Whiskey can be an intimidating topic for novice bartenders to approach. Connoisseurs tend to take their whiskey very seriously, and have little tolerance for those that don’t see it their way. But, depending on where you are in the world, what counts as “proper” whiskey changes dramatically. A little bit of knowledge goes a long way, and in this post we will discuss the differences between two of the most popular whiskeys in North America: bourbon and rye.
Understanding the subtle differences between a rye whiskey and your uncle’s favorite bourbon brands will help you craft the perfect cocktail when the moment arises—and save you from an uncomfortable argument with a stanch connoisseur.
In this post we will break down:
- How whiskey is made
- Differences in flavor
- What this means for your cocktail
How is Whiskey Made?
Whiskey is made from distilling a fermented grain mash. This mash is made out of malt barley and other grains of choice. The combinations of grains used is called a “mash bill.” Water and heat is added to the mixture, which creates sugar that eventually ferments into alcohol.
This mix is ultimately distilled (selectively evaporated) to separate the spirits from the mash, and is stored in wooden casks to be aged.
The type of whiskey changes depending on which grain is used, how it is distilled, what type of cask it is placed inside, and how long it is aged for. Subtle changes in any part of the process can have large impacts on the whiskey’s flavor.
Debates about the “best” way to make whiskey have cause more than a few bar fights around the world.
What is Bourbon?
Bourbon whiskey is made from a mash consisting of at least 51% corn, and can only be called bourbon if it is made in the United States. Bourbon can be no more than 62.5% alcohol when it is placed inside wooden casks to age. Unlike Scotch, or Irish whiskey, bourbon has no minimum age requirement, but must be aged for at least two years to be called “straight 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. It is the most common bourbon you will find. Jim Beam, Wild Turkey, and Knob Creek are some popular traditional bourbon brands.
- High-Rye – As the name implies, high-rye bourbon contains large amounts of rye, and tends to have a little more kick than traditional bourbon. Redemption, Buffalo Trace, Eagle Rare, and Basil Hayden all fall into the high-rye category.
- High-Wheat – You guessed it, “high-wheat” means 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. This style of whiskey is passed through a charcoal filter before it is 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 you will find.
What is Rye Whiskey?
Rye is similar to bourbon, but it’s made from at least 51% rye instead. The rest of the mixture often comes from barley or corn. It is not uncommon to find rye whiskey that is 95-100% rye. In America, the production regulations on rye are almost identical to bourbon. As with bourbon, it must be aged two years before being called “straight.”
Rye isn’t as developed as bourbon in the North American market, so 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 types of rye we should talk about here.
- American Rye – This is the type of rye whiskey outlined above. It 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. There is no Canadian law regulating what can be called “rye”. Because of this, many Canadian ryes are made from majority, or entirely, corn mash bills. In Canada, rye is more or less a synonym for “Canadian-made whiskey.”
Rye vs Bourbon: Flavor Differences
The flavor differences between rye and bourbon boil down to their main ingredients. The corn mash used in bourbon makes for a sweet and full-bodied flavor, while the rye mash in rye whiskey creates spicy tones and a drier 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 tolerate because of their noticeable sweetness and consistency. Rye tends to have more intense tastes that develop on the palate.
What Does This Mean For Your Cocktail?
Many classic whiskey cocktails, such as the Manhattan, old fashioned, and whiskey sour, were originally designed to be made with rye. However, most bars will use bourbon for these drinks nowadays because of its booming popularity and drinkability.
The proper whiskey for your cocktail comes down to one question: do you want sugar, or spice?
The sweetness of bourbon usually goes well with whiskey sours and summertime drinks. Manhattans, on the other hand, will benefit from the dryness of rye. If your cocktail already contains sugar, like an old fashioned, rye will balance it out and bourbon will make it extra sweet.
Think about how your cocktail will be consumed, and who will be drinking it. Being a good home bartender is as much about reading your audience as it is honing your skills. When leaning towards bourbon vs rye, make sure your guests like something sweet. Rye whiskeys take longer to drink, and are therefore better for long, enveloping conversations. A little bit of forethought and you will be able to make the perfect cocktail for the occasion.
Great article, goes a long way toward de-mystifying popular brown liquors for me. One thing that would help, maybe even be a subject for a follow-on article, would be to give examples of American and Canadian rye whiskeys, as you do for the various types of bourbons. Also a few words about Canadian whiskeys in general would be useful. For instance, where do Canadian Club and Crown Royal fit in? And for that matter, what about 7 Crown (which was a staple when I was growing up and seems to have lost its popularity, but is still around)?