RYE VS. BOURBON: WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE?
The world is full of dynamic duos. Batman and Robin. Garth and Wayne. Ketchup and mustard. And, if you’re a whiskey lover, bourbon and rye. What can we say? Some things just go together.
Besides both being alcoholic beverages, rye and bourbon have a lot in common. They’re likely the two most famous styles of American whiskey. They both boast mash bills that typically mix different kinds of grain. And they’re both aged in new, charred oak barrels, giving them similar flavor profiles with that distinctive caramel-coconut-vanilla flavor that makes American whiskey so delicious.
But there are some important differences, too. To learn more about the differences between bourbon and rye, it helps to know a little bit more about each style of whiskey.
Bourbon’s up there with baseball, apple pie, and the stars and stripes in terms of American icons. That’s because bourbon is the only style of whiskey that has to be made in the United States (although it certainly can be made outside of Kentucky).
Bourbon is always made from a mash of at least 51% corn. The remainder can be made up of any grain (even more corn!). In practice, it’s usually a combination of malt barley, and either wheat or rye.
After that fermented grain mash is distilled, it’s filled into wooden casks. Famously, to be called bourbon, the spirit has to be aged in new, charred oak barrels. There’s no specific length of time it has to age, but if it hasn’t been matured in a new, charred oak barrel, you can’t call a whiskey bourbon.
Bourbon is also prohibited from containing extra flavorings or additives. We subscribe to the school of thought that the “no flavorings” rule extends to finishing casks. Every Barrell Bourbon is just as it came from the cask--no finishing, no extra flavors, no manipulation.
Of course, that doesn’t mean we don’t sometimes put bourbon whiskey in finishing casks. Our award-winning Dovetail is a great example, which includes bourbons finished in Dunn Cabernet casks, late bottled vintage Port pipes, and blackstrap molasses rum casks. However, once we introduce bourbon to any kind of finishing cask, it always ends up with the more flexible “whiskey” category on the label.
Tennessee whiskey, which is filtered through maple charcoal in an extra step called the Lincoln County process, is sometimes considered a subcategory of bourbon. In addition to undergoing the Lincoln County process, Tennessee whiskey has to be made in Tennessee.
Many American rye whiskeys are made using a very similar process as bourbon. Instead of at least 51% corn, however, a rye mash has to be at least 51% rye. Just like bourbon, the remainder can be made of any grain the distiller chooses, including corn, wheat, malted barley, or more rye. After distillation, rye whiskey is also aged in new, charred oak barrels, giving it some of those same sweet vanilla flavors found in bourbon.
It’s important to note that Canadian whisky is sometimes called rye, but it can be very different from American rye whiskey. Canadian rye has to be aged for at least three years, but it can be matured in used casks and distilled from any grain--even mixtures that contain no rye at all!
BUT WHAT ABOUT THE TASTE?
Ah, now to the all-important question for most whiskey drinkers. How do they taste?
Bourbon and rye do taste different, although there’s definitely some overlap. It might be more useful to think of the two categories as a spectrum rather than a binary, since bourbon often has a not-insignificant portion of rye grain, and rye often has a not-insignificant dose of corn.
Generally speaking, bourbon tends to be mellower and more rounded than rye, which can have pronounced spicy, herbaceous, or floral undertones. But there are plenty of exceptions, like our sweet, earthy Barrell Rye Batch 003, or our gorgeously floral, almost tropical Barrell Bourbon Batch 026.
Thirsty for more? Check our website for the latest single barrel, small batch, and private release ryes and bourbons from Barrell Craft Spirits.