For beginners venturing into the world of whiskey, there is often some confusion around the different types of whiskeys available. Some new whiskey sippers may not even realize that some of these drinks are even part of the whiskey family.
As part of our passion for whiskey, we are always willing to help you out and share information so that you can expand on your whiskey knowledge and adventure!
Rye and bourbon are both whiskeys made in the USA. There are strict laws on their ingredients and production for them to be labeled as rye or bourbon. Rye must be made with a minimum of 51% rye and bourbon at least 51% corn. Rye has an intense, spicy, dry flavor. Bourbon is sweeter and full-bodied.
As in beer, where there are draughts, ales, lagers, pilseners, and so on, which are all still beer, whiskeys have variations too. With some, there are subtle differences, while with others, the differences are very marked.
In this article on US whiskeys, we will be introducing you to rye and bourbon, two similar yet different whiskeys.
Where Do Rye And Bourbon Come From?
Whiskey is such a fascinating topic, and it is international and cross-cultural. You can take a worldwide whiskey journey that is as entertaining as any other international experience.
Today in our whiskey journey, we are heading over to the good ole United States of America to sample some of their local whiskey fare!
That’s right, bourbon and rye both originate in the USA and have been as iconic to this nation as the wild west and big-city gangsters!
There are other types of whiskeys that are also brewed in the USA that are not rye whiskeys or bourbon, but have their own distinctions, such as Tennessee whiskey, but that is information for another day!
Rye Whiskey Origins
Rye whiskey made its first appearance in the USA in the northeastern states as early a the late 1700s. The home of rye whiskey production at this time was the Pittsburg in the state of Pennsylvania and became a thriving business throughout Pennsylvania and Maryland.
The Prohibition-era was severely damaging to the rye whiskey business, and it almost did not survive the strict bans. Fortunately, a few brands survived those tumultuous years, and one of those brands is the well known Old Overholt brand of Rye whiskey.
In the 1960s, many of these brands that originated in Pennsylvania were relocated and continued being distilled and bottled in Kentucky.
A revival of rye whiskey in the early part of the 21st century saw a growth in the number of brands producing rye whiskey. Some names you may be familiar with, such as Jim Beam Rye, Bulleit Rye, Wild Turkey Rye, and Heaven Hill.
- Read our research of Why is Whiskey called Whiskey, Whisky, Bourbon or Scotch here.
The birth of bourbon also hails back to the early 1800s in the USA. There is some uncertainty and variations as to the origins or the name “bourbon” for this whiskey, with some people considering its origins to be from Bourbon County in Kentucky or even the famous Bourbon Street in New Orleans.
It was first known by the name of bourbon whiskey as late as 1850.
Whatever the origins of the name, there is no doubt as to the geographical location of the origins of this whiskey. The history of this whiskey is deeply rooted in the southern states of the USA.
It is thought that bourbon was first distilled in Kentucky by Scottish and Irish settlers who made their home in this region. Much of the history of bourbon is folklore and legend, and the actual truth of its origins is lost in the mists of these tales.
Even though bourbon can be distilled anywhere in the USA, it’s primary production location to this day is still in the southern states.
Bourbon was deemed to be a distinctive product of the US in 1964, and as such, any whiskey sold as bourbon in the US has to be manufactured in the US, and the production process must follow strict guidelines.
No whiskey imported into the United States may be labeled as bourbon whiskey.
How Are Rye And Bourbon Made?
Even though rye and bourbon are both whiskeys, they differ significantly in their production and the ingredients used.
It is mostly the different ingredients that set these two drinks apart and the fact that there are strict guidelines and laws around their production that dictate the type and minimum amount of key ingredients.
How Is Rye Produced?
The law in the US states that rye whiskey must be made from a mash that contains at the very least 51% rye. Rye is a plant of the grass family that is closely related to wheat and barley. Rye is also used to produce bread, some vodkas, and even certain types of beer.
Manufacturers adjust the proportions of these ingredients to produce their signature flavors and nuances in their version of rye whiskey. Some distillers produce rye whiskey that is between 95% and 100% rye in their mash.
Any whiskey produced with less than 51% rye in the mash may not be labeled as rye whiskey.
The other ingredients included in the mash in conjunction with the rye are malted barley and corn. The mash or mash bill, as it is sometimes known, of these grains is then soaked in water and then heated.
The addition of heat and water initiates the production of sugars in the grains, which then ferment and produce alcohol.
