Each year we taste and review hundreds of American whiskeys, which are predominantly bourbons but also include ryes, malts, finished whiskeys, and other classifications of American-made whiskeys. Our annual “Best Whiskeys of the Year” series features five categories: “Best Malt, “Best American Whiskey,” “Best Rye,” “Best Finished,” and “Best Bourbon,” finally culminating with our overall #1 Whiskey of the Year.
Our Best Rye Whiskeys of 2023 start with those released in 2023 and rated 3.5 barrels or higher, but are not based purely on our initial tasting and individual rating. Instead, we retaste and discuss this wide range of whiskeys extensively. We ask questions, such as is the whiskey exciting, memorable, unique, and most importantly, how does it compare to the rest of the field for the year.
We look for whiskeys that move us, and dig into whiskeys that may be off the beaten path. While availability and price are factors, they are not absolute. The intent is to highlight the whiskeys of the year that stand out the most to us, even if they might be difficult to obtain - and the reason we maintain evergreen “Best of” lists to highlight more readily accessible whiskeys. Ultimately, we must agree on which whiskeys make the list, and which do not - combining the diversity of our different palates.
A decade ago, who would have thought Jack Daniel’s would be on such a winning streak? First it was Single Barrel Barrel Proof, then Bonded Tennessee Whiskey and Triple Mash Blended Straight Whiskey, then Special Release Coy Hill Batch Proof, toss in their ryes, their annual limited editions, their American single malt…the list goes on and on. The point is, Jack Daniel’s is the biggest American whiskey brand out there. Yet at the same time, they listen to consumers with the intensity of a local startup distillery that’s hinging on an owner who mortgaged his house to cover payroll and a mantra that includes knowing every customer by name.
In 2023 their winning streak continued with the release of Bonded Rye. An unassuming whiskey with an affordable price tag, this 100 proof bottled in bond rye is bold, unique tasting, and versatile. It’s not a limited edition, it’s not super high proof, and it doesn’t rely on an age statement to draw attention. But it is accessible, affordable, and helps break new ground when it comes to rye whiskey flavor profiles. Earlier in the year we said it might be one of the most exciting whiskeys of the year, and now we’re confident saying it most certainly is one of the most exciting rye whiskeys of the year, hands down.
Parker’s Heritage Collection: Cask Strength Rye is high proof, high aged, is full of flavor and reminds you why the annual Parker’s Heritage Collection is so eagerly anticipated every year. This year's release consists of 142 barrels and holds the title of the highest aged rye in Heaven Hill’s portfolio. Parker’s Heritage Collection Cask Strength Rye isn’t the first rye to be in the series, with Heavy Char Barrels Straight Rye claiming that title in 2019. However, the two couldn’t be more different and this year’s release is finally the rye everyone has been wishing for since the Collection’s inception.
The combination of time aging in barrels and being bottled at barrel proof results in a rye that hasn’t been seen before from the likes of Heaven Hill. Cask Strength Rye delivers a rich, full sip that, while not overtly spicy, highlights just the right amount of cinnamon and rye spice along with richer oak notes to produce a sip that immediately makes you wish Heaven Hill released something like this year round. This release is one that should not only be scooped off the shelf by anyone who sees it, but also opened just as quickly. Rye whiskey can be tricky to master, but when done right, the end result comes across as magical, delivering a sip that immediately makes you wish all other ryes lived up to, and Parker’s Heritage Collection: Cask Strength Rye does that in spades this year.
The San Francisco based single malt distiller is surprisingly not as well known as they should be given that they have been in the business since 1993. Old Potrero was once owned by Fritz Maytag, who is credited as one of the first pioneers of the modern craft beer movement thanks to Anchor Brewing, but the brand is now under control by Hotaling & Co. After a recent redesign, the brand has been streamlined down to just two offerings.
Old Potrero Single Malt Straight Rye features a 6 year age statement, which stands out in today’s youthful American single malt market. More noteworthy though is that Old Potrero is a 100% malted rye whiskey, and its featured flavor profile isn’t exactly like any malt or rye you’ve ever tasted. Though it may be a challenging pour for some, those that take the plunge will be highly rewarded. Playing outside the box can only get you so far, and Old Potrero thankfully delivers where it needs to.
Thomas H. Handy maintains its place as the youngest whiskey in Buffalo Trace’s annually released Antique Collection. Due to its young age, the whiskey is rarely the first one that fans of the collection gravitate towards, and that’s a shame. With a few exceptions, Thomas H. Handy is often highlighted by notes of raisin, citrus, cinnamon, and rye spice that are a rye lover’s dream. Simply put, 2023’s Thomas H. Handy’s flavor profile is on point for the brand.
This year's sip is oozing with all of the aforementioned flavors and dials things up to levels most ryes don’t reach, thanks to its 124.9 proof point. It’s a bold whiskey that doesn’t pull any punches, yet it’s very drinkable and offers enough to distinguish itself from the growing number of high proof ryes in the marketplace. The 2023 release of Thomas H. Handy is a great reminder that age alone never defines a whiskey, and very few ryes were able to match the bar it set in 2023.
You can date yourself a bit by measuring whether you were into the whiskey scene when Orphan Barrel was first released or not. The brand began releasing whiskey around the time Breaking Bourbon was founded, and we have been analyzing every one of their American whiskeys since their beginning. A Diageo brand that sources whiskey that was “hidden away and nearly forgotten in the back of rickhouses and distilleries,” the story may be gimmicky, but the whiskey is typically the real deal.
Scarlet Shade has a unique attribute going for it: it’s a really high aged rye. While the history of American made rye whiskey dates back centuries, its recent popularity has lagged behind bourbon with fewer modern day distillers producing it. Since time cannot be cheated, there just aren’t many high aged ryes available in the marketplace. This one clocks in at 14 years old and helms from Indiana, most likely MGP, and dials in its aged rye sip quite elegantly. Orphan Barrel Scarlet Shade is a rye through and through - with no frills and ample spice, its 90 proof makes it an approachable sipper that stands out from the crowd.