Bourbon, Rye, &

Tennessee Whiskey Brands

Overview

Bourbon and rye are the heart of the American whiskey category and the base of whiskey cocktails everywhere.  Tennesee whiskey is sort of a sub-category of bourbon, it's made in exactly the same way, just with a few added variables.

 

As I've said, any time a recipe calls broadly for "whiskey" either bourbon or rye will serve admirably in its own particular way.  I generally lean towards rye in stirred, spirit-forward cocktails like Manhattans and Old Fashioneds cocktails because its spicier flavors punch through a little more. For shaken and/or refreshing cocktails like a Whiskey Sour or Mint Julep, I often go with the more even-keeled bourbon.  But I certainly love a bourbon Manhattan or a rye Mint Julep as well.  The choice is yours, and there isn't a wrong one.  

In the sections below, you'll see references to the mashbill of some whiskey. This is the proportions of different grains used in that particular whiskey.   For more details about mashbills and how American whiskey is made, visit the American whiskey main page.  There are also references to "sourced" whiskey, which means it was purchased from a distillery, not made by the brand.  More on that can be found in the craft whiskey section.

Bourbon vs. Rye - The Technical Differences

   

  • Bourbon must be made with at least 51% corn in the mashbill, though it's often closer to 70-80%.  It tends to be mellower, rounder, a bit sweeter - corn being a sweeter grain - with more vanilla, coconut and toffee flavors from the barrel. This is all balanced out with a distinct spice note, except in wheated bourbon which tends to be a bit richer.

 

  • Rye must be made with at least 51% rye. It has a sharper edge and leas with spice and branny cereal grain flavors, along with the typical new oak notes. Rye has seen a huge resugrence recently thanks to the renewed interest in classic cocktails - 15 years ago this probably would have just been called the bourbon page.

Bourbon

Bourbon hinges on a balance of sweet - derived from corn, and spice - from rye. There are a few basic styles of bourbon that lean more towards one end of the spectrum or the other, which you'll see listed across the page.  

 

Contrary to popular belief, bourbon does not have to be made in Kentucky, though much of it is.  It can be made anywhere in the United States. Bourbons labeled "Kentucky Bourbon" are simply stating the whiskey was made there, but there's nothing specifically different about them.

 

There is a lot of great affordable bourbon out there, as well as great higher-end bourbon that's readily available.  That is what this section is concerned with.  As fantastic as Pappy Van Winkle and all the other impossible-to-find limited edition bottlings are - I wanted to recommend bottles you could actually find ( though if you have any in stock please invite me over next time you're pouring some). 

Styles of Bourbon 

There are three basic flavor profiles of bourbon, which has to do with the mashbill.  Sometimes these will be acknowledged on a label, though not always.  I've made notations below for high rye and wheated bourbons, otherwise it's the traditional mashbill.

 

  • Traditional - Over 70% corn with about 10-12% rye.  Most brands fall into this camp.  These are your classic bourbons where the balance between sweet and spice is pretty even, though there is still a range.

  • High Rye - The rye proportion is upped to around 13-20% so there's less corn. These bourbons will be a little drier and have a more distinctive spicey bite.  

  • Wheated - Here wheat is used in place of rye as the secondary grain. These bourbons will be lighter and taste slightly sweeter.  Not because there's more sugar, but because wheat has less spice than rye, allowing more oak flavors to come through.  

    • Wheated bourbons are great for long aging.  Wheat’s subtler profile provides a canvas for certain complex barrel flavors to develop over longer periods, as opposed to rye which is more pronounced from the beginning.  In general, wheated bourbons can spend more time in the barrel without becoming over-oaked.

Best Deals - Under $30, some under $20!  

  • Evan Williams Black Label, 43% ABV - The gold standard value bourbon. Under $15, bottled at a decent proof, and available everywhere! Look for their bonded bottling as well, still under $20.  

  • Very Old Barton - Best value in bourbon hands down.  Not stocked everywhere, but better than Evan Williams and even cheaper!

  • Jim Beam Bonded, 50% ABV - I prefer Beam's bonded bourbon, with the yellow label, to their baseline 80 proof offering.  It's still at a great price.

