Whiskey drinkers tend to be loyal to their chosen brands, but when it comes to a blind test, you probably can’t tell a bourbon from a rye. Those were the findings of a scientific study from Washington State University.
There’s national pride at stake too. You can’t tell a Scotch drinker that they should trade their Macallan single malt for a tumbler of Jameson.
We Canadians have our Crown Royal, Wiser’s, and Canadian Club, and aficionados usually pick their favourite. After receiving a bottle of 40 Creek on my fortieth birthday, I became an instant fan.
Americans have bourbon, Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, Knob Creek, and Woodford Reserve to name a few. (Jack Daniels isn’t technically a bourbon because of its distinct maple charcoal filtering process.)
Canadian whiskey is commonly referred to as rye whiskey, or simply ‘rye.’ This is because some rye grain is added to the mix to create the distinctly Canadian whiskey flavour. They make rye whiskey south of the border as well. In the United States, “rye whiskey” is, by law, made from a mash of at least 51 per cent rye. (The other ingredients of the mash are usually corn and malted barley.)
American whiskey is more typically made from a mash of at least 51 per cent corn. This is bourbon, and it tends to be sweeter than rye. Some corn whiskeys are distilled in Canada as well, but they cannot by law be called bourbon.
Other than their mash mill (or grain content), the legal and stylistic requirements for bourbon and rye whiskey are identical.
So how distinct are they, and who would win in a taste test between bourbon and rye?
That’s what associate professor Tom Collins (I swear that’s his real name) and his team of researchers from Washington State set out to find out.
They gave 21 study participants trays of 10 unmarked whiskeys – five bourbons and five ryes – in random order. The participants were instructed to smell but not taste the drinks. (This is the official method published in guidelines for Scotch whisky evaluation. They take these things seriously.)
Study participants were then asked to organize the whiskeys into no fewer than two and no more than nine groups, by any criteria they wished.
The researchers found that people did not group the whiskeys based on whether they were bourbon or rye, but rather were more influenced by properties like alcohol content, age at bottling and brand. For example, participants were very likely to group together various Jim Beam whiskeys.
Collins said this is probably because the various whisky distillers make their bourbons and ryes in similar ways using similar barrels. “So much of the characteristics of any whiskey come from the barrels,” he said. “And when you use the same barrels for each style, there will naturally be strong flavor similarities.”
The bottom line? It’s the whiskey maker’s craft and barrels that influence the taste of their product more that the corn/rye content in the grain mix.
“There are differences between rye and bourbon, but they aren’t nearly as different as we think they are. In a blind test, it’s really hard to tell a difference,” said Collins.