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.