Whiskey 101: Difference between Bourbon and Rye


A few readers have written us asking various questions ranging from how to properly use a decanter to what is so special about a rye.  Rather than answer these questions individually, we are now beginning a series of articles discussing the basics of enjoying a good whiskey.  Our first post concerns the difference between a bourbon and a rye.

A bourbon, which is made with at least 51% corn, is generally produced to achieve a sweeter and more syrupy finish while a rye is generally produced with a spicier, drier taste profile in mind.  Traditionally, bourbons have been more popular neat or on the rocks while rye whiskies have been preferred for cocktail use.

Perhaps the largest factor impacting the development of rye and bourbon whiskies is simple geography and climate.  Rye grains tend to be relatively more prevalent in cooler climates, where they thrive despite harsh conditions and lead to comparatively more profitable harvests.  In contrast, corn is more prevalent in warmer climates.

Rye tends to have a more complex flavor profile than corn.  Its drier and more peppery taste generally makes a superior cocktail when compared to bourbon.  Rye is also notoriously difficult for distilleries to work with.  Mash bills can turn into porridge or glue with only slight deviations.  I suspect that the combination of rye being difficult to work with and the fact that most people cannot tell whether their cocktail has been made with a bourbon or a rye has traditionally depressed the rye market significantly.

Lately, we have been pleased to see a resurgence in rye offerings, a few of which we will begin reviewing over the next few weeks.  Distilleries from Woodford Reserve to Hudson have begun experimenting with ryes, and the early results have been quite positive.  Andrew and I both prefer ryes for cocktails and I have been known to sip rye neat when I have it handy.

In contrast, corn is one of the easier grains to distill.  Corn’s high sugar and starch content makes the grain significantly easier to work with and allows for higher yields of alcohol per input.  Because of the high sugar content, corn allows bourbon to achieve a much sweeter, even syrupy, taste.  In the history of whiskey, the sweeter, smooth taste allowed American bourbon to be one of the first whiskies that could be pleasantly consumed neat.

Because of its popularity, bourbon is often used in modern cocktails.  This practice generally does not achieve excellent results.  Many cocktails utilize sugar or some other sweet ingredient, which when combined with the sweetness of a bourbon, can lead to a sugary mess.

When in bar, a simplistic rule might be: use bourbon when drinking neat and rye in a cocktail.

Have questions about whiskey or Catholicism?  Write us at whiskeycatholic@gmail.com.

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