What’s the Difference Between Rye Whiskey & Bourbon
December 25, 2022 by Karl Tessendorf
Bourbon and rye are as American as hotdogs and apple pie. With rich histories and complex flavors, the two have been delighting cocktail drinkers for over 200 years. Each whiskey adds something unique, and many 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 flavor 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 aging process mellows the bourbon, gives it its color, and imparts the signature oak flavor. 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.
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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 flavors or improve color. Rye whiskey labeled as ‘straight’ has no additives. If your rye whiskey is not labeled straight, then there’s a good chance it has additives. Just like bourbon, rye whiskey is bottled at a minimum of 40% ABV.
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What’s the flavor difference between bourbon vs. rye?
Now that we’ve got the technical differences out of the way, let’s cover 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-aging 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 flavor in a cocktail, or it can lay a robust flavor 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!
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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. The Old Fashioned, Manhattan, Sazerac, Whiskey Sour, Old Pal, Hot Toddy, and Boulevardier are all whiskey classics. Some, like the Manhattan, are interchangeable, but others, like the Sazerac, are best made with rye. That said, who listens to rules anyway? We recommend drinking whatever you like and if it’s a bourbon Sazerac then go for it.
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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 regulation states that whiskey must be made in Canada, and must be aged in 700-liter barrels for three years. Other than that, it’s all up to the distiller.
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 flavor even more, so think of it as a lighter bourbon.