top of page

Kings County Empire Rye Review - How New York Distilleries are Breathing Life into the Rye Renaissance

Kings County Empire Rye - 102 Proof New York Straight Rye Whiskey

Close your eyes and imagine with me for a moment... Fields of blue-hued rye, shimmering in the dancing wind, mimicking the ocean waves. Yes! Fields of rippling rye! It’s a sight to behold, and New York has turned this visual poetry into liquid form with their Empire Rye whiskey.

Kings County Empire Rye - 102 Proof New York Straight Rye Whiskey

Contrary, perhaps, to popular belief, Empire Rye is not a strain of rye, and boy, let me save you the trouble of researching rye varieties. It’s a rabbit hole! But if Empire Rye isn’t a strain of the robust grain, why is New York the only state producing Empire Rye whiskey?

Where Kentucky is known for bourbon, and Tennessee is known for “sour mash,” then let New York be known for Empire Rye, the whiskey style of New York. Or so was the thought when a group of New York distilleries, notably Coppersea Distilling, Kings County Distillery, Van Brunt Stillhouse, Finger Lakes Distilling, and Black Button Distilling, joined forces in 2015 to create New York State’s own distilled spirit category.

In the first minutes of the documentary Fire, Water & Grain: The Story of Empire Rye, Christopher Briar, chief blender and distiller at Coppersea Distilling, states, “Empire Rye arose out of the community.” And if you’re a seasoned (or even incoming) whiskey appreciator, you know that the sense of community is fiercely embraced in the whiskey world. The documentary is captivating and jam-packed with rich history and knowledge. I highly encourage you to check it out.

But, for those eager enough to learn a bit more about Empire Rye through the written word, I’ve provided a rundown on this revived whiskey category. Yes, revived! Read on!

Although not legally binding, rigorous rules must be followed to uphold the integrity of this distinct and precise style of whiskey, and they’re rather specific—75% of the mash bill must be New York grain, distilled to no more than 160 proof, and aged a minimum of two years in charred, new oak barrels at no more than 115 proof at the time of entry. These guidelines are an extension of the New York Farm Distillery Act of 2007, and distillers who follow them hold the title and stamp of Empire Rye. The attention to detail is an homage to the pre-prohibition style of New York-style rye whiskey but with enough creative freedom to allow each distillery to shine. So, who else would I look to than the oldest distillery in New York to explore this distinctly New York-style whiskey?

Kings County Craft Whiskey Distillery Out of New York

Kings County Distillery, located in Brooklyn, is New York's premier craft distillery and one that's been on my radar for years. Their 2020 Bottled in Bond (Batch 9) was my first introduction and the reason I'm a fan (it seems my favorite whiskey reviewer may be a fan, too!). I recently connected some errant dots—after sipping a single barrel pick of Kings County from Liquor Junction—to what I consider to be “goodness, this is good whiskey." Kings County falls right in line with my affinity for local grain, a focus on terroir, and the biggest one out of this trifecta: the distilling method used—pot still. Unfortunately, Kings County has yet to distribute to my state (I’m in Illinois, by the way, ahem…). Thankfully, Seelsbach’s features a slew of craft distilleries, and Kings County is one of them, where I purchased my bottle of Empire Rye in 2023.

The multiple award-winning Empire Rye Batch 7, released in 2023, is the last batch not to be barreled at cask strength. According to King County’s website:

After evaluating our inventory of Empire Rye in preparation for this year’s annual blend, the blending team determined that the bulk of our Rye inventory had matured—and concentrated—in ways that resembled many of our best cask-strength bourbon offerings. As such, beginning with this eighth batch of our Empire Rye—our first with a three-year age statement—our annual releases will be bottled at barrel strength.

This has me wondering how these two would compare. A head-to-head review for another time (if Batch 8 can be procured!). For now, let’s taste Kings County’s homage to pre-prohibition New York rye whiskey!


Company on Label: Kings County Distillery

Whiskey Type: Empire Rye / Straight Rye Whiskey

Mash Bill Percentages: 80% New York rye, 20% English malted barley

Proof: 102°

Age: 2 years (a blend of 2.9 - 4.9 year barrels)

Further identification: This is the 2023 annual release of Kings County Empire Rye; Batch 7 is aimed to articulate the inherent complexity of New York-grown Danko rye


Nose: Immediate creaminess, as it should be. This is pot still whiskey, after all! Buttery sweet rolls and the slightest crack of black pepper come in next, like that last bite of bread before you finish Sunday supper. A deeper exploration provides notes of cotton candy grapes, under-steeped black tea, and a whiff of pine needles on a damp forest floor. Wow, I really love this nose. Time to sip.

What wonders one sip does! Returning to the nose are sweet summer grape skins, specks of vanilla bean, and honey butter melding together. It reminds me a little bit of Clynelish 14, except this nose is all lights and Broadway compared to the vast and rolling seaside of Clynelish. Late in the glass, I get warmed Hawaiian rolls resting on wine-stained white napkins. The empty glass takes me to the edge of a forest, a trampled mud path with smashed sweet berries leading into a sunny meadow and a savory roast beef sandwich in hand to eat.

Palate: As silky as the nose. Waves of vanilla and butterscotch cover the tongue before tea notes come in to balance out the sweetness. A pepper tingle is present on the finish. A second sip ushers in more of those creamy notes, vanilla and honey drizzled over spiced grape skins. This is a close-your-eyes-with-your-face-to-the-sky kind of sip while shadows of puffy white clouds blink behind your eyelids, passing over warm rays of the sun. The finish brings in that wonderful barrel funk I love about Kings County, a damp oak sweeping in for a long craft pot still finish. I regrettably say goodbye with a final sip, crumbs falling off a spiced carrot cake and remnants of melted butter on the plate with a whiff of pine and the slightest drying from the soft oak finish. 

TL;DR: a casual and comfortable sip with fine dining details, this is the borough of ryes


Rating: 4.5/5

The high standards required to craft Empire Rye whiskey have resulted in a distinctive, well-crafted, phenomenal rye out of Kings County. My taste buds are at a standing ovation, begging for multiple encores. I adore this whiskey. I want more of this whiskey. I can’t wait to explore this category further.

Jes Smyth - Pu
With what started as a genuine curiosity for the “water of life,” fiction writer and published author Jes Smyth has nurtured her enthusiasm for whiskey ever since. From learning the vast history of whiskey making to celebrating the passion of the industry, she tastes each sip with intention and purpose while expressing the intricacies of whiskey in a relatable and heartfelt way. She is thrilled to be a contributing writer for and hopes her words will resonate with those ready to explore the beautiful world of whiskey.



bottom of page