I remember I once used the phrase "Alpha Wolf" in a conversation with my dad, who asked me what it meant. After that conversation, he said he heard "Alpha Wolf" about three more times that week, having never been conscious of hearing it in his life before that point.
A similar phenomenon drew me to Rittenhouse Rye. I heard the bottle mentioned on a forum as a great value in rye whiskey (and whiskey in general). Once it was on my radar, it was downright eerie how often I began to see it on bar menus and back shelves. Unprompted, more than a few bartenders told me how much it was a staple of their cocktail program. Now, the reddish tinge of any whiskey-based cocktail seems like a knowing wink between those who know.
And at this point, boy do I understand the love. I'm probably on my fourth or fifth bottle now. I've made old fashioneds, whiskey sours, Manhattans, and Sazeracs with this stuff, all complicated by a number of recipe variations and different quantities of bitters, and never once did I think, "I should have used something else." Rittenhouse just works in a bewildering range of applications.
Three qualities stand out as reasons for why Rittenhouse shows up everywhere. The first is that Rittenhouse is a "barely legal" rye at 51% rye. Astute readers may note I've taken a small crap on ryes like this before, but it works here in cocktails. Rittenhouse is the halfway point between a corn-heavy bourbon and the spice explosion of a straight rye. It's easy to sub into a recipe requiring either, and it gives the best of both worlds. Bourbon cocktails get a little extra depth. Rye cocktails get a little extra sweetness and vanilla.
Secondly, it's 50% ABV. In a cocktail, you'd be surprised how much that little bit of extra backbone allows the spirit to make itself known even when surrounded by syrups, bitters, fortified wines of various types, the dilution from ice, and miscellaneous liqueurs. You can't drown it or cover it up. I won't speak for all bartenders, but you can be a little sloppier with your proportions and Rittenhouse will normally hand-wave away the faults.
Thirdly, it ain't all that much money. For only about $25, you can add the proverbial Swiss Army Knife of whiskeys to your shelf.
And past all that, Rittenhouse is decent enough to enjoy on its own. Thanks to the rye, Rittenhouse is able to stand neck-and-neck with a lot of the bourbons I like, which is to say that there's a lot of dill in the aroma and spice in the glass. The corn and the rye mix to deliver a decent kick of molasses among the vanilla and oak. It's nothing earth-shattering, but it's a solid showing.
So with that in mind, and evaluating it purely on its own merit—which is to say if you don't plan on making any drinks with it, anytime ever—I'd say Rittenhouse is probably a two-star affair. I've mentioned before that saying a drink works best in a cocktail is something of a backhanded compliment, but Rittenhouse is the exception to the rule. Few whiskies make your drinks taste better, simply put, and few mixers are this versatile and reliable. The rating represents that indispensable character.