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Rye vs Bourbon: The Difference Between Rye Whiskey & Bourbon

December 25, 2022 by Karl Tessendorf

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Bourbon and rye are as American as hotdogs and apple pie. With rich histories and complex flavours, the two have been delighting cocktail drinkers for over 200 years. Each whiskey adds something unique, and many of the classic cocktails are bourbon or rye-based. But even though they’re made similarly, they’re not the same thing. Join us as we roll out the charred new oak barrels and discover the differences and similarities in the bourbon vs. rye debate.    

What is bourbon?

Two bourbon cocktails garnished with orange twistBourbon is a barrel-aged brown spirit that must be made in America to earn the title of bourbon. It was invented in Bourbon County, Kentucky and 95% of all bourbon is still made there. Purists will argue that it has to be made there, but these days, it’s made all over the US.    

Bourbon starts life as a mash of mixed grains. The mash is cooked until it releases its flavour and sugary goodness. According to the American Bourbon Association, a bourbon mash must contain a minimum of 51% corn. The rest of the mash can be a mixture of wheat, malted barley, and rye grains. Every distillery has its own mash bill or recipe for each whiskey they produce. Some keep it a secret, but many distilleries, even some of the largest producers, share their recipes.     

After the fermentation and distillation process, the bourbon is diluted with water until it reaches the desired proof. It’s then stored in charred new oak barrels for at least two years. The ageing process mellows the bourbon, gives it its colour, and imparts the signature oak flavour. Great skill and knowledge are required at every step of the process to get the best possible liquid into the barrels. When it comes to bourbon vs. rye, bourbon is not allowed to have any additives while rye can in some cases. Bourbon is always bottled at a minimum of 40% ABV.   

See next: 9 Bourbon-Based Summer Cocktails. 

What is rye whiskey?

Rye whiskey is a barrel-aged brown spirit, and it doesn’t have to be made in America to be considered rye. Many countries produce great rye, but America is still leading the pack. Much like its bourbon brother, if it’s made in America, it has to follow the rye-mashing rules. The mash is where the real difference lies between rye vs. bourbon whiskey. Rye’s mash must contain a minimum of 51% rye.   

From there the process is almost identical to bourbon, except that rye can have additives to infuse flavours or improve colour. Rye whiskey labelled as ‘straight’ has no additives. If your rye whiskey is not labelled straight, then there’s a good chance it has additives. Just like bourbon, rye whiskey is bottled at a minimum of 40% ABV.   

Read next: 15 Whiskey Winter Cocktails. 

What’s the flavour difference between bourbon vs. rye?

A field of rye at sunrise

Now that we’ve got the technical differences out of the way, let’s get to the most important thing of all, taste. Bourbon is known for its smooth character and silky mouthfeel. The hefty corn mash means it’s sweet and the barrel-ageing process gives it notes of vanilla, caramel, nuts, fruit, and spice. In cocktails, bourbon adds depth and complexity, as well as a lingering oaky afterglow. It can be the main flavour in a cocktail, or it can lay a robust flavour base to build on.    

Rye whiskey is bold, assertive, and tingles the taste buds. It can range from grassy and peppery to heavily spiced with notes of oak, fruit, and smoke. In cocktails, rye leads the dance, and many classic cocktails rely on its robust character and body. When it comes to rye vs. bourbon taste, the best way to test cocktails is to try both versions and see which you prefer. Did someone say cocktail party? Yeah, you did!   

You also might like: 15 Winter Whiskey Cocktails | 9 Bourbon Winter Cocktails | 13 Bourbon Summer Cocktails

How are bourbon and rye similar?

Side view of a home mixologist pouring holding a bottle of orange liqueur next to a surface filled with cocktail making tools and a refreshing cocktail garnished with an orange twist

Bourbon and rye whiskey are both types of American whiskey and share some similarities due to their production processes and regulations. Here are some ways in which they are similar:

Origins & legal definitions. Both bourbon and rye whiskey are types of American whiskey and are legally defined by the U.S. government. To be considered bourbon or rye whiskey, they must be produced in the United States, adhere to specific regulations, and meet certain criteria.

Grain mash. Both types of whiskey are made from a grain mash. Bourbon must be made from a mash that contains at least 51% corn, while rye whiskey must be made from a mash that contains at least 51% rye. The remaining percentage can be composed of other grains like barley, wheat, or malted barley.

Aging in new charred oak barrels. Both bourbon and rye whiskey must be aged in new charred oak barrels. The aging process imparts flavours from the wood into the whiskey, contributing to its characteristic taste.

Minimum aging period. There are specific minimum aging requirements for both types of whiskey. To be labelled as “straight” bourbon or rye, they must be aged for at least two years.

