisky retail for a decade, and running Whisky Wednesday on YouTube for nearly as long, Phil has always wanted to learn, talk and tell everyone as much about whisky as he can.

Whisky can be overly complicated at times. Phil wants to end that. Brands have pushed far too much jargon into the drinking atmosphere; it's difficult to breathe when whisky is mentioned at times.

Phil also manages The Whisky Shop Manchester stocking some of the best drams on the market.

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