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Easy Learn: Bourbon, Rye and American Whiskey


Place of Origin

American whiskey comes in many forms. Bourbon is the most well-known type of whiskey in the United States and can only be produced in the United States, but contrary to popular belief, it does not have to be produced in Kentucky, although most are. Tennessee whiskey, however, must be produced in Tennessee.


Rye whiskey, on the other hand, does not have to be produced in the United States; it is also widely produced in Canada and elsewhere (see Instant Expert: Canadian Whiskey for more information). Rye produced in the United States is American whiskey, but rye produced elsewhere is not.

 bourbon american whiskey

What It's Made of

American Whiskey

The United States requires all whiskey to be produced from grain fermented mash. Specific categories of whiskey have more stringent requirements.


Bourbon Whiskey

Bourbon whiskey must be made from at least 51% corn, although it usually contains more corn. The rest can be any other grain or combination of grains, with rye and wheat being the most common, although exotic grains such as oats, quinoa and triticale may be found in more experimental bourbons. Small amounts of malt are often added to aid in the fermentation process.


Tennessee Whiskey

Like bourbon, Tennessee whiskey must be made from at least 51% corn.

 bourbon rye

Rye Whiskey

Rye whiskey must be made from at least 51% rye, with the rest of the malt usually consisting of corn, wheat, and/or malted barley.


Other Whiskies

Corn whiskey must be distilled to no more than 80% ABV. corn whiskey can be aged without aging, or matured in used or uncharred oak containers, with a maximum entry of 62.5% ABV. It cannot be treated with charred wood.

 bourbon spirits

The distillation requirements for wheat whiskey, malt whiskey and rye whiskey are the same as for bourbon and rye whiskey.


Light whiskey is an unusual exception, as it must be distilled to at least 80% ABV and can be stored in unburnt or used oak containers.


Blended whiskies must contain at least 20% straight whisky or a blend of straight whiskies. The remainder can be whiskey (not neat), neutral spirits or both.

 bourbon whiskey liquor

Spirit whiskey contains at least 5% whiskey, blended with neutral spirits.


Classic Examples

Some traditional bourbons, with a lot of corn in the wort and some rye and barley, include Jim Beam, Evan Williams, Booker's, Elijah Craig, and Wild Turkey. malt whiskeys, while not officially defined as whiskey styles, use wheat instead of rye for a softer, milder flavor. Popular examples include Maker's Mark, W.L. Weller and Pappy Van Winkle. "High rye" bourbons - another unofficial term applied to a higher percentage of rye - tend to be spicier and include Bulleit, Basil Hayden's, Four Roses and Woodford Reserve.


Tennessee whiskies include Jack Daniel's, George Dickel and Prichard's.


A large portion of American rye whiskeys, including Redemption Rye and several of High West's offerings, are produced at, or blended with, MGP Distillery in Indiana. Other rye whiskies include Jim Beam Rye and Wild Turkey Rye, as well as brands such as Old Overholt and Rittenhouse.


The Pressing Issue

Are there aging requirements for bourbon and rye?

No. While almost all types of American whiskey must be stored in oak containers for a certain amount of time, this length of time is not specified and there is no minimum requirement. However, the designation of "straight" whiskey requires two years. All bourbons aged for less than four years must have an age statement.

 rye whiskey

Okay, what is a straight whiskey?

Whiskey distilled to no more than 80% alcohol, placed in a new charred oak container with no more than 62.5% alcohol (except for corn whiskey, which must be placed in a used or uncharred oak container), and aged for at least two years qualifies as a straight whiskey and can be labeled as such. A straight whiskey can be a blend of different straight whiskeys, as long as they are all made in the same state. If any of the straight whiskeys in the blend are less than four years old, the exact age needs to be stated on the label. There are straight-run bourbon, straight-run rye whiskey, and straight-run corn whiskey.


What is an American Single Malt?

An increasing number of American distilleries are making single malt whiskeys distilled from 100% malt. However, current law only requires whiskey with 51% malted barley to be labeled as a malt whiskey, and single malt is not a defined category. Some U.S. distillers are lobbying to create an official category for U.S. single malt whiskeys, roughly in line with the standards for Scotch whisky.


What is bottled bonded whiskey?

Bottle bonded whiskey, also known as bonded whiskey, meets the requirements of the Bottle Bonding Act of 1897. Don't you remember? Bonded whiskey must be produced in a single season (spring or fall) at a single distillery, aged for at least four years in a bonded warehouse in the United States, and bottled at 50% ABV. While most bottled bonded products are bourbon, there are also bottled bonded rye whiskeys, corn whiskeys, and even brandies.


What about craft whiskey?

There is no standardized definition of craft whiskey, although groups like the Distilling Institute of America and the American Craft Distilling Association have set the parameters. In general, the term "craft" is defined more by the size and ownership of the distillery than by what it produces. Some craft distilleries produce single malt whiskey, others produce bourbon, and still others produce oatmeal whiskey, whiskey distilled from beer, smoked or peated whiskey, and any number of other exotic products.


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Editor: Rubick L.