Rye Whiskey vs Bourbon: What’s the Difference? (2023 Updated)

Last Updated on November 5, 2023 by Lydia Martin

Whiskey is not just a distilled liquor made of malt barley. It has classifications, following the United States guidelines on the raw ingredients used. This article will compare rye vs bourbon – the biggest American whiskeys on the market.

Both spirits have undeniable similarities, but we are about to point out the differences between these two. Read on to find that out.

Rye & Bourbon In-Depth Comparison

Rye Whiskey & Bourbon

The flavor differences between bourbon and rye set these two whiskeys apart. Both spirits have to follow strict guidelines for their fermented grain mash, resulting in the noticeable sweetness of bourbon and intense spicy notes of rye.

The production method of these two is almost similar to one another, though bourbon has more processing involved to ensure its consistency.

Bourbon has four variations, while rye only has American rye whiskey and Canadian-made whiskey.

Both are barrel-aged, but storing rye and bourbon in oak barrels has no minimum age requirement, unlike Scotch. 

Key Differences

Key Differences

Raw Materials

The major difference between bourbon and rye whiskey is the mash bills.

According to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), bourbon should contain not less than 51% corn mash, while American rye whiskeys must contain not less than 51% rye mash.

The Canadian counterpart of rye whiskey does not require any percentage of Canadian rye.

It may contain less Canadian ryes and more wheat, but there is no law requiring a certain percentage. But what does rye whiskey really taste like?

Distillation & Production Method

Rye Whiskey Distillation Process

After completing the remaining grain mixture with malted barley, more rye, or more corn, the combined ingredients will proceed to fermentation. 

Both rye whiskey and bourbon share the same production aside from bourbon’s fermentation process and twice distillations.

Bourbon production combines yeast and sour mash during fermentation to lower the pH level for safer consumption. But will bourbon go bad?

Flavor Notes

Flavor notes may vary from one brand to another, but bourbon generally has a sweeter taste and rounder texture.

Its full-bodied flavor of vanilla and caramel results from using corn mash.

Meanwhile, rye has an aggressive flavor profile, best suited for those consumers looking for more color and a kick in their spirit.

It has a spicy flavor with hints of oak and smoke in the finish.

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Templeton Rye Whiskey

Another key difference in comparing rye vs bourbon is the bourbon’s use of sour mashing during production to ensure the spirit’s consistency.

The mash pH level decreases by combining yeast with sour mash from previous distillations.

It ensures fewer bourbon impurities that help prevent bacteria growth in the mash.

Read: Popular Rye Whiskeys To Drink Straight

Sugar Content

Many studies suggest distilled spirits like rye and bourbon whiskeys for people who want to cut down on their carbohydrate intake as they have virtually no sugar content [1].

But notice that we say “virtually” since whiskeys indeed contain sugar as wooden casks can impart that to the liquor, though it is almost untraceable. 

Some cheap bourbon brands have been adding sugar after distillation to sweeten the liquor, but it is an uncommon practice in rye whiskey production.

Flavor Variations

Bulleit Rye Whiskey

Bourbon flavors have four variations compared to two rye whiskey types. First is the traditional bourbon with a sweet and mellow texture, then the high-rye bourbon with more spicy tones.

There is also the wheated bourbon with soft character and the Tennessee whiskey that undergo a charcoal filter.

Meanwhile, American rye whiskey has to follow strict guidelines regarding its mash bill, but Canadian whisky does not indicate how much rye it should contain. 

Read: WhistlePig Rye Whiskey Review


Comparing rye vs bourbon as a base for classic cocktails is a more personal preference.

One popular rye cocktail is Whiskey Sour, mixed with fresh lemon juice and simple syrup.

But recently, the sweetness of bourbon makes Whiskey Sours more drinkable than mixing it with rye’s intense flavors.

However, Manhattan is a cocktail drink that perfectly highlights the spiciness of rye.

It includes sweet vermouth and bitters in the mixture, a perfect introduction to new rye whiskey fans. So what’s the best bourbon for Manhattan cocktails?


Elijah Craig Bourbon

The price of rye and bourbon may vary depending on the brand.

Some Kentucky Straight Bourbon whiskey brands are Knob Creek, Jim Beam, Buffalo Trace, and Maker’s Mark, with prices ranging from $18 to $40.

The Eagle Rare is an expensive brand available at around $70.

On the other hand, the Wild Turkey Straight Rye whiskey has an affordable price of around $25, while Basil Hayden falls under the expensive category of around $70 per bottle.


Is rye whiskey considered bourbon?

No, rye whiskey is not bourbon because the law specified that it should contain 51% of rye.

And although bourbon has a high-rye category, 51% of this spirit should still be corn, while the remaining mash can have more rye than other grains. 

Which is better for Old Fashioned, bourbon or rye?

Bourbon is a better base for Old Fashioned than rye because it has a sweeter and mellow texture.

Old Fashioned is a cocktail drink that contains sugar, bitters, American whiskey, water, and orange peel.

Final Thoughts

Both rye and bourbon are good bases for making delicious cocktails with the same alcohol content.

But after careful consideration of their subtle differences, we prefer bourbon as the best whiskey over rye’s intense flavor. 

Bourbon whiskey has a sweet flavor, and it offers more variety than other whiskeys.

The wide range of bourbon products makes it cheaper and more affordable. Although if you are trying for a good kick of alcohol, rye is the better choice.



Lydia Martin

Lydia Martin hails from Redmond, Washington, where you’ll find some of the best cocktail bars and distilleries that offer a great mix of local drinks. She used to work as a bar manager in Paris and is a self-taught mixologist whose passion for crafting unique cocktails led her to create Liquor Laboratory. Lydia can whip up a mean Margarita in seconds! Contact at [email protected] or learn more about us here or feel free to give Lydia a tip.

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