What is the difference between bourbon and rye? And where does Jack Daniel’s fit in to all this?

In this post:

“Rye whiskey, bourbon’s sharper-tongued cousin”

Johnathan Miles in The New York Times

“I poured myself a modicum of bourbon. It felt favorable going down, so I took another modicum.”

The character Archie Goodwin, in The Rubber Band, a book by Rex Stout featuring the detective, Nero Wolfe

A few decades ago I found myself working in a bike shop in Notting Hill Gate. I had two colleagues, Carlton – of sculpted cheekbones and endless lashes, with a string of pregnant girlfriends; and Steadroy, short, married and faithful. Together they introduced me to Bourbon, and every Friday evening we would celebrate the week’s end with a lot of that mixed with ginger ale.

I remember enjoying those sessions a great deal, but when I tried the drink again recently I realised it was probably more for the company (our improbable trio shared a terrific sense of humour if not much else) than thanks to what we were imbibing. The Bourbon and ginger ale mixture is sickly sweet even if you add a little lime juice and convert it into a Kentucky Mule.

To try the cocktail again I’d bought a whole bottle of the stuff and I began to research what else I could mix it with to produce something a bit more acceptable. I found a lot of classic cocktails were suggested – for example a Manhattan or an  Old Fashioned – but many barkeepers seemed to think these came out better with rye rather than bourbon. What was the difference?

Alright – so what is the difference between bourbon and rye?

Almost all American whiskeys – in contrast to British whiskies – include corn to a greater or lesser degree. The different spirits use different proportions of different grains and this affects their flavour.

Broadly the basis of both bourbon and Tennessee whisky is corn; and the basis of rye whiskey is rye.

What do each of the different grains, corn, rye, wheat, barley, contribute in terms of the flavour of the spirit?

  • Rye adds spice: pepper, nutmeg, clove and cinnamon. It’s flavour intensifies as the hooch ages. Tasted on the back of the tongue.
  • Corn (what we call ‘maize’ in the UK) gives biscuit-baking flavours of vanilla, caramel, maple syrup. It also gives the highest alcohol yield, a bit of punch and power. The older the hooch the more neutral the taste becomes to just basic sweetness.
  • Wheat gives a sort of flavour of freshly baked wholewheat bread… with a little honey. In a bourbon using wheat rather than rye in the mix results in the vanilla and caramel flavours of the corn coming through more strongly because the wheat isn’t as strong as the rye.
  • Barley gives a roasted flavour, lightly burnt toffee (the ‘roasted’ flavour can also be reminiscent of chocolate or coffee). It’s mainly used because it contains enzymes which help convert starch to sugar. Anything made with 100% corn or rye will probably need to have enzymes added.

The predominant taste of rye

In any case rye (or at least rye made in the USA – ‘rye’ Canada can just mean whiskey) contains predominantly rye, so tends to be spicier.

The predominant taste of bourbon

Bourbon contains more corn, and correspondingly smoother and sweeter. All bourbon has to be made of at least 51% corn but some, notably the highly prized Pappy Van Winkle, includes a high proportion of wheat. WL Weller achieves the same with a much reduced price tag. Jim Beam, by contrast, uses mostly malted barley to top up its corn.

Can people really tell the difference?

However, a recent study carried out at Drexel University showed that, on smell at least, many struggle to tell the difference between bourbon and rye. In fact this isn’t as surprising as you might expect. The smellers tended to group the spirits they were testing according to grain or alcohol content.

It’s the ‘mash bill’ – the proportions of the different grains used that makes all the difference. So Redemption bourbon for example could get confused, understandably, with a rye. Rittenhouse rye might get mistaken for a bourbon. Jack Daniel’s could get mixed up with Michter. Bulleit rye whiskey on the other hand should be pretty easy to identify as a rye.

The effect of age on the flavour

Obviously the age of the whiskey will also affect the taste – the older a rye whiskey is the stronger the spicy flavour. In the case of bourbon it takes six years or so before the vanilla taste starts to come through. A 100% Balcones True Blue corn whisky will just taste sugary after a decade or so in a cellar.

How the mash bill of the whiskey affects the flavour of the main brands

Brand and typeCorn (Maize)RyeWheatBarley
Angel’s Envy7218 10
Bulleit6828 4
Four Roses – varies60/7535/20 5/5
Jim Beam7513 12
Knob Creek7513 12
Maker’s Mark70 1614
Michter7911 10
Redemption6038.2 1.8
Van Winkle70 1614
Weller70 1614
Bulleit 95 5
Rittenhouse3751 12
Whistle Pig 100  
Tennessee Whiskey
George Dickel848 8
Jack Daniel’s808 12
Balcones True Blue (the makers call this ‘corn whisky’100   

Of the above sample (there are many others).

