The Difference Between Rye and Bourbon

You probably know that rye and bourbon both fall under the category of “whiskey” (and if you didn’t know, now you do), but do you know the differences between the two?

Before we dive in, a quick refresher: Whiskey is a distilled alcoholic beverage made from grain mashes of different varieties. Rye and bourbon are both defined by the specific types of grain used to make them, just as cognac and armagnac brandy are made from specific types of grapes. But that’s not the only thing that dictates whether a whiskey is a rye or a bourbon. Location and methodology come into play as well. Here, how to tell the difference between rye and bourbon, and what the two strong, brown spirits have in common.

Bourbon Barrel in Kentucky
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Bourbon must be made in the U.S.; rye can be made anywhere.

Whiskey can only be classified as bourbon if it is made in the U S of A, similar to how tequila can only be classified as tequila if it is made in Jalisco, Mexico. Rye, on the other hand, doesn’t have to be made in America to be classified as a rye. In fact, Canada has been producing rye for about as long as Canada has been Canada.

wheat mash being mixed
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Bourbon must be distilled primarily from corn; rye must be distilled primarily from rye (depending on where it’s made).

Bourbon must be made with a mash bill of over 51 percent corn. Similarly, American rye made must be made from a mash containing over 51 percent rye. Canada is much more lax about their rye, and requires only that the mash contains any amount of rye.

Glasses of whiskey on a barrel

Bourbon has a rich taste; rye has a spicier taste.

Some studies claim that rye and bourbon are indistinguishable. We respectfully disagree. Most bourbon lovers will agree that bourbon has a full-bodied, caramely taste. Rye, on the other hand, has a spicier and more grain-forward flavor.

two whiskey glasses cheersing
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But bourbon and rye do have a few things in common.

Though the two forms of whiskey differ in many ways, they share a lot of similarities. For starters, neither rye nor bourbon can have an ABV higher than 62.5 percent when first barreled, and neither can be bottled and distributed at higher than 80 percent ABV (any higher and we get into moonshine territory). Also, while neither spirit has a minimum aging period, in order to be considered “straight rye” or “straight bourbon” they have to be aged in casks for over two years.

Now that you know the differences and similarities between the two delicious spirits, try them out side-by-side in classic whiskey cocktails like the Manhattan or the Mint Julep. After all that learning, you earned a drink or two.