Rye vs. Bourbon Whiskey Guide

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If you want to expand your whiskey repertoire, you’ve probably already noticed the debate between rye vs. bourbon.

Reducing it to a simple argument is like saying you must pick steak and seafood—it’s doable, but you’re shortchanging yourself. There’s so much more to these types of whiskey than meets the eye.

In this article, we’ll break down the differences between rye and bourbon whiskey so you can decide when grocery shopping or ordering a round of drinks at your local watering hole.

We’ll also examine how each spirit is made, how they differ in taste, and which type best suits different drinking occasions. Let’s go!

Rye vs. Bourbon Whiskey: Main Differences

Rye vs Bourbon Differences

When it comes to whiskey, you often hear the terms “rye” and “bourbon” tossed around. Whether you’re a whiskey aficionado or just getting started with your whiskey journey, it can be hard to really understand the difference between these two types of whiskies.

The biggest distinction between rye and bourbon is the grain used to make them. Rye whiskey is made with at least 51 percent rye grain mash, while bourbon is made with at least 51 percent corn grain mash. It tends to be spicier and more intense, while bourbon is smoother and sweeter.

Rye also has a higher alcohol content than bourbon—around 50-60%, compared to 40-50%.

No matter what type of whiskey you’re sipping on, rye and bourbon are distilled spirits that have gone through strict regulations under the Bourbon Whiskey & Spirits Act of 1964. So no matter which type you choose, rest assured that you’ll taste a high-quality spirit!

Introduction to Rye and Bourbon

Rye and Bourbon Whiskies in Glass

Two popular options for aged spirits are rye whiskey and bourbon whiskey. But what makes them so different? In this guide, we’ll compare rye vs. bourbon in terms of their ingredients, distillation process, flavor profiles, and more—so you can decide which is best for your palate.

First, start with some basics: rye whiskey is made from a mash containing at least 51% rye grain, and bourbon whiskey is made from a mash containing at least 51% corn. This difference in the type of grain used gives each spirit its distinct flavor profile—rye whiskey has a bold spiciness, whereas bourbon whiskey is known for its sweetness.

The environment in which each spirit was distilled also adds to its flavor profile. For example, rye whiskies are typically aged in charred oak barrels while bourbons are aged in new oak barrels—which contributes to bourbons’ smooth and sweet taste compared to the spicy and bold taste of ryes.

What is Rye Whiskey?

Rocks Glass with Rye Whiskey

Rye whiskey is a type of whiskey that, you guessed it, is made from rye. It has become increasingly popular in recent years as more people are looking for alternatives to the more traditional bourbon whiskey. But what sets it apart?

Unique Taste

Rye has a different taste than bourbon due to the different grains used in each distillation process. Rye whiskey tends to be spicier and has a fruitier smell and taste than bourbon whiskey. Its rich, bold flavor makes it a great addition to cocktails or sipped neat.

High Rye Content

Rye whiskey must contain at least 51% rye grain content for it to be considered rye—in comparison, bourbon only requires 51% corn content. The rest of the grain makeup traditionally consists of malted barley and other grains like wheat or rye, depending on the distiller’s preference.

Distillation Process

The way rye is distilled also distinguishes it from bourbon—rye whiskey is distilled at lower temperatures and higher proofs than other whiskies. This results in a slightly harsher product filtered more often than bourbon because of its higher proof levels. This creates a spirit with more complexity and depth, making it an interesting addition to any home bar.

What is Bourbon Whiskey

Glasses of Bourbon with Bottle

Let’s talk about bourbon whiskey. It’s essentially American whiskey made with at least 51% corn and has some stringent rules about how it should be made. To be called bourbon whiskey, it has to be distilled in America and aged in brand-new charred oak barrels for no less than two years.

Bourbon tends to have a sweet flavor profile due to the corn used, but you’ll also pick up woody and toasty notes from the barrels. It’s more robust than rye whiskey—you can taste notes like caramel, vanilla, and baking spices. Bourbon also tends to have a higher alcohol content than rye because some distilleries don’t use water when diluting it before bottling.