  • Highest corn = Balcones True Blue, with George Dickel next in line
  • Highest rye = Whistle Pig with Bulleit Rye next in line
  • Highest wheat = tie between Maker’s Mark, Van Winkle and Weller
  • Highest barley = tie between Maker’s Mark, Van Winkle and Weller
  • Bourbon with highest rye = Redemption bourbon, with Four Roses
  • Rye with highest corn = Rittenhouse

For more differences see the table at the bottom of this post.

What then, about Tennessee whiskeys?

Jack Daniel’s, for example, fulfils all the legal criteria of a ‘straight bourbon’ (a non-blended one). But because it goes through a special maple charcoal filtering process, the makers prefer to call it simply a ‘Tennessee Whiskey’ – and to be called Tennessee Whiskey it does (among other things) have to be made in Tennessee. Other producers of Tennessee Whiskey are George Dickel, Benjamin Prichard’s (which exceptionally doesn’t filter) and Collier & McKeel. In any case, it seems that the main purpose of the filtering process used in Tennessee Whiskey production is to jump-start the aging process – it doesn’t really make all that difference to the flavour.

Is it better to use Bourbon or rye in cocktails?

I couldn’t put it better than a fellow blogger known as Brown Liquor who posted the following in 2011 – I’m afraid I have now lost the link.

“In cocktails bourbon, like vodka, is a soothing, comforting presence that allows drinkers to drink as if they were warm in their mothers’ wombs. Rye, like Islay scotch, gives you a little taste of being slapped by a jilted lover. But you just can’t help but go back and beg her for another chance.”

Differences between bourbon and rye

Grain usedMinimum 51% corn The rest is made up of other grains such as rye, wheat, or barley.Minimum 51% rye
ageingIn new, charred oak barrels, ‘straight bourbon’ (non-blended) must be aged at least two yearsIn new, charred oak barrels, minimum two years
Where madeMust be made in the USA (but it’s no longer made in Old Bourbon – a territory in Kentucky)It’s made in the US, but also in Canada. Canadian rye tends to be mellower and lighter.
SweetnessSlightly sweet, softer. Vanilla and caramel.Spicy, slightly sharp and bitter
Alcohol contentWeaker – a broad rule – Knob Creek rye is stronger than Jim Beam for exampleStronger
Manufacturing processDistilled to less than 80% alcoholDistilled to less than 80% alcohol
PopularityMore popularLess popular – but recently more interest. Read The Increasing Popularity of American Rye Whiskey 
Main brands




Many of these brands make both bourbon and rye

Jim Beam


Maker’s Mark

Wild Turkey

Hudson Bay



Noah’s Mill

W.L. Weller

Black Maple Hill

Four Roses

Widow Jane

Jefferson’s Ocean

John E. Fitzgerald Larceny

George T Stagg

Balcones True Blue

Whistle Pig


Knob Creek

Angels Envy

Templeton Rye

Redemption Rye

Old Overholt


Sazerac Rye

Michter’s US-1 – a good spicy brand for making a Manhattan


Crown Royal

High West

Wild Turkey

Russell’s Reserve

Possibly the best?Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve 20 YearBulleit Rye

Further reading

In the USA sales of bourbon and Tennessee whisky increased from 13 million 9-litre cases in 2002 to 20 million in 2015. Sales of rye are also booming. Interest has blossomed, and everyone has their own opinion. Some people have written whole books on the subject.

  • Bourbon: The rise, fall and rebirth of an American whiskey by Fred Minnick
  • Tasting whiskey: an insider’s guide to the unique pleasures of the world’s finest spirits by Lew Bryson
  • American whiskey, bourbon and rye: a guide to the nation’s favorite spirit by Clay Risen
  • The art of American whiskey: a visual history of the nation’s most storied spirit. Through 100 iconic labels, by Noah Rothbaum
  • Whiskey distilled: a populist guide to the Water of Life by Heather Greene

And also:

The Chuck Cowdery blog

This post is dedicated to Carlton and Steadroy.

For the low down on British whisky follow this link.

Below you can listen to Chris Stapleton singing Tennessee Whiskey; and below that, One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer sung by Amos Milburn; and below that, Sticks McGhee with Whiskey, Women and Loaded Dice.

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