December 25, 2022 by Karl Tessendorf
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?
Bourbon 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.
You also might like: 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.
You also might like: 15 Whiskey Winter Cocktails.
What’s the flavour difference between bourbon vs. rye?
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: 12 Best Whiskey Cocktails
How are bourbon and rye similar?
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.
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:
Rye whiskey cocktails
You also might like: 11 Best Winter Cocktails.
What is Canadian rye?
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
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.
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!