What Causes A Bourbon To Taste Spicy?

Bourbons have a surprisingly complex flavor given that they're mostly made of corn. There are hints of vanilla and toffee which play nicely with the corn's sweetness but there's a spicy note that undercuts that sweetness as well, giving the drink a well-rounded character. When you notice the spice notes, what you're tasting is the rye. Rye is a grain much like wheat that you may be familiar with from rye bread or even rye whiskey.

Although the mash bill will change from whiskey to whiskey, bourbons will typically use something like 75% corn, 13% rye, and 12% malted barley. Corn provides sweetness, rye adds a spice flavor similar to black pepper, and malted barley adds nuttiness. When a distiller is creating a new mash bill, they will adjust the proportions of each ingredient to create the flavor they want.

Two popular bourbons that emphasize the rye are Bulleit Bourbon and Four Roses Single Barrel. Bulleit Bourbon has a mash bill of 68% corn, 28% rye, and 4% malted barley and Four Roses takes that even further with a mash bill of 60% corn, 35% rye, and 5% malted barley. Both are excellent bourbons that stand out from the crowd because they've chosen to highlight the bold flavors of rye. If you enjoy the strong flavor of rye, choose whiskey that has a higher percentage of rye in the mash bill. The higher the rye content, the spicier the bourbon will be.

Beyond the high-rye bourbon

Not all bourbons use rye in the mash bill. Wheated bourbons are so-called because they replace the rye with wheat, which is sweet, leaving you with a mash bill of corn, wheat, and malted barley. Maker's Mark is a well-known wheated bourbon as is Weller Special Reserve. Maker's Mark and the rye-heavy Four Roses each have a distinct bourbon taste but, if you had the chance to try them side by side, it wouldn't be hard to notice that the black pepper spice of the rye has disappeared in Maker's Mark. Rye is punchier than wheat and you can taste that difference in how soft a wheated bourbon feels in comparison.

In order to be called a bourbon, the mash bill must contain at least 51% corn so there's no way for a bourbon to have more than 49% rye at the most extreme. You would be hard-pressed to find a 51% corn, 49% rye bourbon in real life but if there ever was one, it would still be called a bourbon. But once rye has become the dominant grain, it's no longer a bourbon — it's a rye whiskey. If you enjoy the flavor of high-rye bourbons, you may want to look into popular rye whiskeys like the wonderful High West Double Rye or the unfailing Rittenhouse Straight Rye. If you want to try a premium whiskey brand's affordable option, WhistlePig's PiggyBack Rye is another great option.