Rye Whiskey and Rye Bourbon: Is there a Difference?

Written by Peoples Bourbon Review Staff |
Published on:

“Rye whiskey” and “rye bourbon” are terms that often confuse people who are new to the whiskey world. A common misperception is that the two terms are synonymous. While both rye whiskeys and rye bourbons are whiskeys, there are some clear differences in their mash bills, histories, brewing processes, and even taste.

Read on for a more in-depth exploration of the differences between rye whiskeys and rye bourbons.

A field of rye
A field of rye.

Rye Whiskey

What is it?

Rye whiskey is an American spirit whose recipe must consist of at least 51% rye grain. Different combinations of corn, rye, wheat, or barley make up the remaining 49% of the mash bill.

However, it is quite normal to find a rye whiskey that comprises over 95% rye.

Tracking the History of Rye Whiskey

American rye whiskey traces its history to the 17th century. At the time, the whiskey’s production was mainly focused in the north-western states of Pennsylvania and Maryland.

Interestingly, toward the end of the 18th century, George Washington owned a rye whiskey distillery in Mount Vernon in Virginia. The distillery was capable of producing 11,000 gallons of rye whiskey a year making it one of the largest operations in the country.

What’s the Taste of Rye Whiskey?

Due to the presence of large amounts of rye, rye whiskey is peppery and coarse with a bitter bite. With regard to the aroma, rye whiskey is spicy and floral. Due to its assertive character, many people use rye whiskey to balance out sugary cocktails. Nonetheless, it is possible to enjoy rye whiskey neat or on the rocks.

What about Canadian Rye

Traditionally, whiskey made in Canada had a significant rye taste. Subsequently, whiskey enthusiasts started referring to Canadian whiskey as rye whiskey.

However, it is worth noting that in Canada, there are no regulations on the minimum amount of rye grain that rye whiskey should contain. Therefore, as per the standards in the United States, not every Canadian rye whiskey is a true rye whiskey.

Rye Bourbon

What is it?

Rye bourbon is bourbon whiskey whose grain recipe contains a minimum of 51% corn and a combination of corn, rye, and malted barley in the other 49%.

A high-rye bourbon will contain anywhere between 20% and 35% of rye grain in its mash.

Tracking the History of Rye Bourbon

The commercial manufacturing of rye bourbon started in the late 18th century in the South-Eastern state of Kentucky.

In 1964 the United States Congress resolved to recognize bourbon as a distinctly American product. Under the resolution, a whiskey is bourbon only if it is made in the United States.

What’s the Taste of Rye Bourbon?

Due to the use of corn as its base grain, rye whiskey is sweet with spicy hints. In terms of character, rye bourbon is smoother than rye whiskey. Most people drink rye bourbon neat, on the rocks, or with a few drops of water. Some people also use rye bourbon to make cocktails sweeter.

Summary of Differences

The primary differences between American rye whiskey and rye bourbon are:

  • Rye whiskey’s recipe contains at least 51% of rye while rye bourbon contains at least 51% corn.
  • Rye whiskey has been in distillation longer than rye bourbon
  • Rye bourbon can only be made in the United States while rye whiskey can be made anywhere.
  • Rye whiskey is bitter and spicy while rye bourbon is sweeter and softer on the palate.

Are There Any Similarities between Rye Whiskey and Rye Bourbon?

A Glass of Rye Whiskey

Although rye whiskey and rye bourbon are distinct from each other, the two whiskeys share some key similarities:

  • Both are distilled at a maximum alcohol content of 80% alcohol by volume (ABV).
  • Both are stored for aging in new and charred oak barrels at a maximum alcohol content of 62.5% ABV
  • Both whiskeys are aged for at least 2 years.
  • After aging, rye whiskey and rye bourbon are bottled at an alcohol content of at least 40% ABV
Author: Peoples Bourbon Review Staff
The People's Bourbon Review - The ultimate Bourbon reviews and tasting notes by enthusiasts and the people.


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