Newcomers to whiskey often wonder what distinguishes a bourbon from a rye. After all, the two brown liquids often smell and taste quite similar, they can be used interchangeably in many cocktails, and they’re impossible to tell apart on sight alone.
But there are significant differences between bourbon and rye that impact their flavor and, ultimately, how a drinker might want to enjoy them. This is what to know about the two major American whiskey styles, and how they are similar and different.
What Is Bourbon?
First things first: Contrary to what whiskey-tasting know-it-alls may tell you, bourbon does not have to be made in Kentucky. It can be made anywhere in the United States, including U.S. territories like Puerto Rico (although no one has done that yet).
Bourbon must be made from a fermented mash—meaning cooked grains mixed with yeast—that consists of at least 51% corn. The rest of the mash can be any other type of cereal grain, but some combination of malted barley, rye, and/or wheat are most common.
It must be distilled to no more than 80% ABV, and “proofed down” (which is to say, diluted) with water to enter the barrel at no more than 62.5% ABV.
Bourbon has to be aged in a new charred-oak container, but there’s no minimum aging requirement: It can be in there for a day, or even just a minute or two. To be labeled “straight,” however, a bourbon must be at least two years old. If it’s under four, the label must state its age.
Bourbon must be bottled at a minimum of 40% ABV, though you can find it at lower proofs in certain export markets, namely Australia, for tax reasons.
What Is Rye Whiskey?
Rye whiskey can be made anywhere in the world, but to be labeled rye in the United States it must adhere to certain rules: It must be made from a fermented mash of at least 51% rye grain (the rest can be other cereal grains). Like bourbon, it must be distilled to no more than 80% ABV, and proofed down to enter the barrel at no more than 62.5% ABV. It must be matured in new charred-oak containers, and bottled at a minimum of 40% ABV.
How Are Bourbon and Rye Whiskey Similar?
Bourbon and rye whiskey share many things in common, such as maximum distillation proof and aging in new charred-oak barrels. They are both usually made in column stills, although that’s not a requirement. Many bourbon brands, such as Jim Beam, Wild Turkey, and Woodford Reserve, have a rye-whiskey sibling that’s made at the same distillery, though not always: Bulleit rye, for example, comes from MGP Distillery in Indiana, while the brand’s bourbon is all made in Kentucky.
In addition, bourbon and rye can taste quite similar depending on their recipes. If you compare a bourbon with a 49% rye mash bill to a similarly aged rye with a 49% corn mash bill, you might find the two to be nearly indistinguishable in flavor terms.
How Do Bourbon and Rye Differ?
Bourbon can only be made in the United States, whereas rye whiskey can, and does, come from all over: Canada, the Netherlands, Germany, the U.K., and even Australia.
Nothing, other than water, can be added to bourbon, whether or not it is labeled “straight.” For rye whiskey, the rules are a little different. Straight rye cannot have any additives, but if the rye isn’t labeled as straight, or if it’s a blend of straight ryes, up to 2.5% of the volume can be “harmless coloring/flavoring/blending materials.” Since these additives do not have to be disclosed, it’s impossible to tell which ryes might include them, although Templeton Rye is a well-known example.
Flavor-wise, bourbon tends to be sweeter and has a more oily mouthfeel than rye due to its high corn content. Common flavor notes in bourbon include vanilla, caramel, nuts, oak, dark fruit, chocolate, and mild spice.
Rye whiskey’s flavor profile can vary considerably depending on its overall rye content. A minimum-51% rye, like those traditionally made by the big Kentucky distilleries, will taste quite similar to bourbon. But 100% rye—a style that often comes from Canada—typically has rich spice and herbal notes, enhanced by flavors derived from barrel aging such as vanilla and oak.
What About Tennessee Whiskey?
Tennessee whiskey is a type of bourbon. It adheres to all the requirements of bourbon, with the added step of being filtered through sugar-maple charcoal prior to barreling—and, of course, it must be made and aged in Tennessee.
When Would You Want to Use Each Type of Whiskey?
The most well-known whiskey cocktails, the Old Fashioned and the Manhattan, can be made with either bourbon or rye whiskey, according to the drinker’s preference, as can the Whiskey Sour, the Hot Toddy, and the Boulevardier and its cousin, the Old Pal.
Some cocktails call specifically for one or the other. The Mint Julep, for example, is always made with bourbon, while the Sazerac is strictly rye-based (unless you’re going old-school and using only cognac).
When considering which whiskey to use, keep in mind that rye generally makes a drier cocktail, while bourbon’s oily mouthfeel can enhance the drink’s body. Regardless of your choice, make sure the whiskey’s proof is appropriate: Too strong and it will overpower the rest of the ingredients whereas at only 40% ABV, it could get lost. Whiskeys at 43% to 46% ABV hit the middle-of-the-road mark for most cocktails.