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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 secret to picking a good scotch whisky

Picking out a Scotch whisky from a wall of names you have no chance of pronouncing can be intimidating. Names like Auchentoshan and Bruichladdich, are sure to get you dirty looks from the Scotch enthusiast behind the counter and the people behind you in line. So you choose one the old fashioned way: blind pointing. How different can each bottle of Scotch be, right?

Wrong. That random bottle you pointed out will definitely be peaty, and it’ll probably have some malty flavors. But beyond that, what you get will vary depending on the region where it was produced.

To be clear, the region doesn’t matter as much as, say, wine regions. The barley used in Scotch isn’t tied to the land or a terroir like wine grapes are. Variations come into play with how distilleries produce their final products in terms of how much peat is used, what type of oak cask is used, where the barley comes from, and aging time.

The easiest way to have an idea of what you’re getting without tasting (there are over 100 Scotch distilleries and it’s a pricey task to try and taste them all) is to pick your Scotch based on the region. There are five recognized regions: Highland, Speyside, Islay, Campbeltown, and Lowland. There’s also Island, which is generally looped in with Highland.

HIGHLAND

Highland is the largest whisky region by land size. It’s also the region where you’ll get the most variability between different distilleries, thanks to the sheer distance of the region. Northern Highland whiskies are generally a little spicier, while southern Highland whiskies are a little sweeter. Brands include names like Lochnager, Knockdhu, and Glen Ord.

LOWLAND

Just below Highland is Lowland. It’s a good place for novice Scotch drinkers to start because it has a lighter body, less peat, and a bit of a sweet vanilla note from the barrel treatment. There are four distilleries in Lowland producing single malt Scotch: Glenkinchie, Bladnoch, Auchentoshan, and, most recently, Aisla Bay.

SPEYSIDE

Right in the middle of Scotland, carved out of the Highland region, is Speyside. It’s named from the river Spey, where many of the distilleries draw their water from. What it lacks in size, it makes up for in numbers. Speyside has more than half the distilleries in Scotland, including many of the more well-known brands like Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, and Macallan. Scotch from Speyside is generally on the malty sweet side, but is balanced out with peat and a dry finish.

CAMPBELTOWN

Toward the bottom near Ireland is Campbeltown. It used to be the primary region, but today there are only three working distilleries. In 2009, the Scotch Whisky Association folded the Campbeltown region into the Highland region designation.

ISLAY

Finally, there’s Islay, where the biggest of the big single malt Scotches are made. You know Scotch from Islay from the first smell. It has the most campfire peat flavor of any of the regions, as well as a bit of a saltiness and a dry finish. Some of the big names in the region are Laphroaig, Lagavulin (Ron Swanson’s fireside drink of choice), Bowmore, and Ardbeg.

You don’t have to know every unpronounceable Scotch to pick a random bottle you will enjoy. They’re all peaty, but the variations are in the regions. Pick an unfamiliar Scotch by the region and you’ll have at least a general idea of what you’re getting.


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