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Rye whiskey 101: Everything you ever wanted to know

It's spicy goodness in a bottle

Luwadlin Bosman STB / Unsplash

If you’ve never tried it, rye whiskey can be a bit of a mystery. If you know anything about rye the crop, it’s that it has a peppery, spiced, almost clove-like flavor. Does that mean the whiskey tastes like someone spent an hour cracking black pepper into your favorite whiskey? That doesn’t seem very appetizing. You also might be wondering what makes a whiskey a rye whiskey as opposed to a bourbon or another type of whiskey.

Since we are in the business of helping, we decided that the time was right to give you the equivalent of rye 101. While you definitely won’t get college credit for this, it also won’t take you a whole semester to learn the ins and outs of rye whiskey. Just peruse this article, and you’ll learn all there is to know about this unique, spicy whiskey variety. So, buckle up for the rye train. We hope you enjoy the whiskey-saturated ride through the world of rye whiskey.

Woodford Reserve rye
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What is rye whiskey?

Just like bourbon whiskey, there are specific rules that regulate what a rye whiskey is. While bourbon whiskey must be made from a mash bill of at least 51% corn (and often a much higher percentage), rye whiskey must have a mash bill recipe of at least (you guessed it) rye. It also must be matured in new, charred oak barrels. On top of that, the spicy, complex style must be matured to no more than 160 proof. It must be no higher than 125 proof when it enters the barrels for maturation and can be no less than 80 proof when bottled.

rye grain
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What’s rye whiskey’s history?

While the first major spirit distilled in America was rum, which was widely popular in the 1600s, rye whiskey began to gain in popularity in the 1700s into the 1800s. The center of the rye whiskey world was Pennsylvania (but a lot of rye whiskey was produced in Maryland, New York, and other places). The reason for this is that rye was a crop that flourished in the northern climate, and myriad immigrants from Europe and the British Isles wanted to make whiskey reminiscent of their home country’s offerings.

Prohibition shuttered many whiskey distilleries and all but wiped out the rye whiskey industry, with only a handful of brands reopening after the 21st Amendment was passed. It’s only been the last twenty or so years that the style has started to become popular once again. Today, you can find countless major brands and artisanal outfits crafting high-quality, sippable rye whiskey.

Sagamore Spirit Rye
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What does it taste like?

Corn is known for its sweet flavor, wheat for its softness, and rye for its peppery spice. Rye whiskey is inherently spicier than other styles. But to say that it’s simply a peppery whiskey is a bit misleading. A well-made, long-aged rye whiskey will also have herbal, grassy, earthy flavors as well as barrel-imparted flavors like vanilla, caramel, oak, and other spices. In essence, if you’re drinking a great rye whiskey, it should have peppery spiciness that’s surrounded by other complex, memorable aromas and flavors.

Rye barrels
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What is special about rye whiskey?

What makes rye whiskey special is the rye itself. While corn makes bourbon sweet and aging adds more toffee, vanilla, and charred wood flavors, the use of rye adds a spicy, peppery, herbal, fruity flavor to the whiskey. Using this base and then barrel-aging it in charred oak makes for a more complex, aromatic, flavorful whiskey than many bourbons on the market.

whiskey glass
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What is the difference between bourbon whisky and rye whiskey?

As we briefly mentioned earlier, the difference between bourbon whiskey and rye whiskey lies in the mash bill ingredient percentages. Along with many other rules and regulations, to be considered to be a bourbon whiskey, it must have a mash bill of at least 51% corn (the other grains are often wheat, rye, and barley. To be considered a rye whiskey, the mash bill must be made up of at least 51% rye (the secondary grains are often corn, wheat, and barley).

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Is rye whiskey good to drink straight?

If you enjoy a warming, sweet, spicy whiskey, rye whiskey is for you. And while it’s great as the base for iconic drinks like the old fashioned or Manhattan, when made well, it’s a great choice for sipping neat or on the rocks. While peppery rye is likely the main flavor, other possible flavors include dried fruits, vanilla beans, caramel, oak, and wintry spices.


What are good rye whiskey brands?

We are truly in the midst of a rye whiskey boom. There are countless award-winning brands currently available. Some of the best American brands include High West Double Rye, Sazerac Rye, Old Overholt Rye, Redemption Rye, WhistlePig Piggyback, and many more.

Whiskey glass
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What are the different styles of rye whiskey?

While there are different U.S. styles based on location (Maryland style and Pennsylvania style being two), there are two main types of rye whiskey. They are American rye whiskey (which is made in the U.S. and has a mash bill of at least 51% rye) and Canadian rye whisky, which historically may or may not contain any rye. However, when it comes to contemporary Canadian rye, the rules are similar to those in the U.S.

Christopher Osburn
Christopher Osburn is a food and drinks writer located in the Finger Lakes Region of New York. He's been writing professional
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