Most Of Us Can’t Tell Difference Between Bourbon and Rye

By Aly Walansky |
whiskey, glass, ice

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With Derby season upon us we’re rekindling our love affair with whiskey, but do we have any idea what kind we’re drinking?

Possibly not, says a new study out of Drexel University, which will appear in this month’s Journal of Food Science. The study asked research subjects to “smell test” the difference between bourbon and rye, and, *spoiler alert* participants could not tell the difference.

Related: WHISKEY WISDOM: THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN WHISKEY AND BOURBON

Jacob Lahne, PhD, an assistant professor in the Center for Hospitality and Sport Management, wrote in the study results:

"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.” Although, since Lahne is a food scientist and not a mixologist we can already hear the growing rumble of bartenders taking issue with that statement.

The study was a blind sorting task of American ryes and bourbons. In the research, 21 subjects were given trays of 10 whiskeys, an unmarked mix of ryes and bourbons in random order, and were asked to group them, by any criteria they wanted.  They were instructed to smell the whiskeys but not taste them. 

Related: PIE-FLAVORED WHISKEY IS ABOUT AS CRAZY AS FLAVORED WHISKEYS CAN BE

The result: People did not differentiate their whiskeys based on whether they were bourbon or rye, but rather based on age, brand, or alcohol content.

That is right on track with what we may expect for a whiskey blind sniffing, says one expert. “As someone who has done a fair amount of blind tasting, it cannot be stressed enough that visual cues and marketing tactics weigh heavily on how we perceive spirits,” says Kevin Denton, National Mixologist for Pernod Ricard. “With the ever-diversifying field of American whiskeys of varying ages, wood finishes, and mashbills, I can see how this research is inconclusive. Most of us in the US were not whiskey drinkers until recently.”

Americans’ relatively recent move to whiskey as their drink of choice means that many palates just aren’t experienced enough to know the differences, according to Joaquin Simo, bartender and co-owner of Pouring Ribbons in New York City. “I would agree that for most people who are not used to drinking neat spirits (especially in an analytic or critical manner), the distinctions between many common bourbon and rye mashbills will be lost. Most rye whiskies made by the big guys (Wild Turkey, Rittenhouse, Old Overholt) are at 51% rye, so the differences are less apparent unless you know what to look for. This is what happens as customer tastes shift over time, as well as a side effect of the homogenization of mashbills as historic brands are bought and sold between larger conglomerates.”

So, next time someone next to you at the bar is waxing rhapsodic about the bourbon in their Old Fashioned, just smile and nod. They may have no idea what they are talking about.

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