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What Is Rye Whiskey?

Whiskey is made with simple distillation.
At least 51% of whiskey must be made from rye to be considered rye whiskey.
In the US, rye whiskey is aged in charred oak barrels.
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  • Written By: Dan Cavallari
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 15 December 2014
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The term rye whiskey can refer to more than one type of whiskey, depending on the company and its location. In the United States, this type of whiskey must be made from at least 51% rye to be considered rye whiskey. Rye is a type of wheat, which gives the whiskey a certain taste and aroma. In Canada, however, the label rye whiskey can be given to any whiskey that stays consistent with the taste and aroma of traditional rye or Canadian whiskey and does not necessarily have to contain any certain percentage of rye.

When making rye whiskey in the United States, a distiller may use corn and malted barley in conjunction with rye. The whiskey must be aged in charred oak barrels, and the whiskey must be no more than 125 proof when barreled, meaning the whiskey cannot contain more than approximately 62% alcohol by volume. If the whiskey is aged for two years or more, the label then becomes "straight" rye whiskey.

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Canadian rye whiskey is a different drink altogether. Instead of rye being the primary ingredient, in many cases corn takes over as the primary. While most, if not all, Canadian rye whiskeys contain some amount of rye, there is no requirement for how much rye must be used to distill this whiskey. Therefore, a whiskey labeled Canadian rye may or may not have a significant amount of rye in it at all, but rather possesses the aroma and flavors of a rye whiskey and is therefore 'in the tradition of' a rye whiskey. Most Canadian versions of the whiskey are aged for three years minimum.

This type of whiskey was popular in the northeastern United States, but it largely disappeared during prohibition and struggled to make a comeback afterward. Today, several smaller distilleries still exist that make rye, but these whiskey varieties are not as popular in the U.S. as Bourbon or Scotch. Bourbon tends to be more full-flavored than rye, which has a spicy flavor with hints of fruit. Bourbon is sweeter than rye and is made primarily from corn. While rye used to be a popular choice for mixed drinks, Bourbon overtook rye in popularity and is now more commonly used for such drinks.

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