What’s The Difference Between Rye Vs. Bourbon?

If this sounds like you, don’t panic. All types of whiskey are delicious and unique, but they have different flavor notes due to differences in their production processes. We’ll go through all the major differences between bourbon and rye today, so you can be totally prepared for your next trip to the local bar.

How is whiskey made?

To understand the major differences between bourbon and rye, we must first take a look at how whiskey is made in general. The technical definition of whiskey is any distilled beverage made from a cereal grain and aged in oak casks. Different types of whiskey have different requirements for how they’re produced. For example, Scotch can only be made in Scotland.

Whiskey is made by distilling some type of fermented grain mash. The mash is made out of malted barley and other grains, which are up to the discretion of the distiller. The type of grain used usually dictates what type of whiskey is made.

After the mash is made, water is added to the mixture, and it is heated. This process creates the sugars that will ferment and be turned into alcohol. From here, the mixture is distilled. During distilling, certain parts of the liquid are evaporated selectively. This separates the alcohol from the mash. The alcohol is then taken, stored in wooden casks, and aged to perfection.

What is rye?

Rye whiskey is a type of whiskey that must have at least 51% rye making up its grain mash. The rest of the mixture may be made up of corn and barley. Some types of ryes are made up of 95% to 100% rye. 

Rye whiskey is full-flavored with a spicy, dry, flavor palate. As rye ages, it becomes smoother and more subtle, but it doesn’t lose its kick. Rye tends to offer intense, spicy, fruity notes that develop on the palate over time.

In the United States, rye is not as popular as bourbon is. There are two main types of rye on the market, which are differentiated by their country of origin.

American Rye

American rye, as the name suggests, is made in the United States. It must be made of at least 51% rye and is known for consistency and quality. It’s the type of rye you’re probably used to seeing if you’re in the U.S., and it’s fairly easy to find.

Canadian Rye

Canadian rye is more loosely defined than American rye. There are no laws that regulate Canadian rye. Canadian rye can technically be made from any type of grain and still be called rye, even if it wouldn’t be labeled as such in the United States. In reality, most Canadian ryes are mostly corn mash, with a lesser quantity of rye added in for flavor. 

Best bottles of rye to try

  • Bulleit 95 Rye Whiskey: Bulleit 95 offers a bold, spicy character, with oaky aromas and a distinctively clear finish. This whiskey is made from 95% rye, which is what the 95 references in the name. On the palate, this rye has a round, rich, fruity flavor. It’s incredible sipped straight, but also wonderful in an Old Fashioned.
  • High West Double Rye: This is a very spicy rye whiskey with perfectly balanced flavors of cinnamon, anise, and honey. It really stands out in cocktails but is also amazing sipped neat or on the rocks.
  • Sazerac Rye Whiskey 6 Year: Sazerac rye is lovingly aged for ultimate smoothness. It offers aromas of clove, vanilla, anise, and pepper, and on the palate, flavors of candy, spice, and citrus. The finish is long and smooth, with delicious hints of licorice. 

What is bourbon?

Bourbon is a whiskey made up of at least 51% corn in its base mash. The United States has a series of strict rules that define bourbon. To be legally called bourbon, it must be made in the United States and must be aged in a new charred oak barrel. Bourbon cannot enter the barrel at higher than 125 proof and cannot enter the bottle at less than 80 proof. There is no minimum age requirement for bourbon, but to be called straight bourbon, it must be aged for at least two years.

Bourbon has a sweeter, full-bodied flavor profile. As bourbon ages, the flavors don’t change all that much. Many people prefer bourbon to other types of whiskey because it is sweet and incredibly smooth. 

There are a few different types of bourbon on the market, each with slightly different flavor characteristics and notes. 

Traditional Bourbon

Traditional bourbon is made up of a mash that is 15% barley, 15% rye, and 70% corn. This is the most common type of bourbon you’ll see on the market today. 


High-rye is a type of bourbon that has a higher proportion of rye in the mash. This bourbon is known for having more of a kick to it that complements the sweetness of the corn. High-rye isn’t as spicy as full-on rye, but rather, it just has slightly spicy notes. 

Tennessee Whiskey

Tennessee whiskey is a type of simple straight bourbon manufactured in Tennessee. One of the unique things about Tennessee whiskey is that it is passed through a charcoal filter before it is aged. This purifies the bourbon and gives it a cleaner, fresher taste. This charcoal filtering process is what distillers claim distinguishes Tennessee whiskey from regular bourbon. 

Best bottles of bourbon to try

  • Maker’s Mark Bourbon: Maker’s Mark is a true classic in the world of Bourbon. It is smooth and approachable, with warm caramel aromas. Maker’s Mark is made slowly in small batches for ultimate smoothness and clarity of flavor.
  • Woodford Reserve Bourbon: Woodford Reserve Bourbon is carefully hand-crafted in small batches. It offers sweet aromatics of spice, fruit, and floral notes, and on the palate, you’ll notice bold flavors of grain and wood.
  • Basil Hayden’s Bourbon: Basil Hayden’s offers aromas of charred oak, with sweet notes of vanilla, caramel, and hints of dried fruit. When sipping, you’ll notice flavors of charred oak, sweet brown sugar, black pepper, and fruit. The finish is mellow, dry, and lingering. 

What is the difference between rye and bourbon?

The major difference between bourbon and rye is the type of grain mash used to make them. Rye must be made up of at least 51% rye, and bourbon must use at least 51% corn. That being said, bourbons can contain rye in their mash, and ryes can contain corn. This means that some bourbons and ryes may taste similar to each other, even though they’re technically in different categories.

The rye mash used in rye whiskey usually gives the liquor a spicier, drier flavor, whereas the corn used in whiskey makes bourbon taste more full-bodied and sweet. Ryes are usually more intense, while bourbons are milder and easier to sip. This means that people who enjoy sipping bourbon straight may not enjoy doing the same with rye. 

There are also some slight differences in the alcohol content and regulations when it comes to bourbon vs. rye. Rye is distilled to be no more than 160 proof, while bourbon is distilled to be no more than 125 proof. The increased alcohol content in rye may contribute to its harsher flavor. 

Bourbon and rye do have a lot of similarities. They’re both often produced in the United States and both made from fermented cereal grain. Both are lovely sipped neat or mixed into whiskey-based cocktails, such as the Old Fashioned or the Whiskey Sour. To determine which type you prefer drinking, you’ll have to do some taste-testing. Whether you prefer bourbon or rye, one thing is for sure: whiskey is a product that the United States knows its way around.


There are so many different types of whiskey out there, parsing the differences between them can be confusing. It gets especially murky when it comes to the two most famous types of American whiskey: bourbon and rye. The difference between them comes down to what they use as their base grain. This results in slightly different flavor profiles and characteristics. They’re both worth trying, though, especially if you tend to like whiskey. 

If you want to pick up bottles of bourbon and rye to have a taste test at home, let Saucey deliver them to your door. We offer a huge variety of wines, beers, and spirits, with speedy delivery and no order minimums. Treat yourself tonight, and order from us today!

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