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Rye whiskey vs bourbon: The differences explained

There are a lot of differences between the two whiskeys

Whiskey in a glass on a table
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When it comes to whiskey, there aren’t any as American as bourbon and rye whiskey. They’re like apple pie and the designated hitter. Sure, Canada makes rye whiskey as well, but rye whiskey is as entrenched in American history (if not more) as bourbon.

We all know that bourbon whiskey is referred to as America’s “native spirit,” but both have been distilled here for centuries. But, while these two whiskeys have long histories in the US (and before the formation of the country) they are very different in ingredients, flavor, and use. Fear not; we’ll let you in on all the differences between the two classic whiskey varieties. Keep scrolling to learn all about them. After reading this, you’ll be an expert on the two most American whiskey types.

What is rye whiskey?

Whiskey bottles
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You can’t just throw some rye into your mash bill and slap a label on your bottle, calling it a rye whiskey. The US has specific rules and regulations about rye whiskey. First, it must be made with a mash bill of at least 51% rye. Some distillers add much more than that.

Besides rye, you can add corn, wheat, barley, and other grains to round it out. It must be aged in new, charred oak barrels. It also must be distilled to no more than 160-proof, begin aging at no more than 125-proof, and be bottled at no less than 80-proof. Also, rye whiskey can be made anywhere in the world. As we mentioned, it’s very popular in Canada and various other countries.

What is bourbon?

Whiskey glass slammed down and spilling out
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Just like rye whiskey, bourbon has a handful of important rules and regulations. While rye whiskey must be made with a mash bill of at least 51% rye, bourbon must be made with a mash bill of at least 51% corn. And bourbon makers also tend to up the average with more corn sweetness. The rest of the mash bill can be rye, barley, wheat, and other grains.

Bourbon can be distilled to no more than 160 proof, added to the barrel for aging at 125 proof, and bottled at no less than 80 proof. It must be matured in charred, new oak barrels and can be made anywhere as long as it’s in the US. Yes, you read that right. Regardless of what your neighbor told you, bourbon can be made outside of Kentucky. Even though 95% of it is made in the Bluegrass State, there are noteworthy bourbon produced in Texas, Washington State, New York, and beyond.

What are their histories?

Whiskey barrels
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Bourbon’s history can be traced back to the late 1700s. Some believe that it was created by a former Baptist minister named Elijah Craig (who now has a whiskey brand in his honor) when he decided to age his corn whiskey in charred oak barrels. Whether that story is actually true, we don’t know. It’s a fun little origin story, though.

You might be surprised to learn that rye whiskey has actually been distilled in the US for longer than bourbon. In the mid-1700s, rye whiskey was being produced in Pennsylvania in Maryland. This is because European immigrants find rye much easier to grow in the harsh northeast climate and thus used to the crop to distill whiskey similar to the spirits they imbibed back home in Ireland, Scotland, and other countries. George Washington, on top of being a General and the first President of the United States, was a well-known distiller of rye whiskey.

What does rye whiskey taste like?

Whiskey glass
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It’s hard to pinpoint a specific generic flavor profile for rye whiskey because it can vary so much based on the amount of rye used in the mash bill and the other ingredients. At its most basic level, rye whiskey is known for its kick of peppery spice that pairs with other herbal, botanical, fruity, and woody flavors. Some rye whiskeys are spicier, while others are sweeter.

What does bourbon taste like?

straight whiskey
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Since it’s made from corn, you can bet a well-made, long-matured bourbon will be sweet, warming, and very mellow. Aging in charred American oak also adds flavors like toasted vanilla beans, caramel, dried fruits, wintry spices, and oaky wood. Depending on the mash bill, some bourbons are sweet, some are nutty, and some are spicy (especially if they have a high-rye mash bill).

Bottom line

Tin Cup Whiskey
Tin Cup

Rye and bourbon have very different flavor profiles because of the main ingredients used in each. But, if you enjoy slow sipping whiskey, you’ll want a bottle of each on hand at all times. Also, if you enjoy making cocktails, a nice bourbon will add mellow, sweet, oaky notes to your favorite whiskey drinks, while rye whiskey will add a nice spicy, peppery kick.

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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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