Alcohol content. Bourbon and rye whiskey are typically bottled at 40% alcohol by volume (ABV) or higher.

Go pro: Your Guide to Finding the Best Whiskey to Drink Straight

Bourbon and rye whiskey cocktails

If you love cocktails as much as we do, then high-five the next bourbon or rye whiskey bottle you see. If it wasn’t for the golden nectar, we probably wouldn’t have a booming cocktail industry. Back in the day (we’re talking over 200 years ago), whiskey wasn’t as refined as it is today. So, bartenders took to blending the rough stuff with sugar, bitters, and water. The ‘bittered sling’ or cocktail took off and the rest is history.    

Many of the world’s most iconic cocktails feature bourbon or rye. Here are a few of our favorites to try at home: 

Bourbon cocktails

Rye whiskey cocktails

You also might like: 11 Best Winter Cocktails. 

What is Canadian rye?

Two tumblers of Canadian whisky on a picnic table in a maple forest in fall

Canadian rye whiskey is a little more complicated to understand. Instead of a straightforward mostly rye mash bill, Canadian whiskey just needs to exhibit the qualities of rye whiskey. It can be corn-heavy with a touch of rye because there is no law dictating the quantities. The existing regulations state that whiskey must be made in Canada, and it must be aged in 700-litre barrels for three years. Other than that, it’s all up to the distiller.    

Read next: 12 Rye Whiskey Cocktails to Make at Home

Don’t forget about Tennessee whiskey

Two tumblers of Tenessee whiskey on a table overlooking views of the Smoky Mountains at dusk

What? Another type? Yes, but don’t worry. Tennessee whiskey is made the same way that bourbon is except for two differences. The first is that it has to be made in Tennessee, and the second is that it’s charcoal-filtered. The filtering mellows the flavour even more, so think of it as a lighter bourbon. This is often seen as a great option for camping cocktails

Read next: Types of Whiskey: The Beginner’s Guide

Our favorite brands and recommendations

A set of whiskey tasting glasses lined up on a rustic wooden table, each containing a different whiskey option for crafting the perfect Old Fashioned.

When it comes to comparing rye to bourbon, our favourite brand to recommend is Wild Turkey, because they do both, and they do them really well! Here are some of the side-by-side pairings we would suggest to get a good feel for both kinds of whiskey:

Wild Turkey 101 + Wild Turkey 101 Rye

Wild Turkey has been making their 101 range the same way for 60 years, in American White Oak barrels coated in the deepest alligator char. Wild Turkey 101 is a bourbon with a vanilla and cinnamon aroma, caramel notes, baking spice flavours, and a spice-and-orange peel finish. Wild Turkey 101 Rye is known for its deep golden amber colour and warm, smoky flavour that lingers on hints of smoke.

Rare Breed + Rare Breed Rye

Wild Turkey Rare Breed is a hand-selected, small-batch, barrel-proof bourbon, and Wild Turkey Rare Breed Rye stands as its contemporary in this regard. The bourbon has an aroma full of spring flowers, black pepper, and almonds, with warm, smoky flavours of grain and spice at first taste and a long, spicy finish. The rye, on the other hand, starts with caramel apple up front, followed by rich, complex layers of honey and vanilla, ending on a pleasantly drawn-out finish filled with dried fruit notes.

Master’s Keep Decades + Master’s Keep Cornerstone

Master’s Keep Decades features a blend of rare bourbon that has been aged for up to 20 years, yielding an extraordinarily enjoyable whiskey with the finesse and character of an older spirit, boasting a bold, vibrant 10-year-old bourbon as its backbone. Master’s Keep Cornerstone is the brand’s oldest rye whiskey, featuring a blend of rye whiskies aged up to 9 years. This results is a drink that shows off just what an American rye whiskey can truly be.

Master’s Keep Unforgotten (a combo!)

Master’s Keep Unforgotten is a masterful blend of 13-year-old bourbon with a combination of 8-year-old and 9-year-old rye, finished in rye casks. This yields a 105-proof whiskey with fruit-forward notes of caramel and oak, complemented by dried fruit and honey flavours, finishing with black pepper and warm baking spices.

So, there you have it—the short and long of the difference between bourbon and rye whiskey. Before you head off, you might also want to have a quick and fascinating read about the best cognac cocktails and the difference between an Old Fashioned vs Manhattan. Stay in the know by signing up for our newsletter, and we’ll send you all the freshest cocktail news first!

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

The main difference between bourbon vs. rye is the grain that is used in the production. Rye uses mostly rye and bourbon uses mostly corn.

Rye is bigger, bolder, and more pronounced than bourbon. It has an unmistakable spicy flavour.

Good quality rye is great for sipping on the rocks or in a sipping cocktail like an Old Fashioned.

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