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The Best American Rye Whiskey

The Manual Spirit Awards recognize the best craft liquors distilled in the U.S. We blind-tasted bottles from around the country in eight categories — Bourbon, Single Malt Whiskey, Rye Whiskey, Gin, Vodka, Unaged Rum, Aged Rum, and Liqueur — to determine our champions. Each of the winners was judged on aroma, palate, and finish. Cheers to your next drink and to American craft spirits.

Best Rye Whiskey

KO Distilling Bare Knuckle American Rye Whiskey 

Manassas, Virginia

The Manual Spirit Awards 2019 Best Rye Whiskey
Image used with permission by copyright holder

In order to be considered a rye whiskey, the spirit’s mash bill must be at least 51% rye. This rye grain typically gives the liquor a spicier flavor, making it an important component in other whiskeys as well. Rye whiskey, unlike bourbon, can be produced anywhere.

Bare Knuckle American Rye Whiskey from KO Distilling — the winner of the Rye category in The Manual Spirit Awards 2019 — is made with 100% rye sourced from Virginia farms. When a spirit is made with only one grain, there is the threat of becoming one-dimensional. That is not so with Bare Knuckle, as it has layers of flavors that reveal themselves over time (especially with a little bit of water added to really open it up). The spice notes are balanced nicely with caramel and there is just enough oak there to round out the profile. The whiskey belies its age as well, tasting older than the (roughly) year and a half it is.

KO Distilling’s Bare Knuckle American Rye Whiskey is 45% alcohol by volume and available in Virginia and Washington D.C., as well as online for shipment to a number of states.

About the Distillery

Located in Manassas, Virginia, KO Distilling was started in 2015 (though the idea was birthed in 2013) by two friends, Bill Karlson and John O’Mara (hence the name), who met while they were classmates at the United States Merchant Marine Academy. They released their first aged spirit, Bare Knuckle American Wheat Whiskey, in 2016. Since then, they’ve continued to produce the Battle Standard line of gins (including a regular, a navy strength, and a barrel-finished version), in addition to three other whiskeys: a white whiskey, a wheat whiskey, and a straight bourbon.

best rye whiskey bare knuckle single barrel rye whiskey smash
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Tasting Notes

Nose Rye spice immediately hits the nostrils, followed by some oak and vanilla. These notes are mixed baking spices.
Palate Cinnamon and nutmeg provide a nice backbone to this whiskey, with caramel and sweet orange notes rounding out the sharper flavors.
Finish A long, lingering finish punctuated by dry oak notes and toasted cinnamon spice.

How to Enjoy It in a Cocktail

Chances are, if you’ve ever had a mint julep, you’re already familiar with the basic makeup of a smash cocktail. Both contain many of the same elements – spirit, ice, sugar, mint (or another herb in some smashes) — but where they differ, typically, is the addition of fruit to the smash. For this cocktail, we used a lemon, which harmonizes wonderfully with a bright and spicy rye whiskey.

Rye Whiskey Smash

Glass: Rocks

Tools: Muddler, shaker

  • 2 oz KO Distilling Bare Knuckle Single Barrel Rye
  • 1 oz simple syrup
  • 1 half lemon, quartered
  • 7-9 mint leaves (2 for garnish)

Method: Add lemon and mint to a shaker or mixing glass and muddle together. Add, whiskey, simple syrup, and ice. Shake well. Strain into a rocks glass filled with crushed ice, stir, and garnish with mint leaf.

Best Rye Whiskey Runners-Up

Peerless Rye Whiskey

Kentucky Peerless Distilling – Louisville, Kentucky

Image used with permission by copyright holder

This sweet mash rye whiskey is rich in brown sugar notes with a good balance of citrus through the palate.

Kings County Empire Rye Whiskey

Kings County Distillery – Brooklyn, New York

Image used with permission by copyright holder

Made with 80% New York-grown Danko rye, this whiskey has a warming effect with plenty of spice and bready notes.


Written by Sam Slaughter

Copy editing by Nicole Raney and Jeremy Abrams

Photography by  Riley Young and Dan Baker

Video by Riley Young

Art direction and page layout by Genevieve Poblano

Creative team: Will Hawkins and Chris Raymond

Sam Slaughter
Sam Slaughter was the Food and Drink Editor for The Manual. Born and raised in New Jersey, he’s called the South home for…
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