Rye whiskey and bourbon are often thrown together, mentioned in the same breath as if they’re one and the same, and can be used as such. However, while the two whiskeys are pretty similar and often appear in the same cocktails, there are still some differences.   

Here’s what you need to know about the differences between rye and bourbon whiskeys so that you can spot the subtleties at your next whiskey tasting or when mixing up a batch of your favorite whiskey-based cocktails (and if you don’t currently have a preferred whiskey-based cocktail recipe, keep reading for a few of our favorites!). 

What Defines Bourbon? 

Bourbon and rye are both types of whiskey, but they differ in ingredients, and for a whiskey to be considered bourbon, it must meet very strict requirements. Bourbon must be made in the United States (though some may argue that it needs to be made in Kentucky to be genuinely authentic), aged in a new and charred American oak barrel, made from a mash that’s at least 51% corn, barreled at no more than 125 proof and bottled at no less than 80 proof, and made with no added colors or flavors. 

This particular combination of ingredients and processes results in a smooth and slightly sweet whiskey, with a bit of spiciness depending on the brand you’re drinking. In Limestone Branch Distillery’s case, our award-winning Yellowstone Select Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey is a blend of four- and seven-year-old bourbons and comes in at 93 proof. It offers notes of leathered cherries, smoked caramel, oak, and brown sugar.  

What Defines Rye Whiskey?  

So how does rye whiskey differ? Unlike bourbon, rye whiskey can be made in any country, but, like bourbon, U.S. rye whiskey also comes with specific requirements. For a U.S. whiskey to be considered rye whiskey, it must be made with at least 51% rye, a wheat-like grass used to make some beers and vodkas. Otherwise, the ingredients list and distilling processes are nearly identical to those used for bourbon.   

Rye is generally spicier than bourbon, with a distinct taste that, once you learn to recognize it, you’ll always recognize it. Limestone Branch Distillery’s Minor Case Straight Rye Whiskey was created in honor of M.C. Beam, whose distilling career was cut short by Prohibition. Minor Case Rye Whiskey features earthy and sweet notes with hints of butterscotch and dried fruit.  

Using Rye Whiskey in Your Favorite Cocktails  

After giving rye whiskey a try neat or on the rocks, and acquainting your palate with its unique flavor profile, try it in one of your favorite cocktails. In many bourbon-based cocktails, you can swap the bourbon out for rye. We use our Minor Case Straight Rye Whiskey in several variations on the classic Manhattan, including in our Minor Rye Maple Manhattan, a great seasonal drink with its addition of the warm maple; our Black Tea Manhattan (because why settle for tea or a cocktail, when you can have both?); and our Tawny Rye Manhattan, which also adds in an ounce of Fonseca 10-year Tawny Port. 

Whether you prefer bourbon or rye, you can stock up on both Minor Case Straight Rye Whiskey and Yellow Select Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey at your favorite local spirits store (find a retailer near you).  

You can also visit Limestone Branch Distillery in Lebanon, Kentucky, where our distillery includes a cocktail bar and offers tours every day of the week.

Bourbon may be considered America’s whiskey and holds status as the most popular whiskey in the country, but it wasn’t the first American whiskey. That honor goes to rye whiskey.

Let’s discuss the history of rye and what makes it different from other whiskeys.

The Storied Past and History of Rye Whiskey

Rye whiskey can be traced back all the way to 1750 — several decades before the invention of bourbon whiskey. Rye whiskey was created in Pennsylvania when farmers and immigrants attempted to create whiskeys similar to what they would’ve enjoyed in their home countries. Since rye grew well in the Mid-Atlantic climate of Pennsylvania and neighboring states, rye became the grain of choice for these small-time distillers.

However, thanks to their skill with a still, they would not stay small for long. Rye whiskey quickly became the drink of choice for early Americans, particularly after the Revolutionary War, when Americans lost access to spirits produced elsewhere (like rum, which was hugely popular in Colonial America) and needed to rely on their own supply.

So just how popular was rye whiskey in the late 1700s?

George Washington was the proud owner of a rye whiskey distillery with five stills and the capacity to produce 11,000 gallons of whiskey per year. And if the president’s involvement in the rye whiskey industry isn’t enough to convince you of early America’s love for the stuff, just consider how rye whiskey performed compared to bourbon in the early 1800s.

