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Best rye whiskey cocktails: classic and simple

Rye whiskey is spicier, drier and more structured than its bourbon cousin, and as such makes it an ideal spirit for cocktails. We've selected four simple yet classic cocktails to try – and the best ryes to use.

To be called a rye whiskey in the US, the mash bill has to contain 51% of rye, along with (usually) corn and malted barley. Otherwise it is a bourbon, which has to be 51% corn. And if the whiskey is aged for at least two years, then it is called a straight rye.

Because of the lower corn content, rye whisky is drier and more structured than bourbon, often with a bitter finish. Ryes are also more bready and spicy than their bourbon cousins. They tend to show cinnamon, clove and caraway hints, along with the familiar toffee and vanilla oak notes.

This makes ryes useful in place of bourbons in cocktails where bartenders want to balance the sweetness of other ingredients.

In fact, Whiskey Sours, Manhattans and Old Fashioneds were traditionally made with rye, before the popularity of bourbon made it north to New York in the late 1800s. Now, many recipes call for a mix of both spirits in these cocktails.

Confusingly, despite being a blend of several grains – with rye rarely the dominant one – Canadian whiskies are often known as rye whiskies. A Rye & Dry is a simple two-ingredient cocktail using a shot of rye whisky (Canadian or otherwise) topped up with Canada Dry ginger ale.

Sazerac rye whiskey cocktail

Classic rye whiskey cocktails

While arguably the most famous rye-based cocktail, the Sazerac actually started life in New Orleans in the 1850s as Cognac mixed with bitters and sugar. When phylloxera destroyed French vineyards in the 1870s and the brandy was hard to come by, bartenders replaced much of the recipe with rye whiskey as well as adding some absinthe.

Another traditionally rye-based cocktail hailing from New Orleans is the Vieux Carré, first created in 1938. It is one hotly debated by cocktail connoisseurs seeking the perfect balance between the blend of rye (and/or bourbon), Cognac, sweet vermouth, benedictine and bitters.

Finally, the Brooklyn is another oft-discussed and tweaked cocktail based on rye, inspired by the Manhattan and created in 1908. Depending on your palate, equal parts of either sweet or dry vermouth is added to rye, along with dashes of the Belgian aperitif Amer Picon and Luxardo maraschino liqueur.

For those looking for more simple approaches, with only the basics in their drinks cabinets and pantries, here are four other classic rye whisky cocktails to enjoy, and 10 bottles to try.


Ward 8

Reputedly created by Tom Hussion in 1898 at the Gilded Age restaurant in the Locke-Ober Café, which was in Ward 8 of the Boston’s voting district. The cocktail was either to support the running of, or celebrate the victory of, Democratic candidate Martin M Lomasney to the state legislature. Lomasney was victorious – and notorious for his corruption throughout almost 50 years in politics as Boston’s Ward 8 representative as well as state senator.

Ward 8-style cocktail

Ward 8

Glass Coupe

Garnish Orange quarter and maraschino cherry on a cocktail stick

Ingredients 60ml rye, 45ml mix of lemon juice and orange juice, 8ml sugar syrup, 5ml grenadine syrup

Method Add ice to a cocktail shaker and shake all ingredients. Strain into a chilled glass and add the garnish.


Algonquin

This cocktail was traditionally made with dry vermouth, but today many feel sweet white vermouth provides better balance. Not much is known about its history, other than it was named for New York’s Algonquin Hotel. As the hotel was a dry premises even before Prohibition – its first owner-manager Frank Case closed the hotel bar in 1917 – it is likely this eponymous drink was first created sometime after 1933.

Algonquin-style cocktailAlgonquin

Glass Coupe or Old Fashioned

Garnish Pineapple chunk and maraschino cherry on a cocktail stick

Ingredients 45ml rye, 23ml dry white or sweet white vermouth, 23ml pineapple juice, dash of bitters (ideally Peychaud’s)

Method Add ice to a cocktail shaker and shake all ingredients. Strain into a chilled coupe and add the garnish. Alternatively, stir not shake and serve on the rocks.


