What is the archetypal rye whiskey? Just a half-decade ago, that question would have been a lot easier to answer.

“There were really two poles,” says Clay Risen, a New York Times senior editor and the author of American Whiskey, Bourbon & Rye: A Guide to the Nation’s Favorite Spirit. “You had the high-rye bourbon style defined by Jim Beam and 95 percent rye MGP [Midwest Grain Products] model.” Now, he says, “those are being challenged on both sides.”

Traditionally, Jim Beam rye has used a mash bill that contains just over the lawful minimum requirement of 51 percent, yielding what drinks like an ever-so-slightly spicy bourbon, while MGP, a distillery in Indiana, is all-in with its mash bill of 95 percent rye and 5 percent malted barley. That blend, which is bottled under various brands including Bulleit, Dickel, Redemption and others, became the style to set the paradigm, by sheer penetration of the market.

However, the explosion of the category over the last half-decade or so has come not only with a boom of new producers from around the country, but expressions that have plotted points between the two poles. “People are just starting to explore what’s possible [in the rye category],” says Risen. “The expectations of what rye is will change over time.”

Evidenced by our recent blind tasting of more than 20 rye whiskeys under $50, that’s a good thing. Much of what we pegged as showcasing a “classic” and desirable rye profile did lean toward the MGP end of the spectrum, but there were a few that made the cut that challenged our notions of what rye should taste like—notably Dad’s Hat, a producer out of Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania Rye Whiskey 90 Proof, in particular, had complex and clear flavors of fruit and pepper and fine-boned texture that almost reminded us of high-quality fruit brandy. The bottling combines locally sourced unmalted rye (80 percent), malted rye (5 percent) and malted barley (15 percent); while well outside a familiar rye paradigm in terms of flavor profile, it was the group’s favorite.

It also prompts the question: To malt or not to malt (or both) rye? That answer has a huge impact on flavor of the spirit. As does the choice of finishes—i.e. the decision to age in, say, ex-vermouth or -rum barrels. While much of the ryes we tasted were fairly young (generally between one and three years of age) as older ryes from young distilleries begin to hit the market with more frequency, notes Risen, “how rye marries with different finishes” will become a larger part of the discussion when it comes to character.

For this tasting, we focused on both value, and drinkability. Some ryes in the tasting were pegged as being fine options for mixing, but not especially compelling spirits for sipping; we were after the latter. What does that mean? Unanimously, it meant a rye that had enough fruit character to balance the spice, measured use of wood extraction and nothing too hot.

For the tasting, our editorial staff was joined by Risen; Robert Simonson, a frequent PUNCH contributor and the author of The Old-Fashioned and A Proper Drink; and PUNCH Contributing Editor, Megan Krigbaum. Below are our top five picks (and one bonus splurge), which, taken together, offer a snapshot of the widening spectrum of affordable rye expressions on the market today.

Our Top Five Ryes Under $50

George Dickel Rye Whisky

Our best value rye in the tasting, Dickel has a 95 percent rye, 5 percent malted barley mash bill and is distilled by MGP. It’s then finished in Tennessee (Dickel is Jack Daniels’ main competitor) and, like most Tennessee whiskeys, goes through the Lincoln County Process, which means that it’s first chilled to remove solids (unique to Dickel) and then maple charcoal filtered, giving it an extra smooth texture that we unanimously described it as “creamy,” without sacrificing that rye bite. The nose is complex, with notes of nutmeg, umami and spice.

  • Price: $27
  • ABV: 45 percent

Redemption Rye

Redemption is another MGP-sourced rye with the same grain bill as Dickel, aged in charred oak barrels for two to three years. We dubbed this a “rye lover’s rye” and “sassy AF.” On the nose, it has a compelling gentian, floral quality backed up by gingerbread spice. It’s intense and concentrated, and does benefit from a splash of water.

  • Price: $28
  • ABV: 46 percent

Dad’s Hat Pennsylvania Rye

Based on a mash bill of 80 percent rye, 5 percent malted rye and 15 percent malted barley, sourced locally, this bottling sees only six months of aging in charred, new oak quarter casks (50 liters versus the standard 200), and the shorter aging offers a clearer picture of the base spirit and singular character of Old Monongahela rye. (As Risen writes in his American Whiskey, Bourbon & Rye, this was the first take on the style in more than a century when it was first released, in 2012.) Clean, bright, complex flavors of fruit and spice on the nose give way to a finely textured, elegant spirit that reminded us of a high-quality fruit brandy in the purity of its flavors. Astonishingly complete for a whiskey aged just six months.

  • Price: $46
  • ABV: 45 percent

Sazerac Straight Rye Whiskey

We dubbed this our “bourbon lover’s rye”—no surprise considering that the mash bill (51 percent rye, 39 percent corn and 10 percent malted barley) place this in the just-barely-rye category. Nonetheless, it’s eminently sippable with a creamy texture and notes of “ginger cheesecake,” according to one panelist. Aged for six years, it’s also an exceptional value for a mature whiskey. 

  • Price: $37
  • ABV: 45 percent

Russell’s Reserve 6 Year Old Rye

The oldest whiskey in the tasting alongside Sazerac, Russell’s showed more intense rye notes and wood influence. With a mash bill of 65 percent rye, 23 percent corn and 12 percent malted rye, the 6 Year is a brawny, musky whiskey showing notes of sandalwood, chocolate and red spice. Another mature, and “well-manicured,” as one panelist called it, whiskey for the price.

  • Price: $46
  • ABV: 45 percent

Bonus Splurge

Dad’s Hat Pennsylvania Straight Rye Whiskey

While this adhered closer to the “classic” MGP rye profile than the other Dad’s Hat offerings in the tasting, it wasn’t without its own singularities. As such, we couldn’t help but include it, even though it crests above our $50 cut off. Calling on the same mash bill as the Pennsylvania Rye, it’s aged for three years in charred oak and shows notes of stone fruit, grain, spice, cocoa and a gravely mineral aspect. Lean and finely textured, this proves why Pennsylvania once ruled the rye game.

  • Price: $68
  • ABV: 47.5

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