What Is Rye Whiskey? The Scoop Behind the Spicy Tasting Whiskey

by Jim Casey
photo by Outsider

Did you furrow your brow in contemplation when your bartender asked you what brand of rye you wanted in your Old Fashioned? Or did a “Straight Rye Whiskey” label catch your eye in the aisle of your favorite liquor store?

Don’t be intimidated by rye. Just like bourbon, bonded whiskey, blended whiskey, wheated whiskey, or Tennessee whiskey, among others, rye is a subset in the whiskey universe. Of course, the spicy spirit must meet a number of standards to receive its rye designation.

Let’s dig in, because every rye is a whiskey, but not every whiskey is a rye.

Whiskey Standards

To be classified “whiskey” or “whisky” (the spelling generally used in Scotland, Canada, and Japan), the spirit must be:

  • fermented grain mash
  • distilled at less than 190 proof
  • stored in oak barrels with no minimum time requirement
  • free of neutral spirits

The “whiskey” category is big and broad, with a number of aforementioned designations. Think of whiskey as a universe, with numerous satellites in orbit that meet the “whiskey standards,” but are also their own distinct expression, including blended, wheated, bourbon, Tennessee, rye, and more.

Rye Whiskey Standards

According to the Code of Federal Regulations (5.143), Rye Whiskey must meet all of the aforementioned “whiskey standards,” as well as:

  • made from a mashbill of at least 51 percent rye grain
  • distilled at 160 proof (80 ABV) or less
  • aged in charred, new oak barrels
  • barreled no higher than 125 proof
  • bottled at 80 proof or higher

Rye Whiskey must be made from at least 51 percent rye, while the remainder of the mashbill usually comes from corn, wheat, or malted barley. Bourbon, on the other hand, must be made from a mashbill of at least 51 percent corn, while wheated whiskey must be made from at least 51 percent wheat.

Straight Rye Whiskey Standards

Straight Rye Whiskey must meet the standards of “Rye Whiskey,” as well as:

  • aged for a minimum of two years
  • pure (no color/flavor additives other than water)

Favorites & Cocktails

Of course, ryes have varied aromas, tastes, and finishes, depending on mashbill, aging, and more. Typically, the spirit features tasting notes of fruit, cinnamon, vanilla, oak, and more, with a distinct peppery bite from the rye mashbill (some bite harder than others).

Because of its aroma and taste, Rye is an essential element of a number of classic cocktails, including the Old Fashioned, Manhattan, and Hot Toddy.

Outsider loves a wide range of Ryes. Some of our favorites include:

Old Fashioned

  • 2 oz. Old Forester Rye
  • 2 dashes Angostura Orange bitters
  • 2 dashes Angostura Aromatic bitters
  • 1 tsp. simple syrup
  • 1 marachino cherry
  • 1 orange peel
  • 1 large ice cube


  • 2 oz. Rittenhouse Rye
  • 1 oz. sweet vermouth
  • 2 dashes bitters
  • maraschino cherry
  • ice