We talk to people all the time who know they like American whiskey, but maybe don’t know exactly where to start. Sometimes they’ll know a few bottles they’ve tried and liked, sometimes they aren’t sure it’s Bourbon or Rye or a Single Malt they go for, and sometimes they just aren’t quite sure what whiskey is at all. That’s what we’re here for!
These days there are countless varieties of whiskey produced in America, but generally when we talk about American Whiskey, there are two big categories that we’re referring to: Bourbon and Rye. Bourbon is primarily corn-based, rye is primarily rye based. Seems simple, and in a sense it really is, but there are some important details that further define these categories, and some important subcategories to wrap your head around. There’s a whiskey for everyone if you only know where to look! So think of this as your compass, and get ready to sip through the vast and tasty landscape of American Whiskey.
There is a common misconception that Bourbon can only be made in Kentucky; this is total baloney. Kentucky certainly has the most storied history with the stuff, and many Bourbon producers based there may want you to think that, but Bourbon can be made anywhere in the United States. In order for a whiskey to be called Bourbon, however, it must be made from a grain mixture of at least 51% corn, be aged in new charred oak barrels, distilled to no more than 80% abv, barreled at no more than 62.5% abv, and bottled at no less than 40% abv. Home of the free we may be, but you’re gonna have to follow some rules if you want to wear the precious label of Bourbon. To be considered “straight” Bourbon, the whiskey must also be aged at least two years, and if it is aged less than four, must state its age on the bottle. Got all that?
Now, within this category, there are subcategories based on the grains used to make it. Yes, all Bourbon must be made up of at least 51% corn, but that other 49% can be made up of a variety of secondary and tertiary grains, most commonly rye, malted barley, or wheat. Let’s dive into some of these varieties and see if we can’t clear up some of this grainy mess for you.
The most traditional, “standard” style, the kind that most of us would most readily identify as Bourbon in a blind tasting, is made up of 65-75% corn, 10-20% rye, and 5-15% malted barley. The corn is soft and sweet, the rye often floral and spicy, and the barley lends some weighty, roasted cereal qualities. Classic and delicious... if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Bottles to try:+ Buffalo Trace Straight Bourbon
+ Belle Meade Straight Bourbon
+ Wathen’s Kentucky Single Barrel Bourbon
A fairly common variation of traditional bourbon, a high rye is exactly what it sounds like: Bourbon that has a high amount of rye in the mash bill. This can sometimes be as high as 40%, but is generally somewhere between 25 and 35%, with a bit less corn, and malted barley still making up 5-15%. Bourbons with a high rye mash bill are almost always spicier, with a bit more edge to them that makes them shine in cocktails.
Bottles to try:+ Four Roses Single Barrel Bourbon
+ Breckenridge Bourbon
+ Woodinville Straight Bourbon
Wheated Bourbon is a much less common variety that has gained popularity in recent years in no small part due to the cult status of Pappy Van Winkle, and to a somewhat lesser extent, Weller. The wheat is almost always used in place of rye, replacing that spice with a sweet and soft cushion for the corn and barley to relax upon. More and more producers are making wheated bourbons, and we aren’t complaining. Sometimes you just want to sip a hug in a glass, right?
Bottles to try:
Light whiskey can’t be truly called Bourbon, but it is similar in that it is made from primary corn. Originally used as a component in blended whiskeys, it is kept from qualifying as Bourbon because it’s distilled to above 80% abv, and is aged in used casks. This results in a much lighter profile that hasn’t been as saturated with vanillins and color from the oak. It’s a winning candidate for experimenting with different barrel finishes, as it’s more neutral character serves as a canvas for subtle flavors imparted from other casks.
Bottles to try:
Rye has many of the same requirements as Bourbon, but instead of being made up of at least 51% corn, its rye that sits on the throne. Corn then takes the place of the secondary grain, with malted barley often remaining the tertiary grain (although it’s not unheard of for corn to sit out entirely and for malted barley to move up in the ranks while a wild card like malted rye sits in that third place position). Rye, which was once America’s favorite whiskey back in the 18th and 19th centuries, was reduced to playing a very distant second fiddle to Bourbon for many years, until the cocktail renaissance bred a new generation of drinkers thirsty for this full-flavored, floral, and spicy whiskey, which is so often called for in cocktails for its assertiveness. We couldn’t be happier about this newfound popularity.
Unlike traditional Bourbon, which almost always has at least 65-70% corn, its not rare at all to find a Rye that is only the bare minimum of 51% rye, with a lot of corn lending it sweetness. This means, while certainly bigger and bolder than most Bourbons, it will essentially be playing around with the same flavor profiles. Many of the ryes made by the big Kentucky Bourbon distillers fit into this mold, while some of the craftier options will often have a bit more than the minimum amount.
Bottles to try:+ Rittenhouse Rye Whiskey
+ Willett Family Estate Cask Strength 4 Year Rye Whiskey
+ Alley 6 Rye Whiskey
Fitting in with the bold character of the grain itself, many Rye whiskeys are boldly made of just rye, omitting the secondary and tertiary grains altogether. This is almost never done with the corn in Bourbon, though it is legally allowed, which is a testament to the inherent complexity of rye. Big, bold, warm, cinnamony, spicy, earthy goodness await those drinkers who want to skip the cautious wading and jump right off the high dive.
Bottles to try:
Corn, rye, and malted barley may reign supreme, but there are some producers out there who are experimenting with making whiskeys from a myriad of different grains. Koval, out of Chicago, bottles single grain whiskeys of Oat and Millet, both exploring the full earthy potential of these more unusual grains. They also make a Four Grain whiskey, using Oats where corn typically would be in a bourbon, with rye, barley, and wheat all playing their part as normal.
Wheat whiskey is also not a terribly uncommon phenomenon, not to be confused with wheated bourbon. A true wheat whiskey features wheat as the primary grain rather than a secondary or tertiary grain, and as one might expect, the result is honey sweet, soft, and smooth.
Bottles to try:
This really only scratches the surface of the exciting, quickly growing, ever-changing American whiskey scene, but we hope it helps you find your footing and assists in your decoding of your own whiskey palate. As always, happy sipping!