Rye whiskey is growing in popularity amongst whiskey connoisseurs. Similar to bourbon, rye separates itself in the percentage of rye that goes into the recipe, which stands at 51%. Bourbon is 51% corn, however, these two whiskies often share the very same distilleries and their production methods are nearly identical. However, this is not an article about rye whiskey vs bourbon taste.
So, how does Rye Whiskey taste? It has an overall peppery flavor, with more bite than you get when knocking back a bourbon. The spicy finish also sets it apart, whereas bourbon typically has notes of sweetness, like nutmeg mixed with a hint of cinnamon. Rye whiskey is reminiscent of spicy fruit, with smoke and oak.
As we mentioned above, Rye whiskey is growing in popularity. Bourbon has typically ruled the roost when it comes to American whiskey but Rye is starting to take on a life and ambiance that is all its own.
Table of content – Sip this article!
- How does Rye Whiskey Taste?
- Types of Rye Whiskey
- What’s the process to produce rye whiskey?
- Final Thoughts
The initial question – how does Rye Whiskey taste? – is difficult to answer sometimes, as there are different ways for aging Rye whiskey. Of course, the charred, brand-new oak barrel is the same. However, there are different age timeframes as well, which changes the flavor subtly.
Then there’s the matter of what the secondary portion of the mash consists of. You have corn, malted barley, and wheat. Then, there is the common process of using “sour mash” which is the leftovers from the mash used in a previous run.
Well-Aged Rye Whiskey
As the Rye whiskey ages in the barrel, it develops three things: spiciness, earth flavors like oak, and vanilla. The longer that it ages, the more these three are allowed to develop. Of course, the spicy notes tend to level off after a certain amount of time.
It’s not as if Rye can age long enough that the spicy notes burn a hole in your tongue. However, the oak and vanilla notes do intensify as well, more so as each year drags on in the barrel.
Straight Rye Whiskey
The Straight Rye whiskey taste may have different flavors, depending on the secondary mash, however, it is aged for 2 years, which means that the earth and vanilla tones are going to be diminished. What you get is a bolder level of spice with very slight undertones of caramel, vanilla, and maybe the slightest hint of oak or smoke.
Of course, straight rye can be aged for more than 2 years but if it hits 4 years, it has to be labeled as such, so you will always know the difference by just looking at the bottle.
The Rye Whiskey Typical Recipe
The most common method for making Rye whiskey is a combination of three ingredients in the mash, 60% rye, 39% corn, and 10% barley. The caramel overtones in this recipe come from the corn, which adds a layer of sweetness that accommodates, rather than overcomes the spice of the rye.
As we mentioned above, one of the oldest Rye whiskey recipes involved a 100% rye mash and, as you can imagine, the result is a nearly overwhelming spice followed up with a very dry finish, which is to some people’s taste, even though the last distillery that made it in that style closed its doors in the 1980s.
However, MGP (Midwest Grain Products) produces a product of Rye whiskey that is just about as close to the original, Monongahela Rye from the history books. It consists of a 95% Rye and 5% malted barley.
The barley is more of a fermentation booster than it is a flavor additive, so this MGP Rye whiskey taste is probably the closest that you can get to the high-spice, low-sweet Monongahela of old.
Maryland makes a that is a blend of two mash bills. What is significant about the two mashes is that they are both 95% rye. However, while both of them have enough spice to kick you like a mule, if you place a drop or two of water in your glass and drink it otherwise neat, you’ll discover something.
This Maryland Rye, once your eyes stop watering, has some other, very subtle tones of orange, caramel, honey, and butterscotch. It takes a little bit of water to truly bring out these flavors, but it is a proven method (literally, scientifically proven) to bring out the flavors.
Maryland’s recipe is aged anywhere between 4 and 6 years but if you want as close to a historical Rye whiskey as you can get, the Sagamore Spirit is a great choice.
There are two ways to do this. The first is to pour you a shot of Rye whiskey over ice. Although our elderly generation will frown on you for doing this, possibly more than just frowning, it’s a good way to bring out some of the deeper tones in the whiskey.
