Three Fine Ryes: Bulleit 95, Rittenhouse 100, Russell’s Reserve

Rye has been on a steady upward swing over the past several years, driven in large part by the similar upward trajectory of classic cocktails. The notion that a proper Manhattan should be made with rye has taken hold, rightfully so in our opinion – the spicier profile of rye just balances so well with sweet vermouth and a touch of bitters. Of course, savvy distillers and marketers are looking to take advantage of this trend. Just this week, the folks behind Bulleit Bourbon introduced a new rye, Bulleit 95, Small Batch American Rye Whiskey. Bulleit 95 is 90 proof, 95% rye mash and 5% malted barley, and, according to Bourbonblog.com, is aged between 4 and 7 years. It’s also rumored (now confirmed) to be sourced from LDI in Indiana, whose production of Templeton Rye has impressed many. At $25-$30, Bulleit 95 competes squarely with the Russell’s Reserve 6 year old Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey (also a “small batch”) – a level in price well above Old Overholt and well below the big bad boys like High West Rendezvous Rye, Thomas Handy and Van Winkle Family Reserve. We decided to undertake a “taste test” between the Bulleit 95, the Russell’s Reserve, and the Rittenhouse Bottled in Bond (100 proof, at least 4 years old), a much-lauded bargain bottle ($15-$22) that is increasingly hard to find.

These three ryes make a fascinating lineup. In the glass, neat, the Russell’s Reserve has the lightest color, a light golden amber, despite the fact that it’s the only one that states its age – a solid six years. The Bulleit 95 kicks it up a notch to a delightful amber hue, and the Rittenhouse moves into deep copper territory, with a clearly thicker viscosity. On the nose, the distinctions are also clear. The Bulleit 95 is laden with sweet caramel, vanilla, oak and cherry, but evolves nicely in the glass, with layers of buttered popcorn weaving in and out of the toasty wood. The Russell’s Reserve instantly hits your nose with grassy, herbal notes, certainly more rye-like in character. And then the Rittenhouse brings the full on rye spice – heady, full, a touch of heat (it is 100 proof), and a molasses-y depth that calls to mind rum raisin.

Sipped neat, the Bulleit 95 has a lovely, lingering mouthwatering presence. The rye spice emerges here, and stays through for a long finish with a kick. This is a nice sipper, enough rye that you know what it is, but very well balanced. The Russell’s Reserve absolutely kicks it up a notch, more spice, more burn, more rye character. Not better per se, but definitely more of a prototypical rye. The Rittenhouse is a bit of a beast, and definitely benefits from a touch of water, with softens and smooths out its rough edges. As a sipping whiskey, the Bulleit 95 wins the round, though does not bring the combination of deep rye character that you will find in more expensive ryes like the High West Rendezvous.

The ultimate rye cocktail in our book is the Manhattan. Simple. Classic. Superbly balanced. We tried these three ryes in a classic combination of 2 parts rye to 1 part sweet vermouth, with two dashes of bitters and a twist of lemon. Here, the Bulleit 95 came across as a bit too mellow, allowing the vermouth to grapple away the drink. The Russell’s Reserve produced a very nice balance, but the assertiveness of the Rittenhouse really kicked the drink up a notch. We’re not saying that it will work better in all cocktails (or even with other variations of a Manhattan), but the Rittenhouse rye really makes a great Manhattan (and is a bargain to boot).

These three fine ryes are all worthy of a place in your bar – depending on what you’re looking for. Cheers to Bulleit for making a rye that stands apart, though it won’t be the rye that seizes the cocktail crown. The Rittenhouse Bottled in Bond is a stellar bargain and a superb cocktail rye. The Russell’s Reserve offers a solid middle ground, and if your tastes veer to the herbal, grassy edge of rye, this is the one for you. So… what’s your favorite rye… and why?