Oriental

While the name suggests it will have some Asian ingredients, Harry Craddock in his The Savoy Cocktail Book from 1930 says this recipe was created by an American engineer stationed in the ​Philippines in 1924. He nearly died of a fever and gave this recipe in thanks to the doctor who saved his life. A boozy tipple, you can adjust the sweetness or sourness by tweaking the proportions of vermouth and lime.

Oriental-style cocktailOriental

Glass Coupe

Garnish Twist of orange zest

Ingredients 45ml rye, 23ml sweet red vermouth, 23ml curaçao, 15ml lime juice

Method Add ice to a cocktail shaker and shake all ingredients. Strain into a chilled glass and add the garnish.


Rattlesnake

As with the Oriental (above) this cocktail featured in the original bartending manual from London’s Savoy Hotel. In it, Harry Craddock wrote: ‘So-called because it will either cure rattlesnake bite, kill rattlesnakes, or make you see them.’ A modern interpretation of the drink sees it poured into a brandy snifter, with absinthe either spritzed on to the foam or a few drops added with the bitters as garnish.

Rattlesnake-style cocktailRattlesnake

Glass Coupe

Garnish Bitters dripped in an S/snake shape on the foam and pulled through with a toothpick

Ingredients 53ml rye, 23ml lemon juice, 15ml dark sugar syrup, 3 dashes of absinthe, 1 egg white

Method Add ice to a cocktail shaker and shake all ingredients. Strain back into the shaker. Shake again without ice, strain into a chilled glass and add the garnish.


Best rye whiskies to try


Jim Beam Pre-Prohibition Style Kentucky Straight Rye

There’s a real smoky, spicy note to this old-recipe rye, alongside cherry stone, black pepper, brown sugar and vanilla. It’s exuberant yet smooth, and would be a great-value drinks cabinet addition for various cocktails. Alc 40%


Michters US no1 Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Rye

A perennial favourite with rye lovers, and for good reason. It has a smooth, dry palate boasting smoky tobacco, mixed peel, cinnamon and toffee notes. Complex, balanced and great value – delicious both neat and in cocktails. Alc 42.4%


Whistlepig 10 Year Old Straight Rye

A lovely 100% rye, distilled and part-matured in Canada and further aged in Vermont. Clove spice and toasty oak, along with chocolate-covered raspberries, cherry cola and orange. Complex and smooth, with a warm caramel and prune frangipane finish. Alc 55%


High West Rendezvous Utah Rye

High West sources whiskies with a high rye content and blends them for this lovely, warming drop. Toasty oak and peppery spice top notes are mellowed by flavours of toffee apple on the silky-smooth palate. Great neat and in cocktails. Alc 46%


Sazerac Straight Rye

Made by the Buffalo Trace distillery and aged for six years, this is deserving of a place in the drinks cabinet for the bottle alone. The whiskey is good too: lifted fruit leather, cherry cola, allspice and charred oak, with a warm nutty, butterscotch finish. Alc 45%


Balcones Texas Rye

With just 51% of the mashbill needing to contain rye to earn the name, this is an unusual and distinctive 100% rye. Menthol, cocoa powder, cinnamon, dried fruit, white pepper and exotic tobacco on a dry yet creamy stout-like palate. Deliciously complex. Alc 50%


Lot 40 Canadian Rye 

This popular Canadian rye is made in a single copper pot still. Robust and distinctive with its earthy peat smoke, spiced apple and vegetal notes, with less of the sweet caramel tones that make some ryes almost bourbon like. Alc 43%


Woodford Reserve Distillers Select Kentucky Straight Rye

Reserved aromas of cherry stone, vanilla, honey and baking spices build on a smooth, smoky palate. There’s more caramel and vanilla tones than spice, making it not particularly distinctive as a rye but good for cocktails. Alc 45.2%


Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Straight Rye

With a mashbill including 70% rye, you’d expect this to be dry and full of spice and earthy pumpernickel notes. Instead think toasted banana bread with caramel sauce! A commercial style that will appeal to fans of no7. Alc 45%


East London Liquor Co London Rye 2019

One for Islay whisky fans – or the purely adventurous – this is matured in peated and Pedro Ximénez casks. The warm alcohol, oily mouthfeel and smoky, toasted spice, ginger and pepper flavours stand out ahead of dried fruit sweetness. Alc 47%


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