Rye Whiskey vs. Bourbon: Definition, History, and More

Connoisseurs know a lot about whiskey, but that might not be true for casual drinkers.

Although both rye whiskey and bourbon are made from grains, there are some notable distinctions in ingredients and flavor. Whether you’re a fan of alcoholic beverages or just want to expand your knowledge, it’s worth looking into our rye whiskey vs. bourbon comparison.

Key Points

  • What Is Rye Whiskey?
  • What Is Bourbon?
  • Rye vs. Bourbon
    • Flavor
    • Sugar Content
    • Price
    • Cocktail Base
  • Key Takeaways

What Is Rye Whiskey?

Local farmers first distilled rye whiskey in Pennsylvania in the mid-1700s. Unfortunately, the popularity of rye quickly declined in 1783, when bourbon whiskey became America’s top choice.

Rye whiskey is made from at least 51% rye and other grains, including barley and corn. Not to mention, this drink should be aged for at least two years in new oak barrels.

When talking about this alcoholic beverage, people usually like to drink two types of rye whiskey.

American Rye

As mentioned above, American rye whiskey is made from at least 51% rye grain. Many people prefer it to other types of whiskey because of its natural flavor.

Canadian Rye

While American rye needs to follow plenty of rules to be considered rye whiskey, that’s not the same for the Canadian counterpart. Apart from rye, Canadian rye whiskey may also contain other grains as its primary ingredient.

What Is Bourbon?

As opposed to rye whiskey, bourbon is a type of American whiskey that uses at least 51% corn in the mash.

The history of bourbon can be dated back to 1789 when the minister Elijah Craig opened a distillery in Kentucky. In 1790, Heaven Hill Brands started producing its first type of bourbon, named after Elijah Craig. Nowadays, drinkers can choose from four different categories.

Traditional Bourbon

Because of its balanced taste, traditional bourbon is arguably the most loved type of whiskey. Corn is the main ingredient, making up 70% of the mash. The resulting mixture consists of 15% of barley and 15% of rye.

High-Rye Bourbon

Although corn is still the predominant ingredient, high-rye bourbon contains a generous 30% of rye in the mash. Due to its spicier and more intense flavor, high-rye whiskey is usually a perfect base for cocktails.

Tennessee Bourbon

Simply put, Tennessee bourbon is specifically made in Tennessee. Before proceeding with the maturing process, Tennessee whiskey goes through a charcoal filtering process that removes impurities.

Rye vs. Bourbon: Similarities and Differences

Now that you have better insight into bourbon and rye whiskey, it’s time to talk about what makes them so unique. Is rye whiskey flavor more intense than bourbon? Which one is more expensive? Let’s dive right in.


Connaisseurs deem both rye whiskey and bourbon flavorful and unique. However, rye whiskey taste can be quite intimidating for light drinkers due to its bitter and spicy flavors. So, keep in mind that drinking rye whiskey in one shot isn’t exactly the best for your throat. On the other hand, bourbon can be a better choice for drinkers that enjoy a sweeter taste.

Sugar Content

Many experts argue that most alcoholic drinks are unhealthy because they contain corn and wheat which increase sugar levels. So, if you’re looking for the lowest-calorie alcohol to consume, rye whiskey is the best option.


In terms of affordability, rye whiskey is more expensive than bourbon—here’s why. Simply put, rye grain is more difficult to obtain than corn.

Cocktail Base

When it comes to cocktails, both rye whiskey and bourbon are excellent bases. For instance, Basil Hayden’s Dark Rye Whiskey is among the best rye whiskey cocktail brands out there. On the other hand, the Old Fashioned is the most popular drink using bourbon as a base.

Rye Whiskey vs. Bourbon: Key Takeaways

  • Rye whiskey is made from at least 51% rye and other grains, including barley and corn.
  • Bourbon is a type of American whiskey that uses at least 51% corn in the mash.
  • Because of its bitter taste, not everyone enjoys the flavor of rye whiskey.
  • Compared to rye whiskey, bourbon is a more affordable option.
  • Both rye whiskey and bourbon make excellent bases for cocktails.