With American whiskey, two names stand out to me more than any other: Rye and Bourbon. Both are steeped in tradition, rich in flavour, and deep-rooted in American history.
As a whiskey man, I enjoy rye and bourbon for different reasons. Rye whiskey is ideal as a thoughtful sipper due to its spiciness, whilst bourbon’s sweetness is perfect for getting any party started.
Interestingly, I discovered that each is legally protected by strict laws to maintain its integrity, although neither has a minimum ageing period.
Rye vs Bourbon
Rye vs bourbon: Although these whiskeys are made in similar ways, these two amber-coloured delights have very different flavour profiles.
Ingredients & Production
To be deemed a rye whiskey, the contents of the mash bill must include at least 51% rye (a type of grass). The remaining bill ingredients can be made up of corn, malted barley, or wheat.
After fermentation, the rye whiskey may be at most 80% ABV (160 proof). It is watered down, and when it is piped into new charred oak barrels for storage, it may not exceed 62.5% ABV (125 proof) and is usually bottled at 40% ABV (80 proof).
On the other hand, bourbon is distilled from mash consisting of at least 51% corn, with the rest being rye, wheat, or malted barley mixed with yeast and water.
Bourbon is distilled and diluted to 80% ABV (160 proof). Before adding it to newly charred white oak barrels, its ABV must be 62.5% (125 proof). Once ready for bottling, the liquor cannot be less than 40% ABV (80 proof).
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Whiskey Storing & Ageing
Rye whiskey has more aggressive spicy notes with fruity hints. Compared to other whiskeys, rye whiskeys can be astringent, with a more decisive boozy kick in the finish with a slightly bitter aftertaste.
Storing and ageing rye whiskey in new charred oak barrels adds vanilla notes to the liquid. The longer it ages, the deeper and more pronounced the notes of vanilla and spice become.
Although bourbon can be replicated anywhere in the world, the term bourbon is only used for products produced in the United States.
Bourbon may not contain any additives, colourings, or flavourings. As a result, it benefits from big, bold flavours of vanilla, oak, and caramel that tend to make the whole experience sweeter than rye whiskey.
Bourbon is carefully aged for at least two years in newly charred oak barrels to be recognised as a straight bourbon.
On The Nose
On the nose, rye whiskey is spicy with notes of pepper. Notes of spiced fruits are also evident depending on the distiller. The charred barrels give a smokey oak note with traces of vanilla.
I would describe bourbon as having a sweet notes such as butterscotch, caramel, and vanilla. Light hints of spiciness from black pepper, clove, and tobacco leaves appear with aromas of smoked oak and traces of citrus or fresh apple.
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On The Palate
Rye whiskeys range in flavour depending on the amount of rye used in the ingredients. Still, they range from mild, spicy, toasted flavours of oak and hints of vanilla to more astringent nuances with a dry, spicy finish and hints of liquorice.
Bourbon is made from naturally sweeter corn. This lends itself to the bourbon, creating a sweeter and smoother whiskey with recognisable notes of caramel and vanilla infused from the charred barrels and nuances of nutty profiles from the oak.
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The best rye whiskeys are aged between six and eight years and can be enjoyed neat on the rocks to open the whiskey flavours or mixed with ginger ale. The spiciness of the rye whiskey blended with the spiciness of the ginger ale makes for an excellent combination.
Thanks to its smoothness, connoisseurs thoroughly enjoy bourbon poured straight at room temperature and served in a rock glass. However, it also mixes well with ginger ale and soda to bring out the spiciness and complement the natural sweetness of bourbon.
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My rye vs bourbon debate is now officially over. In summary, corn being sweeter than rye lends bourbon a sweeter profile, whereas raw whiskey is smokier, spicier and deeper.
Both have similar aromas, although I would describe rye as smokier and spicier, whereas bourbon leans more on the sweeter side on the scent scale.
Between the two, there is a considerable difference in flavour profile due to the grain type with which each is made. I personally feel that bourbon is an easy-going sipper, whereas rye whiskey is more of an acquired taste.
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