What Are the Differences between Rye and Bourbon?

Your favorite drink, bourbon, is one of the most popular drinks in the US. But, being one of the best whisky drinks, it faces stiff competition from its counterpart, rye. So, what exactly are the differences between rye and bourbon?  

The answer will depend on where you are drinking from tonight. When it comes to choosing the best drink for the party, different varieties come to your mind. You may be confused about whether to go for bourbon, rye, scotch, or gin. 

If you want to make up your mind, you should know the difference between these types of drinks, and the only way to do that is by reading this post to the last bit.

There are many different types of bourbon and rye whiskeys. It could be bonded rye, straight rye, malted rye, blended whisky, or single malt whisky.  To avoid confusion, let us dig more into these two types of drinks; rye and bourbon.

How to differentiate Rye and Bourbon

1. The ingredients

The tip to differentiating between rye and bourbon is looking at the ingredients used in making these two drinks. Corn is the primary raw material, and ingredient distillers use in making bourbon. Therefore, for the drink to qualify as bourbon, it must be made of 51% corn. For rye whiskey, it must be 51% rye.

The remaining 49% in both drinks can come from corn, barley, rye, and other grains that make up the mash bills.  The mash bill is the grain mixture used in making whiskey.

Breaking down the ingredients

Rye whiskey

  • Manufactured in the USA
  • Made from a fermented mash bill of 51%
  • Distilled in small 26-gallon pot stills for not more than 160 proof
  • Spends at least two years aging in a 15-gallon barrel
  • Stored in white oak barrels at not more than 125 proof
  • No artificial flavors and additives used in the production

Bourbon whiskey

  • Made in the USA with routes from France
  • Made from fermented mash bill of 51% corn
  • Distilled in 50-100 gallon pot stills for not more than 160 proof
  • Stored in charred oak barrels at no more than 125 proof
  • Aged for not less than two years

 2. The production

There is also a slight difference in the production of rye and bourbon. In both processes, the mash bills are ground and mixed with clean water, usually from a natural source like a river or lake.

In bourbon production, the mash bill is taken through sour mashing. This involves mixing the mash bill with a previous distillation to ensure consistency in taste and flavor. Then, to encourage fermentation, both bourbon and rye get an addition of yeast. Finally, the non-carbonated beer is distilled in continuous stills after fermentation.  

Once the distillers transfer the mash into oak barrels, rye and bourbon start gaining their ideal pigment. Both rye and bourbon are not distilled higher than 160 proof. The maximum proof for both drinks is 125 proof.  Rye and bourbon are filtered, diluted with clean water, and kept in a bottle at 40% ABV. Any bourbon or rye sold as barrel proof are not diluted and have a higher proof.

There is also a slight definition for American and Canadian rye whisky. There is no mandate for rye to be used in making Canadian whisky. For the Canadian rye whisky, it must be blended in oak casks for at least three years. For the American whisky, there are no strict aging requirements.  Based on the definition of rye, the Canadian rye is not a pure rye.

3. The taste profiles

The big difference between rye and bourbon is in the taste profiles.  Aside from the primary raw materials used in making these drinks, you can also use the taste profile to distinguish them. The taste profile stems from the ingredients used in the production of the two glasses.

Because of the corn base, bourbon tends to be sweet and caramel-like.  On the other hand, rye grows to have a more savory and spicier note to the whisky. The perfect and more pungent notes in rye make it the best for making whisky cocktails.

Most people don’t prefer using bourbon for classic cocktails because it is more sugary and could cause cloying of the cocktail. Today, bourbon is more famous than rye, and most people don’t mind using it for making whiskey cocktails at home.

3. The aging

What determines the taste and flavor of bourbon and rye is aging. Both rye and bourbon are aged for at least two years. Ideally, the longer the drink stays in a charred oak barrel, the tastier and strong it becomes. 

Whisky regulations require that rye or bourbon be aged for no less than two years before being bottled and sold in the market.

Time is the only determinant of how whiskey will taste once it comes out of the barrel. Un-aged whiskey comes in sweet undertones with a fruity a spicy zest.  Alternatively, a matured whiskey does not advance as much as grown rye.

Final Thoughts

There is a lot to discuss about rye and bourbon; some may be beyond the scope of this article. When choosing between these two drinks, you should focus more on the taste and flavors. The main difference between rye and bourbon is in the taste. Rye is spicier, while bourbon has a caramel taste.

If you are lucky to get spicier bourbon, then the mash bill is cut with some rye content.  When you order rye, and you get some caramel flavor, it could be that the rye has some cut of corn mash bill in it.

Do you notice any significant difference between rye and bourbon? Well, if you’ve been drinking whisky for years, you should know the difference between the two just by tasting.  For the uneducated palate, it may not be easy spotting the difference between these two drinks.

There is enough variation between rye and bourbon. At Bottle and Ash, we advise you to try different types of rye and bourbon and get the variations. It only takes a glass of the two drinks to spot the differences.

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