The mixture then undergoes the distillation process, whereby certain elements of the mix are selectively evaporated by carefully controlling the heat that is applied. The alcohol is separated from the mash during this distillation process.
At this stage in the rye production process, the alcohol is a clear liquid, called a spirit. It only obtains its characteristic amber-gold color through the aging process.
Next comes the aging process in wood barrels. According to the US law that governs the production of rye whiskey, the barrels must be new oak barrels that are freshly charred.
Old barrels may not be used to produce a second batch of rye whiskey. These used barrels are then quite sought after for the aging of other alcoholic drinks such as beer to add nuances of rye whiskey flavor to the brew.
Rye whiskey can be distilled above 160 proof, but when it goes into the barrels, it must be no more than 125 proof, or 62.5% alcohol by volume, or ABV.
Rye whiskey that is labeled as “Straight Rye” must be aged at least two years in the barrels and cannot be blended with any other spirits.
How Is Bourbon Produced?
The mash, or mash bill that bourbon is produced from, must, according to US law, be produced with a minimum of 51% corn. The balance of the mash can be made up of any cereal grain, such as wheat or rye.
A bourbon that is produced with a rye component of between 20-35% is often called high-rye bourbon, and the flavor profile is somewhat different from high-wheat bourbon.
After the grains have been ground, they are mixed with water and heated, in much the same process as used in making rye. Often, a portion of a mash that was used for a previous distillation of bourbon is added to the mash to create a sour mash.
This process is often used to maintain the consistency of the bourbon across different batches. The mash then has yeast added to it and is fermented.
The mash mixture then undergoes distillation to between 65% and 80% alcohol by volume, which produces a clear spirit that bourbon producers affectionately refer to as White Dog.
The clear spirit then begins its aging process in new, recently charred oak barrels, as required by American law. For bourbon, it is common to use American white oak to produce the barrels. The white oak, when charred, produces caramelized sugars and vanillins that add unique flavor profiles to the bourbon.
The bourbon must be no more than 125 proof or 62.5% ABV when it goes into the barrels, according to regulations. After the aging process, the bourbon is drawn from the barrel and filtered, and then diluted with water to be bottled at 80 proof or 40% ABV.
This is the process for the majority of bourbon in the US, but some distillers sell bourbons at between 86 and 100 proof.
All bottled-in-bond bourbons are bottled at 100 proof. Bourbons marked as “barrel-proof” indicate that they have not been diluted after being drawn from the barrel. Any bourbon sold at less than 80 proof must be labeled as “diluted bourbon.”
Cheap bourbons are only aged for short periods of time. Straight bourbon, if labeled as such, must be aged for a minimum of two years in the barrel and may have no other spirits, flavoring, or colorants added to the bourbon.
Bourbon labeled as “Straight” but has been aged less than four years is required to have the age duration printed on the label.
“Bottled-in-bond” bourbon must be aged at least four years and have no blends added.
Bourbon that is labeled as blended and contains an age duration on the label; the age duration must reflect the age of the youngest whiskey added to the blend.
An interesting fact is that in Europe, any bourbon that is less than three years old may not be referred to as a whiskey.
What Is The Taste Profile Of Rye And Bourbon
The difference in ingredients between rye and bourbon give them very different flavor profiles and smoothness. Many people who taste both immediately have an affinity for the bourbon over the rye.
To find out why this is, let us delve a little into the flavor profiles of each drink. The best way to test the flavor profiles, however, is for you to try them out for yourself!
Rye Flavor Profile
Because rye is the main grain ingredient in rye whiskey, the flavor that this grain imparts dominates the other overtones. The flavor that rye imparts to the whiskey is a somewhat harsh, spicey flavor that is quite dry (not sweet) in comparison to bourbon.
The flavor of rye whiskey is considered to be full but intense, which often takes first-time tasters by surprise. The flavor continues to develop spicey and fruity flavors on the palate after sipping it.
Rye whiskey can age in the bottle, with the flavors becoming a little more mellow and subtle, without losing any of its punch.
How to Drink Rye
If you like a spicy whiskey, then the best way to enjoy rye whiskey is to drink it neat or on the rocks. This drinking method will allow you to enjoy the full spicy flavor of the rye.
However, rye whiskey is also used in many cocktails, including the famous Manhattan.
Rye is a whiskey that first-time sippers may find a little strong or harsh, especially if you are already a bourbon drinker.