Not only that, rye whiskey over ice changes the flavor subtly, so you get to know your Rye whiskey taste in two different ways.
The second way is to sprinkle a few drops of water in it. Science has shown that those few drops of water make your whiskey spring to life in terms of flavor. If you want to find the Rye Whiskey that’s right for you, there is no better method than a straight pour, with a light sprinkle of water.
Get to know what Scientific Studies say about Whisky on the Rocks!
When talking about on how does rye whiskey taste, we are exclusively talking about American Rye whiskey, which is often confused with a Canadian variant that also travels under the same name. Of course, this can be pretty confusing for some, especially for those who are just dipping their toes in the whiskey.
Canadians essentially distill their rye in the same way that americans do, however, if you are a whiskey aficionado and familiar with the various whiskey in the world, you’ll know the difference between Canadian Rye and American Rye.
Where the american rye whiskey has spice and pepper overtone, Canadian Rye is much closer to bourbon, with a smooth and more rounded finish. Also, Canada likes to distill blends rather than a single malt, so their rye whiskey is like the Johnnie Walker of Canadian Rye.
Besides the aforementioned Canadian Whiskey, there are other variations worth considering. First and foremost is the malted rye whiskey, also known as malt rye whiskey. While these are also rye in terms of 51% rye use, the rye is malted first, germinating the grain before the process begins.
After a certain point, the germination process is brought to a screeching halt by rapidly drying it out. This method makes for an even spicier rye whiskey flavor and you’ll get much more of a ‘kick’ at the end.
Monongahela-style of Rye whiskey doesn’t include 49% at all. It is made with 100% Rye, through and through. The more Rye that is included in the mash, the more of a dry flavor you get as a finish.
However, although the amount of Rye used in various mash recipes for Rye whiskey is growing in percentage, most companies eschew the 100% in favor of different combinations of Rye to something else.
For instance, such rye whiskey brands such as Bulleit and Templeton have their whiskey distilled at a Midwest Grain Products facility and it includes 95% Rye mash. Other companies may go with 61% Rye and 39% malted barley or wheat.
You have Straight Rye, which is aged for two years. Everything that is aged for over 4 years has to be labeled accordingly, just as it is with bourbon.
Since the whole process influences the flavours of every whiskey, it is important to have it in mind while answering to “How does Rye Whiskey Taste Like?”.
Rye whiskey, much like Bourbon and Scotch, has to adhere to a very stringent protocol, from the very beginning, all the way to the end of the process. The is a regulatory guideline, kind of like bourbon cannot be bourbon unless it is made in America, with Scotch being held to the same standard.
You can replicate the fermentation, distillation, and aging process for bourbon whiskey and if you do it in Australia, it can never carry the bourbon label. It doesn’t matter that it would probably fool even bourbon enthusiasts since it was made in the exact same way.
The first question one might ask is “What is Rye Whiskey made from?”. And the answer is pretty simple. As you have read on this article, rye whiskey has to be made with at least 51% rye. The other 49% of the mash may vary between corn, barley or wheat.
Besides this aspect of rye whiskey, there is a step-by-step process and certain qualifications that have to be met all along the way.
- Initial alcohol content cannot be over 160-proof or 80% ABV;
- It’s usually diluted to a maximum of 125-proof;
- Has to be aged in a charred oak barrel that is new;
- Needs to be aged for a minimum of 2 years;
- Straight Rye cannot be combined with anything else;
- Cannot be bottled at anything less than 80-proof or 40% ABV.
That’s the process in a nutshell. It’s not very specific but it contains the details of what the whiskey has to be and has to go through for it to be considered a true, American Rye Whiskey. Anything else is a disqualifying factor.
If you love a little kick of spice in your whiskey, there is no better choice than a good Rye. The higher the rye in the mash, the more spice you’re going to get. Fortunately, for those who prefer a lower level of spice, Rye whiskey is very versatile and you’re bound to find something that’s palatable.