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What is Rye Whiskey? And How’s it Different from Bourbon?

“All rye, all rye, all rye.”

What Is Rye Whiskey Anyway
What Is Rye Whiskey Anyway

Within the whiskey family, there exists a spicy, racy, and assertive member that’s been building a significant amount of enthusiasm behind it. We’re talking, of course, about rye, a unique spirit with long roots in American history.

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It’s time to talk whiskey!

But what is rye whiskey anyway? And what makes it different from all the other types of whiskeys out there? Let’s take a dive into what makes this style of whiskey a must-have for your home bar.

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If you want just the quick bits and are more of a visual learner, you can check out our web story for this article here.

What is Rye Whisky?

Rye whiskey is a type of whiskey that uses rye grains as its main ingredient. In the United States, rye whiskey must, by law, be comprised of at least 51% rye. The other ingredients are usually corn or barley. Rye whiskey may sometimes be called Streight rye whiskey if it has been aged for at least two years and has not been blended with any other spirits. 

What is the Difference Between Rye and Bourbon?

For the uninitiated, rye may seem like the assertive brother to bourbon. The two whiskies are commonly placed next to each other on liquor shop shelves and compared with similar levels of affection. So how are the two similar – or, by the same token, how are they different? 

As far as American styles go, the most apparent difference is in the mash bill. A mash bill is the blend of grains that gets initially fermented and eventually distilled. Bourbon requires a minimum of 51% corn for the mash bill, whereas rye requires the same percentage in rye grain.

The remaining amount of the mash bill is chosen at the discretion of the distiller, most choosing to fold in a variety of grains including barley or wheat. 

Golden Fields Of Rye Grain For Rye Whiskey - What is rye whiskey
Golden fields of rye grain for rye whiskey.

This difference has a major impact on the final flavors, with corn providing a sweeter, more approachable taste and rye presenting a spicier, zippier, more assertive profile. 

A major similarity between the two is the use of virgin (i.e., brand new) charred oak barrels, which unite the two in many flavor compounds derived from the wood. These flavors, notably saturated by the previously unused barrels, include vanilla, molasses, cinnamon, anise, and a plethora more for the taster to identify.

Stacked Barrels Of Rye Whiskey  - What is rye whiskey
Stacked barrels of rye whiskey.

How is Canadian Rye Different from American Rye?

Besides American rye, there also exists Canadian rye, which has significantly fewer rules in place for production. This means that Canadian rye can have less than 51% rye in the mash bill, barrel quality and aging requirements aren’t observed, and styles can vary greatly from bottle to bottle. 

This is not to say Canadian rye is bad–quite the contrary! The lack of regulation allows producers to create unique expressions unattainable in American rye. It does, however, mean that a buyer should inform themselves more closely of what each specific producer is doing to find the right whiskey for them.

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Crown Royal Canadian whiskey.

A Brief History of American Rye Whiskey

Rye has a long history in America, dating back to the 17th century. The grain was brought over from Germany and the Netherlands and was farmed in corresponding immigrant cultures therein, notably in Pennsylvania and Maryland. As a cold hearty grain, rye did well in the frigid northeastern winters and provided a reliable staple for the colonial pantry. 

Whiskies made from rye, usually unaged before the 1800s, grew in popularity after the British cut off sugarcane for rum production around the Revolution. With rye as the least expensive and most available whiskey in America, its popularity blossomed throughout the 19th century, only seeing a halt in consumption due to Prohibition in the 1920s. After Prohibition was repealed however, rye was slow to be brought back into fold, being upstaged by beer and clear spirits. 

The past couple of decades have seen a resurgence in rye production, mostly spurred by enthusiasm for its brother spirit, bourbon. From traditionalists keeping the torch alive to young distillers meticulously coaxing new flavors into the whiskey, there has probably never been a better time to try out rye than right now!

If you want to learn more about rye whiskey and how it fell from, and returned to grace, we strongly recommend checking out the video below. You won’t regret it. 

Flaviar: A Brief History of Rye Whiskey.

Who Are Some Notable Rye Producers?

There are a range of rye producers to explore, ranging from inexpensive and straightforward to pricey but with a kaleidoscopic range of flavors. 

Perhaps the best place to start would be to look at what the professionals use; many bars will stock their wells with either Old Overholt or Rittenhouse. “Old O” represents one of the oldest consistently produced rye brands in the country, and Rittenhouse packs a punch as a 100-proof Bottled in Bond product. Both are affordable, somewhat textbook ryes, great for trying out new cocktails ideas or relaxing into the evening with a tried and true classic. 

Another notable old producer is Sazerac, produced at the famous Buffalo Trace Distillery. With an exactly 51% rye mash bill, Sazerac offers a gentler side of rye that works harmoniously in its eponymous New Orleans-based cocktail. Michter’s, hailing from Kentucky, makes a rather famous rye that offers one of the deepest, most layered expressions of the spirit at a fairly moderate price.

Sazerac Rye Whisky
Sazerac rye whisky.

Beyond the classics are some newer producers, blending tradition and new ideas into some of the most exciting ryes available today. Redemption Rye, with a close to 100% rye mash bill, brings a heady bouquet of the spicy, peppery qualities most closely associated with the whiskey.

In Vermont, Whistle Pig offers a 12-year rye finished in a variety of former wine casks (from Sauternes, Port, and Madeira), which come together to create a bold and decadent flavor profile. High West Distillery in Utah has a beautifully blended bottling called the Double Rye!, combining two ryes distilled by differing means to make a harmonious final product. 

And to round out this list, we have the relatively new Empire Rye designation for distilleries in New York that make a whiskey using at least 75% rye grown in the state. There are currently ten Empire Ryes on the market, representing an effort not only to support local agriculture but also find a sense of place and pride for a whiskey with such a long history.

What Are Some Notable Drinks That Use Rye?

Rye is a versatile cocktail ingredient used to add a spicy complexity wherever it lands. As a whiskey, it can be employed wherever a recipe calls for the matter. Keep in mind, though, that the brash nature of some rye may overpower more subtle flavors. That being said, there are some recipes that will absolutely work with all kinds of rye. The best way to find these recipes is to swap bourbon for rye when you come across such a drink. Your Old Fashioned will embrace a taught, racier expression when using a rye, and your Whiskey Sour will take on a new dimension of zippy intensity. 

Then, of course, there are drinks that historically utilize rye, such as the Manhattan and the Sazerac. Both of these drinks put the spirit’s natural edge in conversation with bitter and sweet components to liven the palate effortlessly.

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Conclusion: What is Rye Whiskey

Whether sipping or mixing, rye is a clutch ingredient to have in your bar cart. With layered flavors of pepper, spice, and typical vanilla sweetness, this is not a style of whiskey to sleep on. Grab yourself a bottle to really see what all the fuss is about!

Do you love rye as much as we do? Let us know in the comments below. Remember to sign up for our mailing list to get the latest booze-related posts. And as always, stay safe, get hammered.

Written by Sam Freeman

Sam has enjoyed a healthy career in the NYC hospitality industry, spending a decade as a chef before pivoting to the front of house with a concerted focus on wine and spirits. When not recommending wine pairings or cocktail ideas to guests, he can be found cooking over-elaborate dinners for his fiancee or cycling through the five boroughs.

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