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Rye Whiskey vs Bourbon: What’s the Difference? (2024 Updated)

Rye vs Bourbon

Last Updated on March 21, 2024 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 Vs 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.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

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.

What is the difference between rye and bourbon?

The main difference between rye and bourbon lies in the grains used during production. Bourbon is a type of whiskey that must be made from at least 51% corn, while rye whiskey must be made from at least 51% rye. The grains impart distinct flavors to the final product. Bourbon tends to have a sweeter and fuller-bodied profile, while rye whiskey is characterized by spiciness and a drier taste. Additionally, there are legal requirements for production location – bourbon must be made in the United States, while rye whiskey can be produced in both the U.S. and Canada.

Why is rye whiskey so good?

Rye whiskey is often praised for its bold and spicy flavor profile. The predominant use of rye grain contributes to a more robust taste compared to other whiskeys. The spiciness can bring complexity to cocktails and make rye whiskey an appealing choice for those who enjoy a drier and more assertive spirit. Rye’s popularity has also surged with the revival of classic cocktails that traditionally feature rye, such as the Manhattan and the Old Fashioned.

Is Jack Daniel’s bourbon or rye?

Jack Daniel’s is neither bourbon nor rye; it is Tennessee whiskey. While Tennessee whiskey shares some characteristics with bourbon, it undergoes an additional charcoal filtering process known as the Lincoln County Process, which involves filtering the whiskey through sugar maple charcoal before aging. This imparts a distinctive smoothness to the spirit. Jack Daniel’s is known for its balanced and mellow flavor, making it a unique category within American whiskey.

Is rye a substitute for bourbon?

Rye can be a substitute for bourbon in certain cocktails, but it’s important to note the flavor differences. If a cocktail traditionally calls for the sweetness and fuller body of bourbon, using rye might introduce a spicier and drier element. It ultimately depends on personal taste preferences and the desired flavor profile of the drink. Many classic cocktails, like the Manhattan, can be made with either bourbon or rye, allowing for some flexibility based on individual preference.

Is Jack Daniel’s a bourbon?

No, Jack Daniel’s is not a bourbon. It is classified as Tennessee whiskey. While Tennessee whiskey shares similarities with bourbon, such as being made primarily from corn and aged in new charred oak barrels, Jack Daniel’s undergoes a unique filtration process known as the Lincoln County Process. This involves filtering the whiskey through sugar maple charcoal before aging, giving it a distinct smoothness and flavor profile that sets it apart from bourbons.

Why is rye whiskey more expensive than bourbon?

The pricing of rye whiskey compared to bourbon can be influenced by various factors. Rye whiskey production often involves a higher percentage of rye grain, which can be more expensive than corn, a primary ingredient in bourbon. Additionally, the demand for rye whiskey has increased, leading to higher production costs and, subsequently, higher prices. Limited production runs, aging times, and the use of premium ingredients in some rye brands can also contribute to the higher cost.

Is Chivas Regal a rye whiskey?

No, Chivas Regal is not a rye whiskey; it is a blended Scotch whisky. Chivas Regal is renowned for its smooth and mellow flavor, a result of blending different single malt and grain whiskies from various Scottish distilleries. Rye whiskey, on the other hand, is a distinct type of whiskey made primarily from rye grain, imparting a spicier and often drier flavor profile.

Is rye smoother than bourbon?

The perception of smoothness in whiskey is subjective and varies from person to person. However, as a generalization, some individuals find rye whiskey to have a spicier and drier profile compared to the sweetness and fuller body of bourbon. Smoothness can be influenced by factors such as the grain composition, distillation process, and aging conditions. Some may prefer the boldness of rye, while others may find the smoothness of certain bourbons more appealing. It ultimately depends on individual taste preferences.

Why is rye whiskey expensive?

Rye whiskey can be more expensive due to several factors. The production of rye whiskey often involves a higher percentage of rye grain, which can be more costly than corn, a primary ingredient in bourbon. Additionally, some rye whiskeys are crafted in smaller batches, aged for longer periods, or produced by artisanal distilleries, contributing to higher production costs and subsequently elevated prices. Limited availability, high demand, and the unique flavor profiles of certain rye brands can also influence their pricing.

Is Jim Beam a bourbon?

Yes, Jim Beam is a bourbon. Jim Beam is a well-known American whiskey brand, and their flagship product, Jim Beam Original, is a bourbon. Bourbon is a type of whiskey that must be made in the United States and is primarily composed of at least 51% corn, along with other grains. Jim Beam adheres to these regulations and is recognized as one of the prominent bourbon producers.

Why is Jack Daniel’s not a bourbon?

Jack Daniel’s is not classified as a bourbon due to its unique production process. While it shares some characteristics with bourbon, such as being made predominantly from corn and aged in new charred oak barrels, Jack Daniel’s undergoes a specific filtration process called the Lincoln County Process. This involves filtering the whiskey through sugar maple charcoal before aging. This additional step imparts a distinctive smoothness to the whiskey, differentiating it from the traditional definition of bourbon.

Is Johnnie Walker a bourbon?

No, Johnnie Walker is not a bourbon. Johnnie Walker is a Scotch whisky, specifically a blended Scotch whisky. It is produced in Scotland and consists of a blend of single malt and grain whiskies from various distilleries. Bourbon is a type of American whiskey, and the classification “bourbon” is reserved for whiskeys made in the United States that meet specific legal requirements, including a mash bill with at least 51% corn. Johnnie Walker, being a Scotch whisky, follows different production regulations and is not considered a bourbon.

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.


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