  • Four Roses Yellow Label, 40% ABV - The only 80 proof bourbon on this page.  That's how good Four Roses is at making whiskey. 

  • Elijah Craig Small Batch, 47%ABV- At 8-12 years old, this is probably the best value sipping bourbon available.

  • Old Grandad 100 (High rye), 50% ABV - Great workhorse bourbon, espceially if you like drier bourbons.  Be sure to get the bonded.

  • Wild Turkey 101 (High Rye), 50.5% ABV - For cocktails, definitely look for the 101, rather than the 81 proof.  

Mid-range: $30s to mid $40s.  

  

  • Buffalo Trace, 45% ABV - Classic and fantastic.

  • Eagle Rare 10 Year, 45% ABV - An older Buffalo Trace, can't argue with that.

  • 1792 Small Batch,  46.85% ABV - An older bottling of Very Old Barton. Delicious. Somehow it still flies under the radar.

  • Bulleit Bourbon (High Rye), 45% ABV - Reliably available and reliably tasty.

  • Knob Creek, 50% ABV - Ditto, with a bonus few degrees of proof.  

  • Maker's 46 (Wheated), 45% ABV -  Maker's Mark was the first whiskey I ever had. My parents have had it in stock since the 1980s.  I personally prefer Maker's 46, which is simply classic Maker's Mark aged with oak staves for an additional 46 days.  It's richer with more vanilla and toffee notes. Delicious. Also, check out the Maker's Cask Strength, out of this world.

  • Wild Turkey Rare Breed, 54% ABV -  A great price for any barrel proof bourbon, not to mention an excellent one.  Superb in a Manhattan (maybe just use 2 ounces instead of 2½).

Higher End: Upper $40s and above. 

 

  • Blanton's Single Barrel, 46.5% ABV - A classic bottle that helped kick start the bourbon craze. It’s harder to finds and more expensive these days, but for good reason.  It’s the real deal.

  • Knob Creek Single Barrel, 60% ABV - Classic Knob Creek, taken to new heights.

  • Noah's Mill - An overproof (57% ABV) A release from the Willet distillery using sourced barrels, rich and luscious. 

  • Four Roses Single Barrel  (High Rye), 50% ABV - When people ask me what my favorite bourbon is (all the bottles that one can actually get), this one is my answer.  Perfect from start to finish.

  • Bakers, 53.5% ABV - Underappreciated, get it while you still can.

  • Bulleit 10 (High Rye), 45% ABV - Bulleit bourbon, but 10 years old.  The age has major benefits.

Rye

Like bourbon, rye is a balance of sweet corn and spicy rye, except rye is in the driver’s seat.  The differences between ryes mostly has to do with how much rye is in the mashbill they are.  The more rye, the spicier it'll be.  Less rye means it'll have more corn which means more bourbonb-y roundness and often features some dark fruity notes. Of course, though things like age, barrel, and yeast strain can affect things as well. 

 

You'll sometimes hear references to the classic pre-prohibition styles of rye: Pennesylvania aka Monongehela rye and Maryland rye.  As the legend goes, the former was fuller and richer, and the latter was bolder and spicier.  But those styles don't really exist anymore, if they really ever did

A fascinating fat about rye: by some estimates, as much as 70% of the rye brands on the market today were made by the same distillery.: Midwest Grain Products (MGP) in Indiana.   More details on how this came to be below.

Rye Spice Scale

I've devised this simple "spice" scale to help navigate the rye category a little better.  

Keep in mind, these are not official classifications, just my personal assessments.  

 

  

  • Spice 1: Low rye50-60%, with a higher corn content.  These are full and balanced, almost like a rye and bourbon hybrid.  They have a mellow spice up front which gives way to fruit and oak.

  • Spice 2:  More rye, 60-95%, with less corn.  These are more spice-driven with a leaner body but a finish that's still rich.  

  • Spice 3: 100% rye, or just about.  Dry with intensely sharp black pepper spice upfront that carries through to warming baking spices on the finish.  

