For fans of American whiskey, the words “barrel proof” often bring to mind big, brawny bourbons—uncut, unfiltered, and packed with flavor. But high-proof rye offers a similarly amped up version of the bold, spicy spirit that was famous before bourbon and reigned supreme until Prohibition shut down America’s whiskey industry. Whisky Advocate’s Fall 2020 Buying Guide offers reviews of more than 150 whiskies, including a trio of high-proof—and high-quality—ryes. Each of these whiskeys offers a distinct set of aromas and flavors that speak to different distilling traditions and techniques, as well as different mashbills and barrel-entry proofs, all of which affect the final whiskey. What they have in common are high scores, similar proofs, and an abundance of flavor.
Whisky Advocate’s Fall issue turns the spotlight on Big Whisky, and these ryes fit the bill—with their potent proofs and robust flavors, they’re the kind of whiskey that leaps out of your glass in a delicious way. Given their strength, they’re also highly flexible—great neat or with a liberal splash of water, yet they’ll also shine in a cocktail. So pour a glass of one of these ryes, or stir up a killer Boulevardier for a crisp autumn evening, and you’ll wonder how rye ever fell from grace in the first place.
A trio of high-scoring, high-proof ryes to seek out
Wild Turkey Rare Breed Barrel-Proof Kentucky Straight Rye—94 points, 56.1% ABV, $60
Complex from the start, with a nose of roasted nuts and dark fruit—blueberry pie, grape jelly—along with bundled herbs, fresh-brewed iced tea, and weathered barn boards. Mint, cinnamon, pepper, concord grape jelly, peanuts, and black tea swirl on the palate, which is full and robust thanks to the absence of chill-filtration. Without water it finishes hot, but the oak, roasted nut, and tiramisu flavors help retain balance. Editors’ Choice —Susannah Skiver Barton
Old Overholt 114 Proof Straight Rye—91 points, 57% ABV, $30
A reluctant nose, with aromas that are difficult to discern, although a few emerge: white Necco wafers, cinnamon Red Hots, leafy herbs, and—with water—blueberry jam. The palate is chock-full of mint candy, even mint toothpaste, plus black pepper and tannic oak; water brings out more blueberry notes. The lengthy finish, laced with tobacco, has more mint and oak, black pepper, and dark fruit. —Susannah Skiver Barton
Four Gate River Kelvin Straight Rye—90 points, 56.6% ABV, $175
Initially, the nose is neutral and alcohol-laden, but notes of lemon, grape, and dried apricots gradually emerge, along with sandalwood, licorice, and herbaceousness. Spice, dark chocolate, bitter orange, and lemon show on the palate, as well as oak char, espresso, roasted walnuts, and herbs. More dark chocolate and spices ride on a long finish. Smooth but powerful, with light fruit notes emerging to balance refined herbs and spice. (1,382 bottles) —David Fleming