Bourbon has long been America's favorite tipple, but in recent years, its popularity has rocketed to an incredible level. Lovers of the golden spirit are becoming more discerning and moving away from the large bourbon producers to specialist distilleries, who innovate and expand bourbon creativity - such as Rabbit Hole Distillery.. 

Heigold high rye bourbon

In response to the demand, bourbon makers are experimenting with the combination of ingredients in their whiskey to create a range of products with subtle differences in taste to suit a wider range of palates. This has led to a growth in the market of varieties like high rye bourbon and high wheat bourbon.

What Is High Rye Bourbon?

High rye bourbon, as the name suggests, is made with a higher content of rye grain than a normal bourbon. As all whiskey aficionados know, to be labeled as bourbon, the whiskey must conform to strict criteria.

It must be produced in the U.S., made from a grain mash of at least 51% corn, distilled to no more than 160 proof (80% ABV), be matured in new charred oak barrels, barreled for aging at no more than 125 proof (62.5% ABV), and bottled at no less than 80 proof (40% ABV). While there is no specified aging period for bourbon, it must be aged for a minimum of two years to be called straight bourbon.

After adding a minimum 51% of corn, the remaining percentage of the mash bill can be made up of any combination of grains, such as rye, wheat, and malted barley. Distillers can adjust the quantities of these grains to give their bourbon the desired flavor notes. Using a larger proportion of rye gives us what is known as high rye bourbon, which tends to have a spicier and more peppery taste that perfectly blends with the sweet flavor of the corn.

Even in a high rye whiskey, a small amount of malted barley is added to the mash bill. It adds a rich, malty flavor with a hint of caramel, but the barley is also necessary to deliver the enzymes that liberate the fermentable sugars held in the corn and rye grains. In the case of Rabbit Hole Heigold high rye bourbon, the malt content of the mash is 5%.

How Much Rye Should Be Used in High Rye Bourbon?

Unfortunately, there is no legal definition for how much rye makes a high rye bourbon. So, in a similar way to small-batch whiskey, it's a relative term and distillers can interpret it in whatever way they choose. Obviously, rye needs to be the second-highest quantity of grain in the mash bill, after corn, and there should be enough rye to have an impact on the taste of the bourbon.

However, the term “high rye” can be interpreted in several ways, all of which define the percentage of rye in the mash bill differently. For example, if a bourbon is made of the minimum 51% corn, then rye should make up over half of the remaining 49% grain. That would mean a rye content of at least 25% of the mash bill to be classed as a high rye. By using this definition, some brands would lose their high rye bourbon status.

Alternatively, the average bourbon is made from around 70% corn and 30% malt and other grain. By this method, a rye content in the mash bill of at least 16% would be defined as high rye. Another interpretation is based on the rye content in the average mash bill, which is generally considered to be 10% to 12%. Distillers could claim that a bourbon with more than 12% rye is high rye. With this definition, the average rye content of high rye bourbons would be pushed down, which is not good for consumers.

After corn, distillers could also take into account the ratio of rye to the other grains in the mash. If there is more rye than any other grain, the bourbon could be labeled as high rye. For instance, a mash bill of 80% corn, 12% rye, and 8% malted barley would be defined as high rye bourbon. By this means, a bourbon maker could technically use a mash bill of 95% corn, 3% rye, and 2% barley, and call it high rye.

With these various interpretations of the term “high rye,” it can be confusing for consumers. However, you can make an informed decision by choosing a brand, such as Rabbit Hole, that clearly states the mash mix on its high rye bourbon label.

High Rye Bourbon vs. High Wheat Bourbon

As with the rye in high rye bourbon, high wheat bourbon is made with a higher than usual quantity of wheat in the mash mix, but these bourbons give you very different flavors. While the high rye bourbon has a bold spicy and peppery taste, high wheat bourbon offers a softer flavor with slightly grassy and earthy notes.
Of course, the flavor profiles of either bourbon vary according to the blend of grains and the length of the aging process. Also, as explained above, what one distiller calls “high” could be considered low by another.

Rabbit Hole Distillery Heigold High Rye Bourbon

At Rabbit Hole Distillery, our Heigold high rye bourbon is made with a unique mash bill of 70% corn, 25% malted German rye, and 5% malted barley. It's bottled at 95 proof (47.5% ABV). The bourbon is named after a German immigrant, Christian Heigold, who was a well-known stonecutter in Louisville, Kentucky. It has a sweet aroma of toasted malt and baking spices and treats the palate with notes of butterscotch and bursts of citrus while offering an exciting peppery and spicy finish.

As with other types of whiskey, finding a high rye bourbon that suits your palate and gives you the experience you're looking for is by tasting and comparing a few for yourself. But be sure to look for the brands that tell you what the rye content is. Rabbit Hole Heigold is a great place to start your high rye adventure.

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