So, it’s rye vs bourbon time. Today, we’ll show you why there’s no competition when it comes to these two. There’s a right answer in this “battle.” And we’ll let you know that right answer very soon.
Ready to understand both rye and bourbon? How are they similar? How are they different? How can we experience both in the best way? Let’s do this thing.
We thank Justin Nierengarten, our Kentucky-born resident whiskey enthusiast, connoisseur, and guide. Follow this dude now @bourbontraveler. He gets around. Around the whiskey town, that is. We’re always learning from his journey and we think you will, too. It’s great to have him with us again.
Rye vs Bourbon Whiskey: Get to Know Them Both
Life’s most difficult decisions: Coke or Pepsi, Ford or Chevy, Jordan or LeBron? Now, it’s rye vs. bourbon. Society likes to continually force us to choose a side. Fortunately, my fellow whiskey drinkers, the only correct answer when determining your whiskey preference is “BOTH.”
We’ll initially dive into the similarities between these spirits while also mentioning the ever-important differences. I will share how I developed a passion for both spirits while also giving you some tasting notes, comparing bourbons and ryes from three different distilleries. For the sake of consistency and fair comparison, I am going to focus on rye whiskey produced in America throughout the article.
Rye vs Bourbon: The Similarities
Bourbon, as well as rye whiskey, must be distilled completely from grain. They must not be distilled to any proof exceeding 160 and may not be barreled above 125 proof.
When it comes to aging, both require a new, charred-oak container. (Whiskey can age in any shape or size container. Typically, barrels are used simply because they are easier to transport.) Contrary to popular belief, there is no age minimum for either whiskey. However, most distilleries age their product multiple years for cost-effectiveness because after a barrel has been used once, it cannot be used again for aging.
Keep an eye out for the word “straight” on your whiskey labels. This means the spirit has been aged at least two years. Further, distilleries are required to list the exact age if it is less than four years. But once it hits the four-year mark, an age statement is no longer required. Long story short, a straight bourbon or straight rye whiskey with no age stated on the label will be at least four years old.
Rye vs Bourbon: The Differences
Location, Location, Location
Bourbon has been deemed “America’s native spirit,” meaning that for a whiskey to be designated a bourbon, it must be produced in the United States. Rye whiskey, on the other hand, may be produced anywhere around the globe.
The Mash Bill
The foremost difference when comparing bourbon and rye whiskey, though, is the grain mash bill (recipe). As you would guess, the predominant grain in rye whiskey is, in fact, rye. The primary grain in bourbon is corn. In each whiskey, the dominant grain must make up at least 51% of the mash bill.
Typically–but not always–both whiskeys are produced from a combination of three grains. Bourbon usually has rye as a secondary grain, and rye whiskey typically has corn as a secondary grain. The third grain, often accounting for less than 10% of the mash bill, is malted barley. Barley adds little flavor, but aids in the sugar-to-alcohol conversion process during fermentation.
These are generalizations, as some whiskeys use different grains along with additional experimental grains. But the vast majority of these two whiskey types will be constructed using different ratios of these three primary grains.
Another significant difference between these two types of whiskeys can be found in their taste profiles. When comparing a straightforward, typical bourbon to a rye whiskey, bourbon will present sweeter with notes of caramel, vanilla, and dark chocolates. It’ll have hints of tobacco, oak, and leather depending on the age.
Conversely, rye whiskey will present with a little more spice up front, showing bits of pepper, cinnamon, and citrus notes with a more underlying, subtle sweetness. The differences in taste may be difficult to discern at first, but with a little experience, it’s definitely possible to tell these two apart.
Bourbon needs a little more age than rye whiskey to hit the sweet spot. If you are looking for a 7 to 10-year whiskey, go with bourbon. However, if you are looking at whiskeys aged 2 to 5 years, lean more toward rye. The 5 to 7-year range is typically good for both whiskeys.
One Man’s Whiskey Journey
My personal whiskey journey started in late 2014 when my wife and I decided to experience some of what Louisville had to offer. We took a tour of the old Stitzel-Weller distillery, which was currently occupied by the Bulleit brand. Little did I know at the time, this visit would spark my whiskey story that continues to this day.
Tasting the Difference
Noticing the slight nuances in taste and outright differences among bourbon, rye whiskey, and higher-proof bourbon, my curiosity was off and running. I began accumulating several readily available whiskeys along with tasting samples while working my way through the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.
It turns out, not only are whiskeys not all the same, but the vast differences in flavor profiles can be quite eye-opening. After tasting and loving a lot of the typical, everyday bourbons, I decided it was time to step up my game to barrel-proof whiskeys. I really enjoyed the experience of being able to taste whiskey directly from the barrel.
