Welcome to Whiskey Wednesday, HerKentucky's weekly feature that makes you think about what you're drinking. Today, we're departing from our traditional focus on Kentucky bourbon with some notes on rye.
So, I've noticed a disturbing trend lately. I seem to keep running into people who don't know the difference between bourbon and rye. We're talking bartenders, and folks who claim to be whiskey-lovers, and proud Kentuckians who ought to know better. They'll use Sazerac or the green-label Bulleit, and claim they've used bourbon whiskey, bless their hearts.
Like most everything in whiskey production, it all comes down to the grains. The difference between bourbon and rye is the grain mixture that is used in production. Of course you know that all bourbon whiskey must be made here in the United States and must have a mash bill that consists of at least 51% corn. American rye whiskeys must be at least 51% rye grain. As with bourbon, the remaining 49 percent of the recipe varies wildly by brand. Bulleit's mash, for example, is 95% rye, producing a very powerful, spicy flavor profile. Woodford Reserve's Rye, on the other hand, is only 53% rye, which makes for a smooth and balanced pour. Like bourbon, rye is aged in charred new oak barrels and must be aged for at least two years to earn the designation "straight."
Prior to Prohibition, rye was most popular in the Northeast U.S., particularly in Pennsylvania and Maryland (Mad Men fans will note that it makes sense that rye was Draper's drink of choice...) and Pittsburgh was the city around which most rye production was focused. After Prohibition, only a few rye labels survived, and most rye productions were moved to Kentucky, under the umbrella of larger distillers.
Last year, Woodford Reserve introduced a rye whiskey to their line of products. I had the opportunity to sample that product during The Kentucky Bourbon Affair tour of Woodford's distillery last week. I was so surprised by how much I enjoyed this one. I'm normally a little put off by the heavily spicy and often bitter notes of rye, but the Woodford product was delightful. We learned during the distillery event that Woodford Reserve Master Distiller Chris Morris based this recipe on a historical recipe in the Brown-Forman archives. The really does work as a nice companion to Woodford's high-rye bourbon, Woodford Reserve Distiller's Select, pairing up-front tobacco aromas with heavy tastes of apple and pepper, and a caramel finish similar to that of Woodford's bourbons. I can't wait to try it in a cocktail!
So, there you go. High-rye bourbon and low-rye rye. Two more whiskey concepts to wow y'all's friends. Go get a bottle of that rye; I promise you'll love it!
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Whiskey Wednesday: The HerKentucky Guide to Talking about Bourbon