With so many different whiskeys available these days, choosing a bottle at the store or even a brand at your local bar can seem intimidating. A great place to start is with the two most popular American whiskeys: bourbon and rye. Learn how to tell these spirits apart below, then get ready to shop for and order your whiskey with confidence.
If you're a whiskey novice, you might not realize that there are legal requirements for a spirit to be classified as a bourbon or rye. Bourbon has to be at least 51 percent corn by law; the rest of the grains can consist of rye, barley, and/or wheat. Rye, on the other hand, is defined as a whiskey made with a minimum of 51 percent rye; the remainder is typically a mixture of corn and barley. Both bourbon and rye have to be aged in new charred oak barrels, which are what give them that subtle smokiness and distinctive brown color. There's no minimum age requirement unless the whiskey is called "straight" bourbon or rye, in which case it must be aged at least two years.
What does all this mean in terms of flavor? There's a wide spectrum in each category, but bourbons are generally sweeter and more full-bodied, while ryes tend to have a spicier character to them—you're going to get that peppery heat at the back of your throat. As far as aroma goes, notes of baking spices or citrus are typical with rye, while bourbon can range from caramel and vanilla to cherries and peaches. If you're cooking or baking with whiskey, try to keep these profiles in mind and pair the spirits with complementary ingredients.
While the nuances in taste and smell are easier to discern if you drink your whiskey neat, they're also noticeable in a cocktail, which can be a more approachable way to familiarize yourself with each spirit. Everything else being equal, rye will yield a drier drink; bourbon a smoother, more mellow one. Take them both for a spin in a classic whiskey-based cocktail, such as a Manhattan, old-fashioned, sazerac, or sour . Or try each spirit however the mood strikes you—the good news is that there's no one way to drink whiskey.