Proof Preference Notes
I have since backed off slightly from the extremely high-proof bourbons because I enjoy having more than one pour on occasion. Launching your evening with a 135-proof 2-ounce drink will not make your night last very long. My current proof preference is about 110 to 115 because I’m able to get some alcohol heat and good finish while maintaining the flavors the distillery wanted to present.
Rye Whiskey Obsession
My rye whiskey obsession began in early 2017 when I tasted an offering from Kentucky Owl, which I will revisit in my review section below. I had finished visiting all the large distilleries on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail and decided to venture into the world of the craft distillery.
Early on, I noticed a lot of craft distilleries bringing a rye whiskey to the market before a bourbon. As mentioned above, rye whiskeys appear to mature more quickly and are ready to be enjoyed around that 2-year mark.
The Full Gamut
Today, my personal collection consists of about 70 percent bourbon and 30 percent rye whiskey, which seems similarly proportioned to shelves at most liquor stores. Of these whiskeys, roughly half are large distillery production (Buffalo Trace, Four Roses, Heaven Hill, etc.), while the remaining half comes from small and even micro distilleries stationed all across the country.
Read our article on Best Craft Distilleries to see more from Justin.
I enjoy having the full gamut of offerings. No matter my craving, I always have the whiskey to match. Below you will find tasting notes for some bourbon and rye combinations from a single distillery. These fall into three different price ranges and production styles.
Rye vs. Bourbon Tasting Notes
THE OLD FORESTER
Old Forester Bourbon
- Composition: 100 proof, (72% corn, 18% rye, 10% barley)
- Nose: Vanilla, cherry cordials, red delicious apples
- Palate: Extremely smooth, dark chocolate, plums
- Finish: Short with a nice kick of spice
- Overall Rating: 3 out of 5
Old Forester Rye Whiskey
- Composition: 100 proof, (65% rye, 20% barley, 15% corn)
- Nose: Vanilla icing, strong orange peel
- Palate: Slight peppermint, honeysuckle, caramel apple
- Finish: Quick spice that fades into lingering sweetness
- Overall Rating: 3.25 out of 5
THE WILDERNESS TRAIL
Wilderness Trail Bourbon
- Composition: 100 proof, (64% corn, 24% wheat, 12% barley)
- Nose: Baked cornbread, heath bar, new oak
- Palate: Buttery popcorn, vanilla, honey
- Finish: Very sweet and short
- Overall Rating: 3 out of 5
Wilderness Trail Rye Whiskey
- Composition: 99.8 proof, (56% rye, 33% corn, 11% barley)
- Nose: Orange, oak, baked multigrain bread
- Palate: Burnt toast, peppercorns, dark fruits
- Finish: Spice quickly fades into drawn-out sweetness
- Overall Rating: 3.5 out of 5
THE KENTUCKY OWL
Kentucky Owl Bourbon Batch 7
- Composition: 118 proof, (mash bill undisclosed)
- Nose: Aged oak, cigar humidor, Caramello
- Palate: Tobacco, leather, caramel bomb
- Finish: Upfront spice to long brown sugar sweetness
- Overall Rating: 4 out of 5
Kentucky Owl Rye Whiskey Batch 1
- Composition: 110.6 proof, (mash bill undisclosed)
- Nose: Old wood, nutmeg, vanilla cream
- Palate: Leather, pipe tobacco, toffee, vanilla, oak
- Finish: Long oaky finish
- Overall Rating: 4.75 out of 5
Slow & Steady Wins This Race
The best advice I can give anyone–amateurs and seasoned veterans alike: Take your time, enjoy the process, and do not race to the finish line. My knowledge comes from years of visiting distilleries, stopping by many local liquor stores, and trying as many different bourbon and rye whiskeys as possible.
Make sure to enjoy every step of your own journey. My hope is that my contribution here enhances your experience. Cheers.
Bourbon & Rye Anytime!
It’s always a pleasure kicking it alongside Justin. So much knowledge. So much generosity. Do yourself a favor and don’t forget to follow him @bourbontraveler. You’ll be glad you did.
Do yourself another favor and check out our handcrafted decanters and whiskey glasses. We’ve got a unique lineup. And it’s all perfect for bourbon, rye, and any other good stuff you’re digging these days. If you need birthday presents, retirement gifts, or holiday happiness–these definitely deliver!
Before you peace out, please share your favorite bourbon or rye whiskey with us in the comments below. We love hearing from our Prestige community. We’re all sharing, learning, and growing here. Give us what you’ve got. And we’ve kept you long enough, folks. Party on.