What Is A Rye Whiskey? Explained (2023 Updated)

Last Updated on August 22, 2023 by Lydia Martin

They say you should get a rye whiskey if you want to elevate your whiskey cocktail or have a new take on whiskey. 

Rye whiskey has a distinct flavor profile, and many consider it the cousin of bourbon. 

But what is a rye whiskey, and how is it different from other whiskey types? We got answers for you, so read on. 

What’s A Rye Whiskey? 

glass of whisky, cigar, and ashtray

Rye whiskey is a distilled spirit, and its primary grain is rye. 

To be considered a rye whiskey, the mash bill recipe should contain at least 51% rye, and the remaining 49% grains could be corn and malted barley. 

It is a close cousin of bourbon whiskey, but since it has higher rye content, it has much spicier tasting notes. 

Like other whiskey styles, the mash bill is fermented, distilled, and aged in oak barrels.

There are different rye whiskeys, and their distinction varies depending on the geographical location.

This whiskey style is for you if you love a tipple with more kick. 

Key Facts 

Production Process

The production process of rye whiskey is similar to other whiskey styles. It starts with a mash bill that is a blend of grains, and its primary grain is rye. 

The mash bill is fermented with yeast and a bit of mash from the previous distillation (sour mash).

After the fermentation process, it undergoes a distillation process, usually twice. 

It is then pumped in new charred oak barrels for a minimum of two years.

The aging process gives the rye whiskey its improved tasting notes and color.  

Main Ingredients

hand holding grains

The primary distinction of rye whiskey is the main ingredients because it must contain not less than 51% rye to be labeled as one. 

The remaining percentage of the grains of rye whiskey can be corn and malted barley.

However, some whiskey brands boast 100% rye content on their mash bill.

However, it can be different from Canadian rye because it can be labeled as a Canadian rye whisky even if it does not contain rye on its mash bill [1].

Alcohol Proof

Straight rye whiskeys should not be distilled above 80% ABV (160 proof).

It should be bottled at no less than 80 proof or 40% alcohol by volume. 

Most rye whiskey brands are bottled at 90-proof, but several distilleries release 100-proof (50% ABV) rye whiskey.

Those bottles with higher proof are less watered down than others.

How Rye Whiskey Tastes Like 

woman holding a glass of whisky

Since rye whiskey has relatively high rye content on its mash bill, it has a distinct spicy and peppery flavor profile, especially on the finish. 

Because of rye whiskey’s tasting notes, it is widely used by many bartenders to elevate their cocktails like Old Fashioned, Whiskey Sours, and Manhattans. 

Heather Greene of Eater describes rye as the bad boy of the grains because it is spicy, bold, and big when made well.

It delivers a fascinating burn, like a hard-edged version of bourbon

Different Rye Whiskeys 

man pouring whisky on a glass

American Rye Whiskey

American rye whiskey should contain 51% rye on its mash bill and be distilled in not more than 160 proof. 

It must be aged in new oak barrels (charred). The aging should last at least two years if it is a straight rye whiskey.

The parameters of rye whiskey are similar to bourbon whiskey (but with different mash bill ratios), which is why most drinkers refer to rye whiskey as the cousin of bourbon. Learn how to drink rye whiskey here.

High Rye Bourbon Whiskey

High rye bourbon whiskey is a bourbon whiskey that contains 51% corn, but its secondary grain is rye. 

Most brands use 20% – 35% of rye on their mash bill, which delivers different but great-tasting notes. 

High-rye bourbon whiskey is sweeter than American rye whiskey because, after all, corn is its dominating ingredient. 

However, since it contains a high amount of rye, it lends a nice kick and spiciness to the whiskey. 

Read: Rye Whiskey vs Bourbon

Canadian Rye Whisky

Canadian rye whisky can be different from the two types of rye whiskey.

By law, it is legally allowed to call Canadian rye whisky even if it does not contain rye on its mash bill.

Traditionally, Canadian whisky is a high-rye product with a fair large amount of rye on its mash bill. 

However, Canadian whisky “rye” can be misleading because not all Canadian whiskies have high amounts of rye or do not contain rye at all. 


What is special about rye whiskey?

The mash bill recipe that rye whiskey uses to make the distilled spirit is what makes it special. 

It contains a high amount of rye, giving distinct spicy and peppery tasting notes alongside other whiskey notes. 

Why is rye associated with the color green?

Rye is associated with the color green because companies usually use green to differentiate their product as it is used less. 

Also, it is a marketing practice to align a product’s packaging with popular brands. 

Final Words 

Rye whiskey is a distilled spirit, and rye is the dominant grain used to produce the whiskey.

Unlike other types of whiskey, it has a distinct spiciness and pepperiness because of its rye content. 

What’s your favorite rye whiskey? Let us know by commenting down below. 



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.

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