It often gets confused with Tennessee whiskey, which is similar but also has an extra step—it runs through charcoal made from maple wood before bottling—this gives the whiskey an earthy taste like leather or freshly ground coffee.

So when you’re thinking about which type of whisky you want, consider these important points: the flavor profile (sweet or spicy), the ABV (higher or lower), and whether or not you want an extra step like charcoal filtering with your bottle of whisky.

Differences in the Mash Bill

Corn for Making Bourbon Whiskey

When it comes to the mash bills, things get even more interesting. The mash bill is what distillers use to make whiskey, and it’s usually a combination of grains. To make Rye whiskey, the ingredients must include at least 51% rye grain, while Bourbon whiskey must contain at least 51% corn.

But that’s not the only difference you’ll find in the mashes:

  • Rye generally has more of a spicy flavor profile compared to bourbon. It is also known for its dry and tart finish.
  • Bourbon has a sweeter taste because of its higher corn content and is typically characterized as having a full-bodied flavor.
  • Rye whiskeys also tend to have higher alcohol content than bourbon (54%-80% vs. 40%-60%).

The difference between rye and bourbon doesn’t end with just the grains used in their mashes — each one will offer a unique mix of flavors, making them distinct. Whether you prefer sweet or spicy, there’s sure to be something for everyone among these classic American whiskeys!

Distillation Process for Rye and Bourbon

Distilling Whiskey Liquor

So, what’s the difference in the distillation processes for rye and bourbon?

Well, for starters, it’s important to note that whisky is created by distilling a fermented grain mash and then aging it in a wooden barrel. The Mash Bill, or grain mixture used in fermentation, sets rye whiskey apart from bourbon whiskey.

Rye Whiskey

Rye whiskeys are made with a mash bill comprising at least 51% rye, while the other grains typically include barley and wheat. These whiskeys are spicier and have a more intense flavor profile than bourbons.

Bourbon Whiskey

Bourbon whiskeys are made with a mash bill consisting of at least 51% corn and other grains like wheat and barley. These whiskeys tend to be sweeter because the corn delivers somewhat of an inherent sweetness compared to rye whiskey.

Aging Requirements for Rye and Bourbon

Barrels of Whiskey Aging

When it comes to whiskey, the aging process is key. Like a fine wine or an aged cheese, the longer whiskey rests in barrels, the better its flavor. However, regarding rye and bourbon, there are different aging requirements to be called what they are.


Rye whiskey must be aged at least two years in charred oak barrels to be called “straight” rye whiskey. It is often aged for much longer than that; however, four—year—old rye is fairly common, and six-year-old is not unusual.


Bourbon whiskey must be at least four years old if it wants to call itself “straight” bourbon, although again, many bourbons are aged for much longer than this—some for up to 12 or even 20 years. As with rye whiskey, the barrel used for aging must be made from new charred oak.

So really, there’s no definitive answer when comparing the aging process between rye and bourbon—but overall, these two types of whiskeys can benefit from longer barrel aging times. The result might just surprise you—the flavor of rye vs. bourbon can be quite different after some extra time in the barrel!

Tasting Notes: Comparing the Flavors of Rye vs. Bourbon

Tasting Whiskey Bourbon or Rye

Trying to decide which whiskey to buy? Comparing the flavors of rye vs. bourbon can help you narrow down the decision.


Rye whiskey has an earthier flavor than bourbon, with a sharper taste and strong spicy notes. It also tends to give off sweet notes of dried fruit, like raisins or cherries.


Bourbon is sweeter than rye, tasting more like caramel and butterscotch. It also has hints of apples and vanilla, oak, and smoky notes on the finish.

Not sure which one is for you? If you’re looking for whiskey with bold flavor and a kick of spice, then go for rye. But if you want something a bit sweeter, opt for bourbon whiskey.

