Rye vs. Bourbon Whiskey: What’s The Difference?

by Libation Staff | Last Updated: September 4, 2021

If you’re unfamiliar with whiskey or you’re new to the whiskey bandwagon, you might not know that there are different varieties of this popular alcohol. Or, maybe you go to the liquor store and get overwhelmed by the number of whiskies that are on the shelves. With over 2,000 whiskey distilleries in the U.S. alone, there are many options when it comes to this spirit. 

If you’re looking to learn more about this recent “golden child” in the liquor world, you’ll want to start with learning the ins and outs of Rye vs. Bourbon Whiskey. My guide will teach you the differences between the two, where they come from, and what each tastes like. Keep reading to find out more!

Rye vs Bourbon Whiskey
Courtesy of Bulleit Frontier Whiskey

What is the Difference Between Rye and Bourbon Whiskey?

This may sound crazy, but there are actual federal laws regarding what can be called rye whiskey and what can be called bourbon whiskey. This all boils down to what type of grain is used in the making of the whiskey. For rye whiskey, rye must be at least 51% rye; for bourbon, it has to be at least 51% corn. 

Distillers can use other grains, called “small grains”, but they are used in a smaller ratio to the corn or rye. It’s really the distiller’s choice on how to use them and how much to use.

A neat fact, though. When a distiller is making rye whiskey, the second grain used is typically corn. When they’re making bourbon, they will usually reach for rye as the second grain. 

Bourbon can only be called bourbon if it is made in the U.S., but it doesn’t have to be made in Kentucky (that’s a rumor). It also can’t have any “blending materials” added which include caramel coloring, sugar, sherry, and wine. Straight rye whiskey–rye whiskey that has been aged for at least two years– can’t have these additives either, but “regular” rye whiskey can. 

Oh, and for taste, rye whiskey is a more intense flavor, spicy and dry. Bourbon is a well-tolerated flavor because of the sweetness and softness the corn mash imparts. 

How Are Rye and Bourbon Whiskey Similar?

Even though rye and bourbon whiskeys are different in their ingredient ratios, they do have some similarities. These include:

Where Did Rye and Bourbon Whiskey Come From?

This is a complex question as whiskey has been around for thousands of years. At some point approximately 2,000 years ago, someone found that grain that is mixed with water and left to sit for a bit of time, it would produce something that was not only tasty but made you feel pretty damn good too. Once people understood more about brewing, distillation, and aging, well it just upped the game in the whiskey world. 

Once colonists started coming to the New World, alcohol production was a few hundred years old. Depending on where these early Americans settled would determine the ingredients for their whiskies–Pennsylvania and Maryland whiskey was rye-heavy, where Kentucky colonists worked more with corn. 

Kentucky whiskey became even more popular when it could be shipped across the multitude of waterways in the area, spreading that oak-aged deliciousness far and wide and becoming the bourbon that we all enjoy today. 

Top Whiskies in the World

Everyone is going to have their go-to in the world of adult beverages and whiskey is no different. I mean, who doesn’t like to sit down after a hard day with a glass of liquid happiness? If you’re looking for some recommendations for a new whiskey, then look no further than this list of top whiskies in the world as determined by a poll done by Ranker–one of the world’s largest databases of subjective opinions on all types of subjects. 

Without further ado, here is the list of 17 of the best tasting whiskies as decided by the people:

The Bottom Line

Rye and bourbon whiskies are two varieties of the same beast. Depending on the flavor profile you’re looking for will help you decide which is the best whiskey for you. And now that you know the differences and similarities of rye vs. bourbon whiskey, you can find your new favorite drink with some confidence.