Everything You Need to Know about the Difference between Rye Whiskey and Bourbon

Everything You Need to Know about the Difference between Rye Whiskey and Bourbon

Whiskey, bourbon, scotch… it can all get a little confusing if you aren’t an expert! Though they are subtle, the differences between these three - and particularly, between whiskey and bourbon - are precisely the things that make them so unique. We’ve outlined the big, must-know differences between rye whiskey and bourbon, so you can impress your friends at your next tasting party!

What are rye whiskey and bourbon made of?

The biggest difference between bourbon and rye starts right at the beginning — the essential ingredients. For bourbon, the grain mixture (otherwise known as the mash bill) must be at least 51% corn, while for American rye whiskey, it must be at least 51% rye. The remaining 49% in both mash bills usually comes from a combination of grains, like barley, corn, and rye.

It’s not uncommon to find rye whiskey that is 95-100% rye. More often than not, the production regulations on rye are almost identical to bourbon. On the other hand, bourbon can be no more than 62.5% alcohol when it is placed inside wooden casks to age. Both rye whiskey and bourbon must be aged for at least two years to be called “straight.”

What are the flavor differences between rye whiskey and bourbon?

The flavor differences between rye and bourbon boil down to the main ingredients discussed above. The corn mash used in bourbon makes for a sweet and full-bodied flavor, with notes of vanilla and caramel, while the rye mash in rye whiskey creates spicy tones and a drier, slightly bolder taste.

Aged bourbon doesn’t evolve as much as aged rye, which becomes more subtle while still packing its patented punch. Bourbon flavors are easier to drink because of their noticeable sweetness and consistency, while rye tends to have more intense tastes that develop on the palate.

What are the different types of bourbon?

Bourbon types differ depending on the mash bill and where they are produced:

  • Traditional: this type of bourbon is made from 70% corn, 15% rye, and 15% barley, and is the most common bourbon. Jim Beam, Wild Turkey, and Knob Creek are a few of the more popular examples.
  • High-Rye: high-rye bourbon contains large amounts of rye, and tends to have a little more kick than traditional bourbon.
  • High-Wheat: “high-wheat” means there is more wheat in the mash bill. This is the softest style of bourbon because it contains little to no rye. Maker’s Mark and Pappy Van Winkle are two of the more popular high-wheat bourbon brands.
  • Tennessee Whiskey: this is simply straight bourbon made in Tennessee, a style of whiskey that’s passed through a charcoal filter before it’s aged. For that reason, many producers claim it has distinctive qualities from traditional bourbon, and refuse to call it by that name. Jack Daniel’s is the most famous style of Tennessee Whiskey today.

What are the different types of rye whiskey?

Different types of rye whiskey are based on how much rye makes up the mash bill - not so much the other grains. With that in mind, there are two main types of rye:

  • American Rye: this type of rye whiskey is heavily regulated, and offers the most consistent quality. It’s also the easiest to find.
  • Canadian Rye: the term “rye” in Canada is a little more open-ended. There is no Canadian law regulating what can be called “rye,” and because of this, many Canadian ryes are mostly (or even entirely) made from corn mash bills. In Canada, rye is more or less a synonym for “Canadian-made whiskey.”

What are some cocktails that can be made with rye whiskey and bourbon?

Historically in classic cocktail production, rye was used over bourbon, since many cocktails call for sugar or the blending of whiskey with sweeter liquors; using bourbon, therefore, could result in the cocktail being oversweet. But with bourbon’s growing popularity, it has begun to replace its spicier counterpart in Manhattans, old fashioned, and whiskey sours.

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