Bourbon Basics - What is Rye Whiskey?

Bourbon Basics - What is Rye Whiskey?

When looking at American distilled spirits, two of the biggest players that immediately come to mind are Bourbon Whiskey and Rye Whiskey. But just what is the difference between bourbon and rye? We discussed in our first blog about the requirements for Bourbon, but to summarise

  • It must be made in the United States of America (not just Kentucky!)

  • It must contain at least 51% corn in the fermented grain mash (though the number is usually much higher)

  • It must be distilled at no more than 80% alcohol by volume (160 proof)

  • It must be aged in new, charred oak barrels at less than 62.5% ABV (125 proof)

Rye has almost the same requirements as bourbon but with one obvious exception – the fermented grain mash must be at least 51% rye. That’s the only difference in legality, however there is another difference that can be seen in some (but not all) Bourbons.

Rye and corn.png

During the production of bourbon, after the grain mix is ground and mixed with water, some bourbons choose to undergo sour mashing. Sour mashing includes the addition of mash from a previous distillation into the ‘mash tun‘ in order to ensure consistency of product – however, this never occurs with a Rye Whiskey.

The (first) rise of Rye Whiskey started just after the American Revolutionary War. Prior to this, Americans couldn’t get enough Rum, which is made using molasses from sugar cane. Sugar cane is primarily sourced from the Caribbean and was shipped to the United States by the largest naval power in the world at the time, the English. However, after the war, the English didn’t particularly want the newly formed democracy to succeed, and as such they stopped the supply of sugar cane.

rev war.png

America felt the loss of their favourite spirit immediately, but luckily they had other options which they could quickly resort to. Rye grains were extremely easy to cultivate in the eastern states, and Scottish-Irish immigrants had already been producing respectable amounts in states such as Maryland and Pennsylvania (the immigrants had started using rye instead of the typical barley due to poor barley growing conditions in North America).

These smaller producers jumped at the chance to increase their production and sales and rapidly helped Rye Whiskey to fill the gap left by the now hard-to-get rum. Rye whiskey continued to grow as one of America’s staple spirits, with many classic cocktail recipes calling for rye over bourbon. This all came to an end however in 1920, when Prohibition almost completely wiped out the American spirit industry. Only a small handful of distilleries survived the abolishment and combined with America’s changing palette preferring lighter spirits, rye whiskey almost never recovered.

WT Rye.png 

Like many other things which have gone in and out of fashion, rye whiskey has recently begun to become popular again on the bar scene. Since 2009, rye whiskey has seen a massive 500% increase in sales, dwarfing the expansions seen by other whiskey varieties. Most likely due to this found again appreciation, big brands such as Jack Daniels, Jim Beam and Wild Turkey have launched their own adaptations, with craft distillers also taking notice.


What can we expect from Rye in the future? Will it keep growing until it overtakes Bourbon again? Time will tell but probably not. We at Bourbon Brothers however have plenty of room in our hearts for our smaller cousin, and will continue to enjoy both for their merits

rye bourbon brothers.png
Back to blog