If you have been a bourbon drinker for any significant length of time, at some point you’ve wandered over to the dark side: rye whiskey. Although many bourbon distilleries produce at least one rye (Rye whiskeys follow rules of distilling that similarly govern bourbons), the resulting whiskey is decidedly different from bourbon. I think of American Rye as bourbon’s dark side. This is not a criticism. I like rye; but where bourbon is a bit sweet with notes of caramel and toffee, rye is spicy with a dryer finish.
As did bourbon, rye whiskey originated in America. Many whiskey drinkers cross back and forth between bourbon and rye, appreciating both. If you are a bourbon newbie, however, allowing your palate to be punched in the face by a rye at this early stage in your development might not be the best idea. My suggestion is to spend some time experimenting with the scores of bourbons out there before nuking your tongue with rye. With that piece of advice out of the way, let’s talk rye.
Where bourbon and rye whiskey primarily differ is in the mash bill, or recipe for the uninitiated. To be designated a bourbon, the mash bill must be at least 51-percent corn. Typically the other main grain is either rye or wheat with some form of barley rounding out the concoction. American Rye, on the other hand, must have a mash bill of at least 51-percent rye. Here corn joins wheat and barley as the complimentary grains.
In the distilling process, bourbon and rye follow similar rules. Both must come off the still at no more than 160 proof (80-percent alcohol) and go into never-before-used new oak barrels that have been charred on the inside. They enter the barrel at no more than 125 proof. Bourbon has no minimum aging requirement; although, any bourbon aged less than four years must publish that fact on the label. American Rye must spend a minimum of two years in the barrel.
In shopping for rye whiskey, understand that Canadian Rye Whiskey and American Rye Whiskey can be dramatically different. There are no rules governing Canadian Rye, including the amount of rye grain in the mash bill. Whereas some American Rye Whiskeys have mash bills of 100-percent rye grain, some Canadian Rye Whiskeys contain very little.
Taste is subjective. That is, no two people have exactly the same sense of taste. This is evident, for example, when trying to reach a consensus on peas or sushi. What you need to know about the taste influences of rye grain in your whiskey is, SPICE! Spice notes dominate American Rye. The influence of rye on whiskey’s flavor isn’t of the “Hmmm, is that basil or clove I detect?” It’s “Holy Christmas, that’s speecy, spicey!”
In fact, so dominating is the spice delivered by rye, it is easy to mistake its spice heat for the burn of high-volume alcohol. If you want to experiment with rye’s impact on bourbon, compare and contrast wheated bourbons like Maker’s Mark and W.L. Weller with high-rye bourbons like Old Grandad Bottled in Bond and Basil Hayden’s.
Aging will take some of the edge off of a rye whiskey. The longer it’s in the barrel, the less harsh the spice notes will be.
As for mixed drinks, rye provides a counterbalance in sweeter cocktails like the Old Fashioned and Manhattan.
Before writing this, I took a quick look through my whiskey stash to remind myself of the ryes tucked away there. Here they are…
Pikesville Straight Rye. Produced by Heaven Hill in Kentucky, this is a 110 proof whiskey priced around $50. Aged six years, its mash bill is 51-percent rye, 39-percent corn and 10-percent malted barley.
WhistlePig Straight Rye Whiskey. Aged 10 years, this 100 proof rye whiskey is sourced from a Canadian distillery where it’s made, barrelled and aged. It’s finished in bourbon barrels and bottled in the WhistlePig facilities in Vermont. Made from 100-percent rye grain. The price hovers around $80.
Knob Creek Straight Rye Whiskey Small Batch. A bargain at $40, this 100 proof rye is a Jim Beam label. We don’t know the mash bill or the age, but by definition, it must be at least two-years old.
Angel’s Envy Finished Rye. This is another sourced rye whisky. The juice, however, doesn’t come from Canada, but from Indiana’s MGB. It’s mash bill is 95-percent rye and 5-percent malted barley. Angel’s Envy finishes the rye in Caribbean rum casks for 18 months. Although the age isn’t displayed on the label, it’s thought to be a total of at least four years in barrels. The price is around $100.
Russ is a long-time bourbon and craft-beer drinker who also produces the BEER2WHISKEY channel on YouTube.