Wheat versus Rye - Which is the better bourbon?
The Taft Decision of 1909 declared bourbon must be made of a majority of corn. That’s where the minimum level of 51 percent corn comes from on all bourbon mash bills. So, no matter what the beloved bourbon libation, it will contain corn as its base grain.
When you look deeper, you’ll notice that most mash bills on any type of bourbon have a minimum of five percent barley. That grain provides the enzymes that turn starch to sugar and helps the fermentation process to take place. Barley can also add hints of chocolate to the bourbon flavor profile.
But distillers typically add different “flavor grains” to give that sweet corn a hint of something more, something deeper that tantalizes and satisfies various layers of the palate.
There are two main grains that distillers use to flavor bourbon: rye and wheat.
Some lean toward the traditional mash bill of 70-80% corn with the remainder being composed of mix of rye and barley, while others produce high rye bourbons that have as much as 18% rye, as was the recipe’s tradition since the grain was more readily available in the region.
Other distillers offer up a “wheated” bourbon with as much as 45% wheat to flavor the spirit. The first wheat-based bourbon was introduced by William LaRue Weller, the namesake of Weller Bourbon.
So what does the difference in flavor when the recipe is rye versus wheat?
The Flavor of Rye
Rye is the traditional ingredient used to flavor bourbon. It offers various spice notes to the bourbon. Rye bourbons tend to leave their mark on the back of the tongue with a pepper flavor, while lending notes of mint, cinnamon, and other spices like clove or tobacco. The percentage of rye in the bill combines with all the other recipe elements (yeast strain, barrels, time and position in the rickhouse, etc.) to produce various flavors.
Rye can be described as aggressive, as it tends to float up and out of the bottle with the alcohol vapors as soon as the lid is removed. It wants you to know it’s there.
And rye bourbons won’t get lost in a Manhattan or an Old Fashioned the way other flavors of bourbon might. So when you try your first rye, enjoy them straight or in a cocktail. Just enjoy them.
The Flavor of Wheat
Wheat, on the other hand, is a softer, sweeter flavor than rye. Think vanilla, caramel and butterscotch. The fruitiness of the flavor wheel tends to pull forward a little more with wheat bourbons than with high-rye bourbons.
It’s also less aggressive than rye and tends to be more of a front-of-the-tongue experience. The mouthfeel of wheat is also creamier and less prickly than rye.
Try your wheated bourbons neat or on the rocks because the softness of the bourbon stands alone just fine. And while some people say wheated bourbon doesn’t hold up well in a cocktail, we disagree.
Now that you know what to expect from rye and wheated bourbons, you can create a to-try list and begin your research to discover what you love from both.
- 1792 Bourbon—18% rye
- Bulleit—28 rye
- Old Forester—18 rye
- Redemption High Rye—21 rye
- Old Grand Dad Bottled-in-Bond—27 rye
- Maker’s Mark—14% wheat
- Wheated Bourbon, MGP—45% wheat
- Old Fitzgerald—20% wheat
- W.L. Weller Special Reserve—16-18% wheat
Trial Recipes for Both Flavors of Bourbon
- 1 oz. Bulleit Rye
- 0.5 oz. sweet vermouth
- 3 dashes aromatic Bitters
- 1 cherry
- 2 oz Weller Special Reserve Bourbon
- .75 oz Peychaud’s Aperitivo
- .75 oz sweet vermouth
- Orange twist
Pick Your Poison … Or Enjoy Them All
Try them straight, neat, on the rocks, or in a cocktail to discover which you love and the flavor of the bourbon you prefer. Continue exploring and tasting and testing to expand your palate and your knowledge of this very complex libation.