There are a lot of people out there describing their Bourbon as a “high rye” Bourbon. The problem is there is no legal definition of the term ”high rye”, so just like the term “single barrel” it is left up to the distiller to decide whether their product should be considered a high rye Bourbon. Let us look at several of the ways the term could be interpreted.
All of these definitions should use the percentage of rye in the mash bill as the defining factor. The first way is to consider the fact that Bourbon has to be at least 51% corn so it is the other 49% that should define the term. At least 25 % of the remaining grain should be rye to be a high rye Bourbon. There are a few Bourbons that meet this requirement, but not many. Several brands would lose the claim to being high rye Bourbons if the term is defined in this way.
The second way to define this term would be to consider that the average Bourbon uses about 70% corn and the flavor grain and malt percentage is about 30%. To be a high rye Bourbon would mean higher than 15% rye in the mash bill. I believe that this is way that many of the consumers interpret the term today but I have never done a survey to find out for sure.
The other popular usage seems to be based upon the perception of the amount of rye that is in the average mash bill and this is perceived as being 10 to 12%, so High rye is anything above 12% rye. The big problem with using the average is that if the majority of distillers start using say 16% rye, then that becomes the average driving the term to a higher percentage. It makes the term fluid in definition and in my opinion, useless.
Another way to look at the term is to simply consider the percentage of grains other than corn. If the rye percentage is greater than any other grain then it could be called “high rye”. For example if the mash bill is 78% corn, 12% rye and 10% malted barley then it could be called high rye Bourbon by this definition. This is a bad definition in my opinion because it could lead to a 99% corn and 1% rye Bourbon being called high rye.
At this point distillers could use any of these interpretations of the term to describe their product as “High Rye”. It is important for the consumer then to ask the distiller the percentage of rye and how come they then consider their product “High Rye”. If they are reluctant to say how they define the term then you should begin to smell a marketing ploy and call bulls*** on the distillery. However like all other marketing terms used by the distilleries, you should not let them determine your overall perception of the whiskey. Taste the whiskey and if you like it, purchase it, if not walk away and leave the bottle on the shelf.
I personally like the first definition of the term and a “High Rye” Bourbon should have at least 25% rye in the grain recipe. It is the most clear-cut way of looking at the term. Adoption of this definition would force many popular “high rye” Bourbons out of the category but I am not sure that is a bad thing. My second choice is to consider a 30% flavor grain with over 15% rye being considered “High Rye”. I would love to hear other thoughts on this subject. Please feel free to reply to this blog and give your opinions on what is “High Rye’ Bourbon.
June 5, 2017 at 1:10 pm
I’m curious if “high rye” is relative to the times. Take Jimmy Russell, for example. When he was distilling in the 1950’s, it’s possible that 15% rye or so was quite high for the times. He probably maintains that mentality, even though there are clearly higher rye recipes in production today. So Mike – what were typical rye percentages 60+ years ago? Thanks!
June 5, 2017 at 1:23 pm
Mchael, most distillers use 70% plus corn and perhaps 10% minus malted barley. Which leaves twenty percent for rye. I like to call our bourbon high rye when the rye is over 15%. Seems lately that all bourbons that use rye instead of wheat are called high rye.What then is low rye. Again, I think 15% or more should be considered HIGH RYE>
September 21, 2018 at 3:54 pm
That is very interesting. I hadn’t thought of how wheat enters
Into the equation. I had wrongly assumed that High Rhy would be over 50% rhy.I have found that relatively high amounts of wheat add a smoothness to bourbon that can counteract, to an extent, the bite of a young mainly corn product. This may be diametrically opposed to the inclusion of larger amounts of rhy, where the bite is part of the attraction. I would like to hear from someone (you for instance) who actually makes bourbon, or whatever it is called (whiskey again for instance) when rhy and wheat ratios are combined with with corn. Especially the question of when super high levels of rhy are combined with lesser amounts of wheat, with a goodly amount-not necessarily 50+%- of corn.
June 5, 2017 at 1:42 pm
I agree about the first definition being the best.
The trick however, is getting the distillers to agree. More appropriately it’s getting their Marketing group to agree. It’s my opinion that those are the real villains responsible for much of the misleading advertising.
June 5, 2017 at 4:13 pm
Mike, when is “Single Barrel” not a single barrel? Did you mean to use “small batch” as a non-defined term there?
June 5, 2017 at 6:40 pm
Eric, I meant single barrel. There is no legal definition and as long as the whiskey is bottled on barrel at a time then there is plenty of “wiggle room” for the distillers. For example bottling from barrels that were consolidated at some point.
June 5, 2017 at 4:52 pm
First of all, thank you for taking the time to write about a topic that lacks true definition. It is something that I speak of at great length about while presenting/ educating. I agree with the first definition being the closest contender for the most truthful and accurate. I always consider the entire mashbill as part of the definition as well. Second to corn and corn alone with regards to mashbill percentages should always be rye. Typically, I say between 15 and 20 percent as a secondary grain is the jumping off point. I wish more distilleries would be more transparent in their mashbill disclosure. Thank you again for your wonderful writing and ability to educate all levels of enthusiasts!
June 5, 2017 at 5:28 pm
More often than not I use the terms LR and HR as a descriptor when a distillery uses 2 Ryed Bourbon mashbills.
That would include BT, FR, and MGPi. So for that the percentage could be very low as long as it is higher than their other Ryed mashbill.
If the term is to be used to describe Bourbon made by distilleries with only one Ryed mashbill then yes, a definition should exist. Somewhat arbitrarily I say 15%. If we use that definition though then all 3 distilleries I listed above would loose their LR’s and instead each have 2 HR mashbills.
So then they’d have a LRHR and a HRHR? In which case HR would be repetitive and they’d soon be back to LR and HR.
June 5, 2017 at 6:44 pm
Jeff, Maybe the categories should be 1) Low Rye: <10% ryes, Medium Rye: 10%-14%, High Rye: 15%-24%, and Extra High Rye: 25% -49%.
June 5, 2017 at 7:13 pm
I would prefer an 18-20% minimum Rye content across all mash bills of co-mingled distillates in a batch. This would include brands historically thought of as ‘High Ryes’ which have distinctive grain characteristics. Some very Rye-forward single barrels would fit too.
June 5, 2017 at 8:20 pm
Interesting and informative, as always. What should the label reveal in this regard? Or is there any legal requirement? There is likely a big drop-off when technical language is provided to consumers not in the distilled spirits business.
June 6, 2017 at 3:04 am
I didn’t realize this was even a problem. And yet after reading all of the complaining, I still don’t see why it’s a problem. Anybody Bamboozled by marketing labels probably should stick to light beer.
June 25, 2019 at 7:59 pm
Good article. When I was working on a high rye for us I had to consider this topic. What I decided is that the rye content should fall between the definition of Rye Whiskey and Corn Whiskey. Theory being rye over 51% is Rye Whiskey and Corn over 80% is Corn Whiskey if other requirements are met. I ended up somewhere in the 45% small grain level, which would fall to the extreme upper end of possible range. Keep up the great content.
October 24, 2020 at 3:49 pm
Excellent text. A profound definition that ends all myths about rye. 👋🏻👋🏻🥃