whats difference between high-wheat and high-rye bourbon?

Over the last decade, bourbon’s popularity has skyrocketed, and there’s no wondering why. Its sweet, warming flavor profile is like a corn-based hug for your insides, on top of the fact that it goes down incredibly smooth. The strong aromatics and bold palate make it an ideal cocktail ingredient, yet its soft sweetness also makes it a perfect sipping whiskey. With the surge of bottles available on the market bourbon has become a bit more complicated; we’re hearing terms such as “high-wheat” and “high-rye” thrown around in our local liquor stores and strewn across website ratings. What exactly is the difference between a high-wheat and a high-rye bourbon, and what are some examples of each?

Bourbon’s signature sweetness comes from the fact that by law, the spirit must be composed of a minimum of 51 percent corn. The other 49 percent of the mash bill, a.k.a. the distiller’s special concoction for creating the whiskey, may be any combination of grains, such as rye or wheat, as well as malted barley. Adding rye to the mash bill imparts boldness to the whiskey, giving it spicy, robust flavor traits. Wheat tends to impart earthy, grainier notes to the whiskey, a flavor profile that most people find smoother and easier to drink. While rye components can be a bit more bold and in your face, wheat characteristics tend to be a bit more mild and subdued.

What exactly qualifies a bourbon as “high-wheat” or “high-rye?” A mash bill containing 20 to 35 percent rye is considered to be a high-rye bourbon. Keep in mind that all bourbons, regardless of high-wheat or high-rye, are all distilled to no more than 80 percent ABV and bottled to be at least 40 percent ABV.

The best way to figure out the difference between high-wheat and high-rye bourbons is to taste them for yourself. Bulleit is definitely the most well-known high-rye bourbon. It’s very widely available all over the country and mouthwateringly delicious. Four Roses Single Barrel sits in first place for highest-rye mash bill at a whopping 35 percent. Basil Hayden’s and Booker’s are also great high-rye bourbons to taste. For high-wheat examples, seek out Old Fitzgerald, Maker’s Mark, and, if you happen to be extremely lucky, a good old bottle of Pappy Van Winkle. 

the scientific reason why whisky tastes better with water

Whisky drinkers can be awfully protective of their hooch, particularly when it comes to the issue of water dilution. Proponents of the purist approach often argue that ice or even a couple of drops of water can ruin the integrity of your favorite Bourbon, Rye or Scotch. Others assert that adding a drop or two of water actually improves whisky’s taste, accentuating its flavor and aroma. According to a a study published by Scientific Reports, there may be a molecular reason behind proponents of water dilution.

The addition of water to alcohol is not a new phenomenon. The ancient Romans would often mix their heavy wine with water in mixing bowls. Absinthe and its anise liquor cousins are often prepared by dripping water over a sugar cube into the green stuff. And I’m not the first person to order a Jack on the rocks on hot summer evening. High school chemistry is a distant memory, but the fundamentals can help us understand why water might improve the whisky experience.

The molecule responsible for much of the smell and taste of whisky is called guaiacol, which interacts with water and ethanol molecules. The first factor is the liquid-air interface, which is where the whisky and air meet at the top of the glass. The more guaiacol molecules present at the surface, the more aroma and flavor you will taste. The second factor is alcohol concentration. “We found that guaiacol is preferentially associated with ethanol, and, therefore, primarily found at the liquid-air interface in mixtures that contain up to 45 vol-% of ethanol,” according to Scientific Reports. The alcohol and guaiacol molecules compete for space at the liquid-air interface. Therefore, fewer alcohol molecules create more room for guaiacol molecules at the surface.

As a result of this space dynamic, researchers determined cask strength whisky contains too many ethanol molecules, which leave less space at the liquid-air interface for guaiacol molecules. Adding a couple of drops of water to higher proof whisky dilutes the concentration of alcohol molecules, leaving more area for guaiacol molecules at the surface.

Nevertheless, besides personal preference, there appears to be science behind adding a drop or two of water to higher proof Scotch, Bourbon or Rye.  However, water may be an unnecessary risk for the average 40% ABV whisky where guaiacol is already significantly present at the surface. Balance is key, but the most important thing is to take it the way you like it.

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