Bourbon Flavor Profile
Corn is the primary ingredient in the bourbon mash, which imparts a much smoother, full-bodied, and sweeter taste to bourbon.
Before you even get to taste the bourbon, if you are observant, you may notice that the bourbon in the glass looks cloudy in comparison to rye or other whiskeys.
The first aspect of bourbon that a new bourbon taster will experience when they lift the glass to their lips is the strong but delicious aroma that emanates from the whiskey and gives you a hint of the flavor to come!
The flavor has many subtle tones to it that depend on the age of the bourbon and the ratio of the different grains that are used in the mash.
Unlike rye, bourbon flavor profiles do not generally change as it ages. Bourbon will taste the same out of the bottle as it did when it was first drawn from the barrel and placed in the bottle.
Many first-time whiskey tasters would prefer bourbon over rye because bourbon has a sweeter taste to it than rye and is smoother on the palate than what rye is. Bourbon has quite a broad flavor profile with many subtle hints of flavors and overtones depending on how it is made and the ratio of grains used in the mash.
Bourbon in the glass has a slightly cloudy appearance compared to other whiskeys, which detracts from its appearance when poured into a glass.
How To Drink Bourbon
Bourbon is a drink that can be savored in many different ways, but the best way to enjoy it, especially the more expensive, aged bourbons, is neat in a glass with an ice cube or two to chill it down and mellow the flavor even more.
If you don’t like the ice cubes, you can also add a splash of cold water or simply enjoy the bourbon neat with no ice or water to dilute the flavors.
Many of the cheaper bourbons are added to a variety of cocktails as the main alcoholic ingredient.
What Is A Good Rye Whiskey?
Now that we have talked about these two great American whiskeys, it would only be right to give you a few of our recommendations on which ones to try out.
When it comes to rye whiskey, it is generally more expensive than bourbon, but that is generally because there is a proliferation of cheap bourbons, which usually do not compare in quality to rye since cheaper versions are usually not produced.
Rittenhouse Rye Bottled-In-Bond is a great everyday rye whiskey that is in the upper range of the everyday whiskeys. It is a well-rounded rye that is of good quality at a reasonable price of around $30.
High-end rye can be surprisingly expensive, such as Michter’s Straight Rye, which will set you back in the region of close to $200. But then again, this is a 10-year-old rye whiskey.
If you are looking to taste a good rye whiskey without taking out a loan to buy a bottle, then Russel’s Reserve Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey is an excellent one to try. It is a 6-year-old rye and is priced and just under $50.
What Is A Good Bourbon?
There are many cheap bourbons available, but if you buy a cheap bourbon, it would be best to use it in the mixing of cocktails as opposed to sipping it neat on the rocks. A cheap bourbon will not give you a full-bodied, true bourbon experience.
If you want to try bourbon, rather go for a better-priced variety, or you may be disappointed with your tasting experience.
A good mid-range sipping bourbon is the Wild Turkey 101 Kentucky Straight Bourbon. This bourbon is older, aged for a minimum of 5 years in American White Oak barrels, and will give you an excellent tasting experience for bourbon.
If you want to go to the upper end of the scale to a really good but still affordable bourbon, you can try the Elijah Craig toasted Barrel Straight Bourbon.
This particular bourbon will cost you just a little over $100, but some Elijah Craig bourbons can cost you in the region of $1000.
If you are looking to try American whiskey, then you will need to have a tasting where you compare a bourbon and a rye whiskey.
The main difference between the two is that rye is made with a minimum of 51% rye in the mash for the whiskey, and bourbon is made with a minimum of 51% corn as its main mash ingredient.
The corn gives the bourbon a full-bodied, sweeter flavor, while the rye offers a spicy, take-no-prisoners taste! Good quality rye or bourbon makes for a great sipping whiskey, and no whiskey drinkers cabinet should be without a bottle of each!
Here is a quick summary of these two American whiskeys.
|Min 51% Corn||Min 51% Rye|
|Aged in new charred oak barrels||Aged in new charred oak barrels|
|Flavor profile does not change with aging.||Flavor profile mellows and becomes fuller with age.|
|Aged in the barrel longer than rye||Bottled relatively young|
|Smooth, full-bodied flavor that is sweet in comparison to rye. Beginners normally find bourbon easier on the palate than rye.||Dry, spicey flavor with subtle tones depending on the mash ratio. Harsh taste for new whiskey drinkers.|