Bulleit 95 Rye, Straight American Rye Whiskey
90 proof
Approx. $25 retail
Tasting Date: February 28, 2011
Good Stuff – a very nice sipping whiskey, though somehow lacking in the full-on rye character despite the 95% rye mash

Rittenhouse Bottled in Bond Rye, Straight American Rye Whiskey
100 proof
Approx. $15 retail
Tasting Date: February 28, 2011
Good Stuff – a GREAT value for rye-based cocktails, sips nicely with a bit of water

Russell’s Reserve 6 year old, Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey
90 proof
Approx. $28 retail
Tasting Date: February 28, 2011
Good Stuff – very nice overall rye for the price

For further reading, here’s a good little read by Greg Best of Atlanta’s Holeman & Finch: Rye: The resurgence of the other American whiskey

Update 1/4/2012: For those ready to step up to the big time, check out our BATTLE RYE between Van Winkle Family Reserve and High West Rendezvous Rye

About Thirsty South

Dedicated to all things drinking well in the South.
This entry was posted in Likker and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Three Fine Ryes: Bulleit 95, Rittenhouse 100, Russell’s Reserve

  1. Jason Pyle says:

    Brad, well done reviews as always. I can’t wait to try the Bulleit. I’m a little leery of the “let’s all get our rye from LDI” approach that many are taking, but in the end – what’s in the bottle tells the tale. I do enjoy the other two you reviewed immensely. I’d say the Rittenhouse BIB is my fave of the two but I dearly love the Russell’s Reserve also.

    Great stuff!

  2. Robin Coupar says:

    Excellent review. I recently discovered rye through trying classic American cocktails at several bars in San Francisco where the the whisky cocktail revolution is heating up. As a Scotsman (yes, I’m a single malt Scotch lover) some rye whiskies are rather good. Different, yes, great in cocktails and interesting sipping whiskies. They are to American whiskey what the peaty Islays are to Scotch.

  3. Allen Longcor says:

    The best rye’s I’ve had are the Rittenhouse 25 year and High West Rendezvous. For a more affordable every day rye, and one that makes an outstanding Old Fashioned, I reach for Sazerac.

    • Thanks Allen, Robin, Jason!

      Allen, those are indeed some good ones. And Sazerac is a solid choice as well (in fact, that aren’t too many American ryes that flat out miss the mark).

  4. EricH says:

    Since the Bulleit Rye’s label notes that it was made in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, I don’t think that “Sourced from LDI” is a rumor. LDI is the only working distillery there.

  5. Johnny Boots says:

    Great reviews, the only rye I’ve had is Tuthilltown Manhattan Rye, which is phenomenal ($40 a 375ml though :0 ) Tonight I picked up the Ritten 100proof with the Bulliet to follow. Thanks for the inspiration.

  6. Montag Fortz says:

    Where the heck can you buy Rittenhouse 100p. for $15? I’ll buy five cases!

  7. Gene says:

    Rittenhouse 100 ? Ok Whiskey but nothing special. No off flavors but no great depth either. It is what it is and should be around $15 but now due to all the positive press the price is escalating to be over $20 here in New York. Side by side with Bonded Old Grand-Dad which is also rye forward, the Old Grand-Dad has more flavor and much more unique profile that has that unique piercing rye sting which I like.

    • MC says:

      Simple supply and demand. No rye distiller expected the current renaissance (craze) so everyone was caught off guard. IMO, I feel we’re all lucky that the prices haven’t jumped more. Luckily rye doesn’t need to be barreled long, soon enough there will be a glut in the marketplace—hopefully with some tasty new offerings and competitive pricing to go along with them!

  8. Sam Brick says:

    My Dad loved rye whiskey in the 50′s and I tasted it then but it was too strong. I was maybe 12. Recently we had a sazerac that demanded rye and we loved it. So my wife visited Mount Vernon and bought a rye for $95 that was made at Mt Vernon in the original still and with rye grown there. All according to George’s recipe Well It was terrible. But I got some Wild Turkey rye and it is great; better than bourbon and not as stringent as scotch. It really tastes American. I am a Rittenhouse (my Grandmother’s maiden name) and I have a bunch of the old family stuff so I feel close. Now I see there is a Rittenhouse Rye! Wow! I cannot wait. But where in the hell is it? What a discovery. So. Come on rye. Make my day in my early 70′s.

    • Sam, Rittenhouse Rye is widely available, and has been around in some form since the 1930′s, but demand exceeds supply. You might want to call a few liquor stores around you to inquire.

  9. Steve South says:

    Agree…the Bulleit is my favorite of the 3…the russell is 3rd

Comments welcome, y'all!