Rye vs Bourbon
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Rye vs Bourbon

Meet Luke

Luke is a Level I Certified Whiskey Specialist with a passion for exploring and unearthing the best whiskeys around. Luke has a preference for Rye whiskeys but has tasted over 250 different whiskeys to date varying from bourbons to scotches. He continues to expand upon his whiskey knowledge by tasting dozens of bottles monthly and reviewing them here on Barrel and Brew as he pursues his Masters of Whiskey certification.

The world of whiskey, or whisky, can be a confusing one, so we’re here to make things a little easier for you. We have some guides on the different types of whiskey and the specific types of bourbon you’ll see, but we’re going to cover two types of whiskey in particular – rye vs bourbon. How are the two different? How are they similar?

Rye and Bourbon are interchangeable in many cocktails, and they can easily be confused for each other. We’re going to discuss some of the legal differences between bourbon and rye whiskey, as well as differences in the grains and flavors imparted.

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What is Bourbon? What is Rye?

The alcohol industry is a heavily regulated one, especially here in the states, so we’re going to discuss some of the legal definitions between rye vs bourbon.

Legal Requirements of Bourbon

Bourbon is America’s whiskey. Scotland has scotch, Ireland has Irish whiskey, Mexico (or parts of it) has Tequila, the Cognac region of France has Cognac, America has Bourbon.

Essentially speaking, Bourbon is whiskey made in America from a grain mashbill containing at least 51% corn. That’s the most basic understanding of bourbon, but just meeting these requirements does not make your whiskey bourbon. Let’s take a look at everything involved in what makes bourbon, bourbon.

  • Made in the United States
  • Contain at least 51% corn
    • Must use cereal grains for any remaining portion of the mash
  • Distilled to no more than 160 proof
  • Barrel entry proof of 125 or lower
  • Aged in new charred oak
    • no age requirement on length
    • Minimum 2 years for ‘straight’ bourbon
    • Minimum 4 years for NAS Bourbon
    • Cannot be aged in any other barrels
  • Must not contain any additives
  • Bottled to at least 80 proof

These are all the legal requirements that must be met for a whiskey to be labeled as a bourbon.

Legal Requirements of Rye Whiskey

Rye whiskey can be a little more complicated because it can be made anywhere, and each country will have it’s own laws and regulations that determine what a whiskey is. For example, in Canada, rye whiskey may not contain much, if any, rye in the mashbill. However, we’re in the US, and most of our readers are, too. So, we’re going to take a look at American rye whiskey.

  • Made from a grain mash containing at least 51% rye
  • Distilled to no more than 160 proof
  • Barrel entry proof of 125 or lower
  • Aged in new charred oak
    • No age requirement on length
    • ‘Straight’ rye is aged a minimum of 2 years and contains no additives
    • No Age Statement (NAS) rye is aged a minimum of 4 years
  • Bottled to at least 80 proof

These are the legal requirements that must be met for an American whiskey to be labeled as a rye.

Rye vs Bourbon Requirements

It may appear that the only difference between bourbon and American rye is the use of 51% corn or 51% rye, but that’s not quite the case.

The primary grain is the biggest difference, but rye doesn’t have the same standards as bourbon. For one, rye whiskey that is not labeled as ‘straight’ can contain additives such as coloring or flavoring.

Second, once a bourbon is barrel finished (aged in a secondary barrel such as ex port, ex sherry, rum, or any other cask) it’s no longer bourbon, it’s a whiskey specialty. Rye, on the other hand, must be aged in new charred oak, but rye whiskey is still rye whiskey if it spends time in a different cask.

Bourbon vs Rye

Rye vs Bourbon Grains

As we mentioned, the biggest difference between rye and bourbon is the primary grain used. Bourbon uses a corn-dominant mash and rye uses a rye-dominant mash. How does corn impact the flavor? How does rye?

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What Does Rye do to a Whiskey?

Rye grain was originally popular in eastern Europe because it can grow almost anywhere, and it holds soil from erosion. When Germans emigrated to America in the 1700’s, they brought this knowledge with them to the states and to Canada. In particular, many of the German settlers found themselves in Pennsylvania, and rye whiskey became the most abundant whiskey in America.

Rye whiskey is something a lot of people love and a lot of people hate. It brings about grainy, earthy, bitter, and spice-filled flavors and aromas.

People talk a lot about ‘rye spice’ because you’ll get a lot black pepper, clove, cinnamon. It can also be quite herbal with flavors of mint or thyme. Rye is packed with flavor, but it’s also known to impart a more dry and sharp experience.

History of rye whiskey

What Does Corn do to a Whiskey?

Corn took over as the most popular grain used in American whiskey right around the time of prohibition and the great depression. In part due to the rise of bourbon but also because the rye market collapsed. With the collapse of the whiskey market, there wasn’t much demand for rye. Corn…. well people still needed to eat. Corn became cheaper and easier to produce and so it flourished.

Corn is sweet and strong and there’s really not much else to it from a flavor perspective. However, the texture and mouthfeel is more on the oily/creamy side.

Corn vs Rye

A typical bourbon mashbill uses about ~75% corn and the rest is split between rye or wheat (usually rye) and malted barley. Malt is used for the extra enzymes needed for fermentation and to add some roundness. Rye is used to add some flavor and spice.

Rye whiskey, on the other hand, is packed with flavor and spice, but is criticized for it’s sharp, dry texture. You’ll see some barely legal rye whiskey containing the minimum 51% rye grain, but you’ll also see plenty of rye whiskeys using 95% or 100% rye.


When it comes to rye vs bourbon whiskey, which do you like? More importantly, what is it about them that you like? I love rye whiskey, but I also love a viscous and creamy mouthfeel. You know what often gives me the best of both worlds? A high-rye bourbon.

The more you know what you like and why you like it, the more comfortable you’ll feel picking out new whiskeys to try.

From a legal standpoint, bourbon and rye are quite similar. In America, and in our modern times, there are strict regulations that both of these whiskeys have to follow. Rye whiskey gets a little more leniency, but the primary difference is the use of corn or rye as the dominant grain. Rye has your flavor and spice and corn brings a nice mouthfeel with very sweet tastes, but both can make a delicious whiskey.

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