 Best Deals - Generally under $30

  

  • Rittenhouse (Spice 1), 50% ABV - My early cocktail years were drenched in Rittenhouse.  It is the gold standard mixing rye and what many cocktail bars use. Very balanced with plenty of spice.  Excellent for sipping (and shooting) as well. 

  • Wild Turkey 101 (spice 1), 50.5% ABV - A wonderful high whiskey, and my other go-to pick for everyday rye, next to Rittenhouse, which it's a little richer than. This is not to be confused with their Wild Turkey 81 proof rye. 

  • High West Double Rye (Spice 2), 46% ABV -  Another great mixing and sipping option.  This is a blend of a spicy 2-year rye and a mellower 16 year rye, both from MGP.  It makes a killer Manhattan. On that note, all of High West's Whiskey is great and interesting, you can peruse here

  • Old Overholt (Spice 1) - I used to be down on Old Overholt, but it does make a damn good cocktail.  And you can't beat the price, which hovers around $20.  Look for their bonded bottling as well.   

  • Dickel Rye (Spice 2), 45% ABV - A delicious underrated rye that's sourced from MPG and has their 95% rye mashbill.  In classic Tennesse Whiskey fashion (see below) It's filtered through sugar maple charcoal, which gives it some mellow honey notes. Endlessly drinkable.

Mid-Range - $30s and $40s

  

  • Russell’s Reserve 6 (Spice 1), 45% ABV  - If I had to pick one rye as my all-time favorite, it'd be this one.  It was my first love, and the thrill ain't gone.

  • Lot 40 (Spice 3), 43% ABV - Made in Canada with 100% rye in a pot-still.  Very lean, with a particularly pointed spice note.  A must for rye lovers. Their cask strength is especially out of this world.

  • Bulliet Rye (Spice 2), 45% ABV - This classic example of the MGP mashbill, and the most reliably stocked rye around, which is good a thing because it's very tasty. Easy to drink, but with plenty of spice.

  • Ragtime Rye Bottled in Bond, (spice 2), 50% ABV -  The only "craft rye" I've listed.  Made in Williamsburg Brooklyn and aged and in upstate New York, this certified Empire Rye (made with at least 75% New York-grown rye), is a big, spicy powerhouse.  

Higher End - $50s and up.  

  

  • Russell's Reserve Rye Single Barrel (spice 2), 52% ABV - A higher proof, single barrel bottling of the Russell's Reserve 6.  Fuller all around and just killer.  

  • Angel's Envy Rye (spice 2), 50% ABV - A 9-year old MGP rye finished for 18 months in ex-rum casks which gives it a maple-y brown sugar boost. If this were bourbon it would probably be cloying, but as with the spice from the rye, it's balanced and divine.

  • Whistle Pig 10 Rye (spice 3), 50% ABV - A new brand in the rye world. This is their entry-level.  100% rye, made in Canada, finished and bottled in Vermont.   Heavy spice.  They have a number of premium bottlings as well.  My favorite is the Boss Hog 12 year.

  • High West Rendezvous Rye (Spice 2), 46% ABV - A blend like their Double Rye, but this one is of 6 and 16 years old ryes, also MGP. It is positively decadent.  High West also makes some fantastic limited run ryes: A Midwinter's Dram and Yippe Ki-Yay Rye, grab them if you can.

  • Pikesville Rye (spice 1), 55% ABV- Recently rebranded and one of my new favorites.  This is basically Rittenhouse, but aged for two more years (6 total) and bottled at 110 proof, aka my dream come true.

  • Willet Rye - The Willet Distillery has been around for over a century but after a period of only releasing sourced whiskey, they began distilling again in 2012.  Their Rye is overproof, deeply rich, and truly special. Even more impressive, the oldest bottling they offer is just 4 years old, I can’t fathom how good it’s eventually going to get.

 
 

Top Shelf Bourbon (aka Impossible to Find)

The hysteria surrounding the higher end and limited edition bourbons has turned harder-to-find bourbons into impossible-to-find bourbons leading to bottles being marked up 10-20 times their suggested retail price. 

