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Rye vs bourbon: what’s the difference? Here’s a quick guide to the main differences between these types of whiskey (and some cocktails!).

Rye vs bourbon
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Rye vs bourbon: what’s the difference? These two types of whiskey are both very popular, but they have major differences in flavor. Which is commonly mixed into a Manhattan vs an Old Fashioned? Which is better? Here’s a breakdown on the technical differences, tasting notes, and of course: a few popular cocktails that use each one!

Rye vs bourbon: what’s the difference?

The technical difference between rye whiskey vs bourbon is in its production method, which results in a difference flavor for each type.

  • Bourbon is a specific type of American whiskey that is made from at least 51% corn and aged in oak barrels. The name bourbon comes from Bourbon Country, Kentucky: the region where the spirit was invented. Today over 95% of the bourbon produced is made in Kentucky.
  • Rye whiskey is a type of whiskey made with a majority of the grain rye. This term refers to either American rye whiskey, made of at least 51% rye mash, or Canadian whisky, which may or may not contain rye. Canadian regulations don’t require it to contain rye, though historically it did.

The flavor: what does rye taste like vs bourbon?

But the more important question is: what are the flavor differences between rye whiskey vs bourbon? In general, rye is known for its spicy finish and bourbon is a little sweeter and rounder. Of course, this does vary based on brand! We’ve tasted a bourbon was grassy and grain-forward, followed by a rye that was bright with a sweeter body.

  • Rye whiskey tastes grassy and peppery, with a signature spicy finish. Depending on the brand, there may may be notes of oak, smoke or fruit. Rye is generally spicier with a more aggressive flavor than bourbon.
  • Bourbon whiskey typically has a sweeter, more mellow flavor than rye, with notes of vanilla, oak and caramel. But there’s a wide variety of different flavors between bourbon brands: one expert breaks bourbons into 4 major categories: grain forward, nutmeg forward, caramel forward, and cinnamon forward.

What’s the difference vs Scotch? Read more at Bourbon vs Scotch.

What cocktails feature rye whiskey vs bourbon? There are many whiskey cocktails that call for either type, but some are specific to rye and bourbon. Here are a few of the most popular in each category:

Here are the most popular rye whiskey cocktails where its spicy flavor shines:

Some of the most popular bourbon cocktails are:

The Whiskey Highball is a great way to taste the differences between rye whiskey and bourbon. Scroll down for the recipe!

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Rye vs bourbon

Whiskey Highball (Rye or Bourbon Cocktail!)

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  • Author: Sonja Overhiser
  • Prep Time: 2 minutes
  • Cook Time: 0 minutes
  • Total Time: 2 minutes
  • Yield: 1 drink 1x


Here’s how to make the classic whiskey highball: tall, bubbly, and all about the spirit! This cocktail is a refreshing way to enjoy your favorite whiskey, whether it’s rye or bourbon.




  1. Fill a glass with ice. Pour in the whiskey and soda water and stir gently.
  2. Squeeze in the lemon wedge and serve.
  • Category: Drink
  • Method: Stirred
  • Cuisine: Cocktails
  • Diet: Vegan

About the authors

Sonja & Alex

Hi, we’re Alex and Sonja Overhiser, married cookbook authors, food bloggers, and recipe developers. We founded A Couple Cooks to share fresh, seasonal recipes and the joy of cooking! Our recipes are made by two real people and work every time.

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  1. Max Perez says:

    Wow I really love what you guys put together here, this was extremely informative and helpful. I love whiskey and would like to know more about whiskeys in general and the different ways to use whiskeys to make drinks
    Anyone and everyone can learn to enjoy. I do know that whiskey is one of the only liquors that has some health benefits if drank in moderation. I greatly appreciate what you guys put together here! What about Irish whiskey How does this liquor compare and play into the combinations that you guys put together here? I’ll be looking forward to seeing what else you guys have online. Very smart, simple and informative. Thanks again! Max

  2. mikey mathews says:

    tell me more