Popular Rye Brands

Rye Whiskey Bottles Different Popular Brands

If you’re in the market for some high-quality rye whiskey, there are several popular brands that you should look out for. Here’s a quick rundown of some of the best sources of rye whiskey out there:

Bulleit Rye

Bulleit Rye is a classic and one of the most popular rye whiskeys. It has sweet and spicy notes, aged for around four years in charred oak barrels. One of its biggest draws is its price — it costs less than many competitors but still delivers great flavor and quality.

George Dickel Rye

Another top-notch rye whiskey is George Dickel Rye. It has a smooth and mellow taste with a hint of caramel and a subtly spicy finish. It’s distilled with unique ingredients, such as corn, rye, and malted barley, so you know you’re getting something special when you try this whiskey.

High West Double Rye!

High West Double Rye! is another great choice if you’re looking for an interesting twist on classic rye whiskey. It is made with two types of rye — 95% rye mash bill with 5% malt barley — giving it complex flavors that include butterscotch and spice.

Overall, no matter which brand of rye whiskey you choose, research beforehand to get the best possible bottle for your needs.

Popular Bourbon Brands

Bourbon Whiskey Bottles Different Popular Brands

Now for bourbon. Bourbon must contain 51% corn, and its flavor is sweet, with notes of vanilla and caramel. Because of its sweeter flavor, it’s often the better choice for making cocktails or sipping straight!

Wild Turkey, Maker’s Mark, and Woodford Reserve are popular bourbon brands. You should know that some bourbons need to be aged at least two years or more before they can be sold—so make sure you check the label if you’re after a specific aged whiskey.

Cocktails That Feature Rye or Bourbon

Old Fashioned Bourbon Whiskey Cocktail

If you want to get creative with your whiskey, why not try a classic cocktail? Whether you prefer rye or bourbon, you can make no shortage of delicious drinks.

Rye Whiskey Cocktails

Rye whiskey is versatile and can be used in classic cocktails like the Manhattan and the Old Fashioned or Sazerac. Some other drinks which feature rye whiskey include the Boulevardier, Vieux Carre, Seelbach, and Whiskey Sour.

Bourbon Whiskey Cocktails

Bourbon whiskey tastes sweeter than rye whiskey, which is great for mixing with fruity flavors like apple, peach, or cherry. You can use bourbon to make the classic Mint Julep or the popular Whisky Smash. Other bourbon drinks include Kentucky Mule, Ward 8, Boulevardier, Jack Rose, and Horsefeathers.

Although they have different tastes and textures, rye and bourbon make delicious cocktails! Check out some recipes online to start your mixology journey with these two classic whiskeys.


Pouring Whiskey into Rocks Glass with Ice

Let’s finish this rye vs. bourbon whiskey comparison guide with frequently asked questions.

What’s the difference between rye and bourbon?

The main difference between rye and bourbon is that rye whiskey is made from at least 51% grain, whereas bourbon is made from at least 51% corn. Rye tends to be spicier and has more bite than bourbon, which is usually smoother and sweeter.

Can I make my own rye or bourbon whiskey?

The answer is yes! Making your own whiskey is possible; you only need the right equipment and ingredients to create a delicious homemade batch. The best way to get started is by finding a reliable recipe, so you know exactly how much of each ingredient you will need.

Is rye or bourbon better for cocktails?

Both types of whiskey can be used for cocktails, depending on preference. You should go for rye if you want something with some spice and bite. If you want something smooth and sweet, then go for a bourbon.


Ultimately, it comes down to taste. Some prefer sweeter and slightly smoky whiskey, like bourbon, while others enjoy rye’s spicy and intense flavors. The good news is that there are plenty of options for rye vs. bourbon whiskey.

Whether you’re a novice or a whiskey connoisseur, be sure to take your time to explore the different varieties of rye and bourbon and discover which one you prefer. With so many whiskey brands available on the market, you’re bound to find one or more that suit your taste. So pull up a chair, pour your favorite whiskey, and enjoy the experience. Cheers!