In American Pie by Don McLean he sings “Them good old boys were drinking Whiskey and Rye.” But aren’t Whiskey and Rye basically the same thing?
How about the song One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer by George Thorogood & The Destroyers? Why would you have a shot of one kind of Whiskey followed by a different kind of Whiskey?
Whiskey seems like an easy enough topic to discuss but there are so many questions and misconceptions. What counts as Whiskey and how specifically do Bourbon vs Rye fit into the equation? Let’s get to the bottom of this (bottle).
Bourbon or Rye
Is Bourbon vs Rye even a matchup? Should they be playing on the same team? It’s ok to relax as the showdown of Rye vs Bourbon is one that can and should be tackled. They share many things but there are also some distinct differences.
Whiskey as it’s spelled in the United States and Ireland, and Whisky as it’s spelled in Scotland, Canada, and Japan are the same beverage.
Whiskey is a distilled alcoholic spirit made by fermenting grains, distilling, and aging in wooden barrels. There are also many types of Whiskey based on the ingredients, production process, and region.
Some of the kinds of Whiskey most worth mentioning are Irish Whiskey, Canadian Blended Whisky, Tennessee Whiskey, Scotch Whisky, Bourbon Whiskey, and Rye Whiskey.
Bourbon has been around since the late 1700s. Records on the early days of Bourbon are not the most reliable – possibly due to taking too many sips while writing. There are a few stories on who was the first Bourbon distiller.
Still, it is generally accepted that European immigrants that settled in Kentucky are responsible for the eventual creation of Bourbon.
To be considered Bourbon the Whiskey must be produced in the United States (bonus points if it is also made in Kentucky), the grain bill must be at least 51% corn, and it must be aged in new charred oak barrels. Bourbon has a sweet and oaky flavor.
Rye Whiskey has also been around since the late 1700s but in the Northern part of the United States – like Pennsylvania and Maryland.
Rye Whiskey has never been as popular as Bourbon but it has been seeing a bit of a comeback in recent years. Rye Whiskey is made with at least 51% rye in the grain bill and has a decidedly spicier taste than Bourbon.
How Are They Made?
Both Rye Whiskey and Bourbon Whiskey go through many of the same steps but with different tasting results. Rye Whiskey starts with a mix of grains that include 51% rye.
The grains are then mixed with water and yeast while being heated to create a mash. The blend is then fermented for a number of days to create the alcohol. When ready the liquid is distilled which concentrates and purifies the alcohol.
At this point, you could start inviting your friends over for a drinking party but it wouldn’t be Rye Whiskey yet. That’s because it still needs to be aged in charred oak barrels usually for at least two years and sometimes for much longer.
How is making Bourbon different from making Rye? Well, the only real difference in the process is the mash bill. Bourbon needs to be made with at least 51% corn. Other than that the basic steps are the same.
Depending on the Bourbon or Rye brand there are different methods that can be used to achieve a unique spirit. For example, distillation can be done with a pot still or a column still. Pot stills are often done one batch at a time and column stills run continuously.
What Are They Made Of?
As previously alluded to the main ingredient for Bourbon is corn. Bourbon starts with 51% or more corn in addition to various percentages of barley and rye. Rye, on the other hand, starts with 51% or more Rye with barley and corn making up the rest of the grain bill.
Bourbon and Rye are aged in American White Oak barrels that have been charred at hundreds of degrees. The char adds to the flavor of the spirit over the numerous years of aging.
How Are They Similar?
It is probably becoming abundantly clear that there are a lot of similarities between Bourbon vs Rye. They are both types of Whiskey, they are both distilled spirits, they are both high-proof, they are both brown liquors, and they both originated in the United States of America.
That said, it is still very easy to tell the difference between the two the moment it hits your lips. Bourbon hits you with a sweet, vanilla, oak flavor and Rye hits you with that grassy peppery spice.
Price, Size, Color, Alcohol Percentage Comparison
You know those tiny liquor bottles you see on the plane or in little gift sets? You can get those bottles filled with Bourbon or Rye.
You know the giant bottles you might see on an endcap in a liquor or grocery store trying to draw attention to some particular brand? Those can be Rye or Bourbon as well.
Now, which sizes are you most likely to come across and purchase? Single-serve 50 ml certainly once in a while but after that, it will be one of the three main sizes of 375 ml, 750 ml, and 1.75 L.
How much for these various bottles of Rye and Bourbon? The price often depends on the age, barrel, and how small the batch is. The good news is that you can get some great Whiskey without breaking the bank.
There are some fantastic bottles of Rye for around (and under) $25 for 750 ml like George Dickel Rye, Old Forester Straight Rye Whiskey, Old Overholt Rye, and Bulleit Rye. If you’re not careful you could also end up spending much more and even hundreds of dollars on a bottle of WhistlePig Rye.
Bourbon prices have a similar trajectory as Rye. For under $25 you can have a 750 ml bottle of Four Roses, Jim Beam, or Old Forester Bourbon. There are also rare and ultra hyped up Bourbon that cost hundreds at retail and even has a second-hand market for thousands of dollars.
Pappy Van Winkle is a line of Bourbon that is almost never on the shelf and will cost you big time.
Rye and Bourbon are both very strong spirits. They will always be at least 80 Proof (40% alcohol by volume) and are often even higher than that. The expected range is between 80 Proof and 100 Proof though there are some varieties that routinely hit 120 and 130 Proof.
For example, Old Forester Straight Rye Whiskey and Old Overholt Rye are both 100 Proof. Four Roses is 80 Proof, Pappy Van Winkle is 90.4 Proof, and Old Forester can be 100 Proof.
Bourbon and Rye are both some variations of golden to orange-brown in color. Before the barrel aging process they start out clear but the time in the oak adds natural colors to the liquid.
How to Drink?
Rye and Bourbon are immensely flexible alcohols both in their total uses and in a wide range of cocktails. If you want to savor the Whiskey it should be served neat, with a few drops of water, or over ice.
You can’t go wrong with Whiskey and soda, a Manhattan, an Old Fashioned, or a Sazerac. Here are a couple of great Bourbon and Rye cocktail recipes:
- 2 oz Rye Whiskey
- ½ oz Lemon Juice
- ½ oz Orange Juice
- 2 tsp Grenadine
- Cherries (for Garnish)
Combine all liquid ingredients in an ice-filled cocktail shaker. Shake well, strain into a chilled glass, and garnish with cherries.
- 2 oz Bourbon
- ½ oz Coffee Liqueur
- 2 Dashes Orange Bitters
- Orange Zest (for Garnish)
Combine the liquids in a mixing glass with ice. Stir for 30 seconds, strain into a cocktail glass, and garnish with the orange peel.
Bourbon is a spirit with a sweeter taste. When looking for alternatives for Bourbon you will also want to think about that sweetness and select Brandy, Rum, Cognac, or Tennessee Whiskey.
As we covered Rye Whiskey has a spicy taste. You could look for other bottles in the Whiskey family that have a high amount of rye but not enough to be considered Rye.
Bourbon vs Rye FAQs
Which came first?
Both of these came into the world in the late 1700s so we’ll call this one a draw.
Which is more popular?
Due to it being sweeter and easier on the palate Bourbon is the more popular Whiskey.
Which is stronger?
Rye and Bourbon are strong alcohols. They typically range from 80 Proof to 100 Proof with some even stronger.