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What Makes Rye Different From Bourbon?

06 Jan 2022
What Makes Rye Different From Bourbon?

It’s not uncommon to see these two liquors grouped together in stores and drinks, but what makes rye so different from bourbon? Some say that when you add rye to your bourbon, it will have a much different flavor profile and character because the two ingredients are so different from one another. Others argue that the only difference between the two is their mash bill. 

The difference between rye and bourbon starts with the mash. Rye is made from a mixture of rye and corn, while Bourbon uses only corn in its mash. The use of rye gives the whiskey a spicier taste than it would have otherwise while also adding more depth to the flavor profile.

This blog post will teach you all about what makes rye whiskey different from other whiskies like bourbon or scotch whisky. You’ll learn how it’s distilled, what types there are, and even where to buy it!

What is Rye?

Rye whiskey is a type of whiskey that is made from rye grain. It is one of the oldest types of whiskey in the world and has been around for centuries. Rye whiskey is made in a similar way to bourbon whiskey, but it uses rye instead of corn as the main ingredient.

Rye whiskey has a unique flavor that is different from other types of whiskey. It is earthier and spicier than bourbon and has a slightly bitter taste. Rye whiskey is often used in cocktails, such as the Manhattan or the Old Fashioned.

If you are looking for a unique whiskey to try, then rye is a great option. It has a distinctive flavor that you’d find in other whiskeys, and the spicy notes make it perfect for fall and winter.

Rye whiskey is made in the United States and Canada. In the United States, it must be made from at least 51% rye grain. Canadian rye whiskey must be made from at least 95% rye grain.

Rye whiskey is not as popular as bourbon or Scotch whisky, but it has a growing following among American distillers and drinkers. There are several small craft distilleries making excellent Rye whiskies.

What is Bourbon?

Bourbon is a traditional American whiskey, made primarily from corn (maize) but also sometimes using rye or other grains. The aroma of bourbon can vary widely based on how it has been aged and finished but generally has strong vanilla notes along with other aromas such as toffee, caramel, orange peel, and leather. Bourbon is known for its sweetness and full-bodied flavor, which comes from the rich corn used in making the spirit.

Bourbon must be aged for at least two years in new American oak barrels that have not held any other alcohols before. Bourbon that has been aged for longer periods of time will typically have less overt flavors of vanilla than younger bourbons.

The production process begins with milling grain, usually corn, to break it down into a mash. This mash is then combined with water and yeast and fermented for about three days. The resulting liquid is distilled twice, usually in copper pots stills, to produce a spirit that is around 80-85% alcohol by volume (ABV).

The bourbon is then aged in new oak barrels, which gives it its characteristic flavor profile and color. The barrels are charred on the inside to create a porous surface that will allow the bourbon to penetrate the wood and pick up some of the flavors of the barrel itself.

Differences Between Rye and Bourbon

Flavor Profile

Rye and Bourbon are very different whiskeys, both from a production standpoint as well as the flavor profile. To best understand the difference, it’s important to note that from a production standpoint, Bourbon must be made from at least 51% corn, while rye must be made from at least 51% rye. 

In terms of flavor profile, bourbon is typically smooth with sweet notes such as vanilla and caramel. Rye, on the other hand, has a spicier profile with more robust flavors like pepper and anise.


A significant factor in understanding why these two spirits taste so different is how they extract flavors during distillation. The majority of aromas and flavors come from compounds within the first condensate which evaporates off the liquid very quickly. 

Rye has a high sugar content which makes it very difficult to ferment, and as a result, there is more residual sugar in the distillate. This means that more of the flavorful compounds from the rye grain is carried over into the final product. In contrast, corn is much easier to ferment, and as a result, there is less residual sugar in the Bourbon mash, resulting in a whiskey that tastes comparatively bland.


The difference in distillation also has a large impact on the flavor profile of these spirits. Rye is distilled at a lower proof than Bourbon, meaning that more of the flavorful compounds from the rye grain is carried over into the final product. In contrast, Bourbon is distilled at a higher proof, meaning that fewer of the flavorful compounds from the corn grain is carried over into the final product.


In terms of barrel aging, rye and bourbon whiskeys also have different characteristics. Rye whiskey is typically aged in new oak barrels, while bourbon is typically aged in used oak barrels. The result is that rye whiskey has a slightly woodier flavor than bourbon.


The two whiskeys also taste different after aging because of the different barrel types that are used. Bourbons are typically aged in new charred oak barrels, while rye is often aged in used bourbon barrels. The char on new oak barrels gives bourbons their characteristic caramel flavor, while the previously used barrels impart more char and less sweetness due to the previous whisky that was aged in them. 

All in all, rye and bourbon are two very different spirits with unique flavor profiles that are a result of their production methods and aging processes. While they may be enjoyed neat or on the rocks, they are also commonly used in cocktails such as the Manhattan or Old Fashioned. So the next time you’re at your favorite whiskey bar, be sure to order a Rye Manhattan and experience the difference for yourself!

Which Is Better: Rye or Bourbon?

In many ways, rye and bourbon are very similar. They are both made from grains, and they both have distinctive flavors. However, there are some key differences between these two types of whiskey.

The most obvious difference is that bourbon is always made from corn, while rye can be made from any type of grain. This means that bourbon has a sweeter flavor than rye. It also has a higher alcohol content, typically around 40%.

Rye whiskey is drier and spicier than bourbon. It also has a lower alcohol content, typically around 35%. This makes it a good choice for cocktails or for drinking straight.

Both rye and bourbon are aged in oak barrels, but bourbon is usually aged for at least six years. In contrast, rye is typically aged for less than that, which means that it has a smoother flavor.

In the US, bourbon can only be produced in Kentucky and up to 75 miles from it. Rye whiskey can also be produced outside of Kentucky, though it must be made in a manner consistent with how the spirit is made in Kentucky.


The difference between rye and bourbon largely boils down to the mash bill – i.e., what kinds of grains are included – and aging requirements – i.e., whether they’re put into new or reused barrels (or both). While there is some overlap on these fronts (rye can be made from a mix of grains, and bourbon can be aged in used barrels), for the most part, rye is spicier, and bourbon is smoother. 

So what makes rye so special? Well, it’s all about that unique flavor profile. It contains more spicy notes than bourbon does, thanks to the inclusion of the rye grain in the mash bill. This gives rye whiskies a more complex flavor that aficionados tend to love. Meanwhile, bourbon has a smoother flavor profile, thanks to the addition of corn (which absorbs some of the spice) and malt (which helps to balance things out).


Must-Try Rye and Bourbon Whiskies

Bulleit Rye Whiskey

Angels Envy Caribbean Rum Cask Finish Rye Whiskey

Old Carter Batch 6 Rye Whiskey

NFT Michters 2021 20 Year Bourbon Whiskey #119/687

Willett Pot Still Reserve Small Batch Bourbon Whiskey

Jack Daniels Single Barrel Barrel Proof Whiskey

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