In 1810, Kentucky produced 2.2 million gallons of bourbon; Pennsylvania produced nearly three times as much rye whiskey. Additionally, in the early 1800s, it’s estimated that one Pennsylvania county alone produced enough rye whiskey to give a whole barrel to every two people in the United States.

However, rye whiskey would eventually decline in popularity, and Prohibition didn’t help its cause. Because rye whiskey wasn’t easy to make, it didn’t fare well with bootleggers who still operated spirit-forward businesses outside the law.

In fact, rye whiskey didn’t regain its popularity until recently, over 200 years later. The growing interest in whiskey, especially craft whiskeys, has brought the once-dominant libation back to life. Today, discerning whiskey fans are giving new life to rye whiskey, and savvy distilleries and bartenders are taking advantage. You can find rye whiskey-based cocktails at most bars and even partake in rye whiskey-based tourism by visiting a recreation of George Washington’s original distillery.

What Makes Rye Whiskey Different?

But is rye whiskey all that different from bourbon whiskey? The short answer is yes. Check out this blog for a longer, more detailed answer, though!

Just like bourbon, rye whiskey follows a unique recipe. Rye whiskey must be made from a mash bill of at least 51% rye grain. Additionally, it must be bottled at a minimum of 40% ABV or 80 proof.

Rye whiskey isn’t as popular to drink neat as other whiskeys, but it makes a great addition to cocktails that benefit from rye whiskey’s subtly spicy flavor profile.

Canadian rye whiskey isn’t held to the same standards, so a bottle of Canadian rye may not have a majority rye mash bill, and, in some instances, you may find that Canadian rye whiskey doesn’t even contain rye at all.

Where Minor Case Comes In

Minor Case Straight Rye Whiskey boasts roots that are nearly as deep as the history of rye whiskey overall. Minor Case’s namesake, M.C. Beam, began distilling in the late 1870s, seeing success in the industry until Prohibition. We like to think that our Minor Case Straight Rye Whiskey would have been identical to what he would’ve served in the 19th century.

Minor Case Rye Whiskey is finished in sherry casks to provide an unforgettable flavor and set it apart from other rye whiskeys on the shelf. It offers earthy notes on the nose, a hint of sweet butterscotch on the palate, and the finish is smooth with hints of dried fruits.

It also makes a killer old-fashioned like the one we serve at Minor’s Lounge Craft Cocktail Bar!

If you’re ready to learn more about rye and the history of Minor Case, visit the Limestone Branch Distillery.

You can also find Minor Case Rye Whiskey on liquor shelves nationwide.

The glitz, the glam, and the dram, who doesn’t love a good whiskey awards season? Here’s a roundup of the Limestone Branch Distillery spirits that won awards (so far) in 2023.

The ASCOT Awards

ASCOT Awards is an international spirits competition created by spirits personality and veteran tasting judge Fred Minnick. Each year, Fred releases his list as judged by the panel of judges.

We won Gold for Yellowstone Select Kentucky Straight Bourbon and Minor Case Rye Whiskey this year!

SIP Awards

The SIP Awards stands apart as the only internationally recognized consumer-judging spirits competition. Winning a SIP Awards has become synonymous with elite quality as judged by the selective tastes of the consumer.

We were honored to win Platinum for Minor Case Rye Whiskey and two golds, one for Yellowstone Select Kentucky Straight Bourbon and Yellowstone American Single Malt.

Bartender Spirits

Bartender Spirits Awards Aims To Deliver The Best Spirits For On-Premise Sector In USA. “Judged By Bartenders, Bar Managers and Off-Premise Managers For The On-Premise Industry,” the Bartender Spirits Awards will recognize, encourage, promote and celebrate excellence in the U.S. drinks industry.

Yellowstone Select Kentucky Straight Bourbon took home Double Gold! And Yellowstone American Single Malt won Gold.

Honored, but Not Done Yet

Winning awards is always great, and we feel honored by the recognition. Ultimately, we aim to make quality spirits that people will love.


Ready to find award-winning spirits near you? Check out this Product Locator Tool.