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Study Says No One Can Really Tell the Difference Between Rye and Bourbon

A new study says the average person can’t tell the difference between the two types of whiskey, at least when it comes to the American blends.

Alex Swerdloff

Photo via Flickr user ctj71081

You don't have to be the scion of a wealthy Kentucky dynasty to know that whisky lovers tend to have strong feelings about the differences between the various types of distilled alcoholic beverages made from fermented grain mashes. Rye, they say, is dry and hard-edged, while bourbon tastes of caramel and has a creamier flavor. Bourbon is clearly for Old Fashioneds, whiskey sours, and mint juleps, according to the received wisdom. Rye? Make it a Manhattan.

But a new study out of Drexel University says the average person can't tell the difference between the two types of whiskey, at least when it comes to the American blends. And there's a reason for that. Bourbon and rye are—save for a few crucial differences—basically the same thing. As small as a 2 percent difference in the two types of alcohol can tip one from being called "rye" to "bourbon" or vice versa.

READ MORE: Will Whiskey Drinkers Be Down with Bourbon-Flavored Vodka?

The legal difference between rye and bourbon comes from something called their "mash bill"—the composition of the mash of fermented grain they're made from." The mash that makes bourbon bourbon is largely corn. Rye's mash comes from the grain of the same name—rye. But all other requirements for making the two are identical and just a slight difference in the mash can change the label.

All of this means the average consumer is completely unable to discriminate between the two flavors, as the recent study reveals.

Jacob Lahne, an assistant professor in the Center for Hospitality and Sport Management at Drexel asked 21 study participants to evaluate a tray of 10 unlabeled American whiskeys. Five were bourbons and five ryes. The participants were instructed to smell but not taste the alcohol and then organize the whiskeys into no fewer than two and no more than nine groups. Later, the same whiskeys were presented and the participants were asked to sort the whiskeys into groups again.

READ MORE: This Man Is Making Kimchi Taste Like Bourbon

A statistical analysis revealed that the subjects did not separate the whiskeys based on whether they were bourbon or rye, but instead on other characteristics like alcohol content, age, and brand. For instance, the participants tended to group together Jim Beam whiskeys—they could detect a "house" flavor—but couldn't tell whether they were bourbons or ryes. The results of the study are being published in the Journal of Food Science this month.

"There is definitely a tendency for bartenders to talk about how some drinks should absolutely be made with bourbon or rye, and I think it's clear now that there is more flexibility," Lahne said. "In a way it's fun and exciting—it gives you a bigger universe to play with."

The perceived differences between bourbon and rye may come from back in the day when the mash bill differences between the two whiskeys were more pronounced, Lahne said. Today, though, American bourbons and ryes are very closely related. Bottom line: you probably shouldn't be all that afraid the next time some Southern dandy wearing only seersucker tries to cajole you into a blind taste test with his kilt-wearing buddy.