Bourbon Science Society: The Rye Presumption

There are many examples throughout history of the general public presuming something to be scientific fact only to have it ultimately debunked. It is commonly assumed that lightning never strikes twice in the same place. Yet, the Empire State Building is struck by lightning an average of 23 times each year. People believed the world was flat until Columbus proved otherwise. The zealots in Salem, Massachusetts believed you could prove a woman was a witch if she weighed the same as a duck (or maybe that was Monty Python & the Holy Grail).

In Bourbon, it is a commonly-held belief that rye content in a mash bill will determine the spiciness of the Bourbon. You’ve probably heard friends say that they like a Bourbon with spice so they prefer a high-rye mash bill. Or, perhaps, they don’t care for a spicy whiskey so they go for a low-rye Bourbon or maybe even a “wheater” (a “wheater” is a Bourbon whose secondary grain is wheat instead of rye). The presumption, then, is that one can determine rye content in mash bill by the “spiciness” of the Bourbon.

To see if this “Rye Presumption” can withstand scientific (or even pseudo-scientific) scrutiny, I assembled a panel I have dubbed The Bourbon Science Society (or B.S. Society, for short). This B.S. Society participated in not one, but TWO blind tasting trials. Their purpose was to taste five different Bourbons of similar proof and rank each Bourbon by rye content in the mash bill.

Trial One

Panel size: 5 tasters

Tasting type: Blind

Bourbons tasted (rye % in mash bill):

·         Rebel Yell 100 (0% rye / wheater)

·         Henry McKenna single barrel, bottled in bond (10%)

·         Old Forester 100 (18%)

·         Old Grand Dad bottled in bond (27%)

·         Four Roses OBSV single barrel, 100 proof (35%)

The flight for Trial One in the order of tasting.

The flight for Trial One in the order of tasting.

Discussion: Each Bourbon in this flight was at 100 proof to establish a baseline and eliminate the chance that “heat” from proof could be confused with “spice” from rye. Each panelist was asked to rank the five Bourbons from low to high rye content based on their blind tasting. The rankings from each panelist were combined to form a “consensus” ranking. These are the results:

Trial One Results.png

Column A indicates the lowest rye content (1) to highest rye content (5) that is actually found in the mash bill of each Bourbon in the flight.  Column B shows the consensus selections based on the blind tastings of the B.S. Society panel from low rye to high rye.

Our panel was close on a few of these missing the low and high rye selections by only one place in their rankings. Rebel Yell (the “wheater”) was rated as the mash bill with the second lowest rye content (listed as number 3 in the chart since there was a tie for number 1). They also had Four Roses slated as the mash bill with the second highest rye content and it was actually the highest. McKenna being tagged as the lowest rye content in the group was also close as McKenna’s 10% rye mash bill was the second lowest in the flight.

There were a couple of areas where our B.S. Society results were less accurate. Old Grand Dad, which had the second highest amount of rye, was tied for lowest amount of rye by our panelists. Old Fo was also seen as being the highest rye Bourbon in the flight, but was actually in the middle of the five.

Conclusion: Rye content cannot accurately and consistently be determined through blind tasting. Rye content in a mash bill does not equate to “spiciness”. After some discussion, however, there were concerns that including two single barrels in the flight could somehow distort the results. The B.S. Society decided to reconvene for a second trial of this experiment. In Trial Two single barrels would not be included in the flight.

Trial Two

Panel size: 4 tasters (these four were all in the Trial One panel)

Tasting type: Blind

Bourbons tasted (rye % in mash bill):

·         Maker’s Mark 101 (0% rye / “wheater”)

·         Evan Williams bottled in bond (10%)

·         Old Forester 100 (18%)

·         Wilderness Trail bottled in bond (24%)

·         New Riff bottled in bond (30%) 

Trial Two Line Up from lowest rye highest rye

Trial Two Line Up from lowest rye highest rye

Discussion: Each Bourbon in this flight was at 100 proof, except for the Maker’s Mark which was at 101 (I believe the scientific term for this is “close enough for government work”). This should provide the same baseline as mentioned in Trial One. Also as in Trial One, each panelist was asked to rank the five Bourbons from low to high rye content based on a blind tasting. The rankings from each panelist were combined to form a “consensus” ranking. These are the results:

Trial Two Results.png

Column A indicates the lowest rye content (1) to highest rye content (5) that is actually found in the mash bill of each Bourbon in the flight.  Column B shows the consensus selections based on the blind tastings of the B.S. Society panel from low rye to high rye.

Our panelists did not fare as well in Trial Two. They were close with the Evan Williams bottled in bond by identifying it as the lowest rye content when it was, in fact, the second lowest. None of the other consensus results were very accurate. In fact, the highest rye bourbon (New Riff) was tasted as the consensus lowest rye. The “wheater”, Maker’s Mark, was scored as the highest rye Bourbon.

Conclusion: Even with a different flight of Bourbons in Trial Two, the conclusion is the same. Rye content cannot accurately and consistently be determined through blind tasting. Rye content in a mash bill does not equate to “spiciness”.

Tom, Jeremy, Timothy, Mark and Jared: Hard At Work In The Name Of Science!

Tom, Jeremy, Timothy, Mark and Jared: Hard At Work In The Name Of Science!

Final Thoughts

There are, of course, a great many variables that influence the taste of a Bourbon. Water, barrel, location in the rick house, aging, and even the unique palate of the drinker are just some of the factors impacting a Bourbon’s taste. Rye content and mash bill certainly play a role in that taste profile. It is the conclusion of the B.S. Society, however, that the common belief that rye alone determines the source of a Bourbon’s spiciness is inaccurate.

I want to thank our panelists who endured the great hardship of drinking Bourbon and talking about it as a part of this experiment. The guys on this team are experienced and knowledgeable when it comes to whiskey. Trying to determine rye content in a blind tasting is not easy. I would encourage you to try the same experiment in a blind tasting and see for yourself. Look for more such experiments from the Bourbon Science Society soon. If you have any science for us to test, please send me your ideas.

Whether you agree with these conclusions or the methods in which they were determined is obviously up to you. However, I encourage you to challenge your opinions on Bourbon (and other topics) and be willing to change your mind based on the facts you discover. For example, it wasn’t Columbus at all who first rejected the idea that the Earth was flat. And it wasn’t Magellan either. The idea that the Earth was spherical in shape was first proposed by the Ancient Greeks nearly 2000 years before Columbus sailed the ocean blue. The more you know…

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Kevin Rose1 Comment