Getting your hands on these bottles involves tracking their release dates, chatting up and supporting local liquor store owners, or - if you have a lot of disposable income - buying them online at exorbitant prices.  Suffice it to say, for most of us these bourbon’s are unattainable and  I didn’t want to recommend something that people weren’t going to be able to find.  But if you happen to find yourself with an opportunity to snag a bottle, or sip, of something special.  Here are some recommendations, of what I've tasted: 

 

  • Weller (wheated) -  Weller is made by the Buffalo Trace distillery and is essentially a younger version of Pappy Van Winkle, it’s not quite as coveted but getting tougher and tougher to find. They have a number of expressions, the upper tier of which are regularly named amongst the highest bourbon ranks.  But everything with "Weller" on the label is going to be awesome (the full proof is a personal favorite).   You can still sometimes find the entry-level “Special Reserve” at liquor stores.  If you do, buy it.

  • Henry McKenna Single Barrel, 50% ABV- This flew under the radar for years and now is rightly getting more recognition.  A Heaven Hill release, this bonded 10-year single barrel is a standout at first sip and priced very affordably.

  • Johnny Drum Private Stock, 50.5% ABV- A product of the Willet Distillery, more on them below, likely using sourced barrels.  Another bottle that was overlooked for years that people have since caught onto.  At around $35, this is one of the better deals around. 

  • Pappy Van Winkle (wheated) -  The hype is real.  It’s way overpriced, but Pappy - any of them - is truly superb.  One reason is that Pappy is able to mature for so long is it is a wheated bourbon, see above.  The 20 is often declared the best, though even the 10 year stands to toe to toe with the best of them.

  • Barrel Bourbon - An overproof boubron blended from several different sourced barrels. They have a number of limited edition bottlings This upstart brand has recently been raking in awards.  They have a number of limited batches - as many as 21 at the time of writing.  #15 is a favorite of mine, but they are all great.

 

MGP: The Distillery that Makes your Favorite Rye(s)

About 10-15 years ago, demand for rye skyrocketed when the craft cocktail movement started gaining steam.   But virtually no one was making rye at the time because the demand had been essentially zero for decades.

 

One distillery, however, hadn’t stopped: Midwest Grain Products (MGP) in Indiana.  A former piece of the Seagrams empire, MGP was sitting on a large stock of well-aged rye and found themselves to be virtually the only supplier in a high demand market.  This allowed brands to buy ready-made whiskey and get to market immediately, also known as sourcing.  Today, many of the most popular rye brands (and some bourbons) on the market source some, or all, of their rye from MGP including Bulleit rye, George Dickel Rye, High West Rye, Widow Jane, Whistle Pig (also sourced from Canada), Redemption, Templeton, and Angel’s Envy, among others.  

 

MGP’s most prevalent rye mashbill is 95% rye and 5% malted barley.  If you see those proportions listed on a bottle of rye, it almost certainly came from MGP.  For what it's worth, a bunch of rye is also sourced from Canada, Whistle Pig being the Prime example.

 

Keep in mind, there is nothing wrong with sourcing whiskey!  It is very common and every barrel is different - plus many brands to custom aging or blending after the fact. More on sourcing whiskey, aka NDPs (non-distilling producers), can be found in the craft whiskey section of the American Whiskey page.

Tennessee Whiskey

Tennessee whiskey follows almost every guideline for bourbon - 51% corn, new charred oak barrels, etc. There only two differences: 

 

  • It must be made in Tennessee. 

  • It may be filtered through sugar maple charcoal after distillation, which adds further mellowness and a little sweetness.  This is called the "Lincoln County Process."  It is not required but many Tennessee whiskey maker's use it. 

 

There are currently only a handful of Tennessee whiskey brands on the market.  One is Jack Daniels (you may have heard of it). I like Jack fine, but I prefer the other Tennessee whiskey game in town: George Dickel. They're nowhere near the size of Jack, but it has a very solid and growing presence.  They offer a variety of expressions including a rye and a bonded whiskey.  The #12 is their flagship, and very tasty.  In general, you can use Tennessee Whiskey the way you would use bourbon. Just expect a little less spice.

 

Recommended Bourbon Brands:

Recommended Rye Brands:

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tom@socialhourcocktails.com Brooklyn, NY

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