Good Morning, Let’s Talk About Whiskey

How did the distinction between bourbon and rye whiskeys develop?
 Rothbaum: It was mostly geographic, based on what would grow in different regions. Around the world, people made alcohol from whatever was available — if you had grapes, you would make wine; if you had apples, you’d make applejack or calvados; if you had potatoes, you’d make vodka.

Bourbon has to be at least 51 percent corn, and then usually it’s a little bit of malted barley and some rye, though there are a few brands like Maker’s Mark or Weller that use wheat instead of rye. Bourbon also has to be aged in a new oak container. Rye whiskey has to be made predominately from rye, but it can be up to 100 percent rye. That’s the main difference between the two — the mash bill or recipe for rye is mostly rye, and for bourbon, it’s mostly corn.

A Pennsylvania label for corn whiskey, now known as bourbon, circa 1910s. Image courtesy Saint Mary’s Antiques.
 A Pennsylvania label for corn whiskey, now known as bourbon, circa 1910s. Image courtesy Saint Mary’s Antiques.

Rye is a hearty grain, so it can survive the winter and be harvested a couple of times per year. It’s a nice cover crop, and it’s indigenous to the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic area, whereas corn is something that grows very well in the South.

You have to remember that back in the day, people weren’t aging their whiskeys for 8, 10, 12, 20 years. If you go back to someone like George Washington, who had the largest rye distillery in the country at Mount Vernon at the end of the 1700s, his whiskey was made to be drunk immediately. It wasn’t going to be aged; it would have been drunk as a clear alcohol.

The distinctions we make today are for products that are quite different than what people were drinking back then. By the beginning of the 20th century, things had become much more standardized. Glass bottles, combined with a number of government acts that went into effect, helped ensure what was in the bottle was safe to drink and actually as advertised. Today, if you make bourbon, you have to use a new oak barrel that has been charred inside. The barrel provides all the color of the whiskey and a lot of the flavor.

And now you know literally everything about whiskey.