What is Rye Whiskey made of and how is it made?

I know you can look up the answer on Wikipedia, but I thought I’d look back in time a bit to find some explanations that are a minimum of fifty years old. Why? because I like to know how things used to be done.

Rye whiskey is made from rye and malt, and depending on the recipe (“mash bill”) smaller amounts of other grains, including wheat and corn. The addition of other grains in addition to rye appears to be a more recent addition to the standard recipe. The process begins with grinding the grains separately from the malt. After grinding, the grains are placed into a mash tank.

The next step is to prepare the malt. Barley is kept between 50 and 60 degrees and steeped in water until it sprouts. After 10 to 14 days the roots should grow between 1/2 to 1 inches long. It is then kept moist and at a temperature less than 60 degrees and aerated until the sprouts develop. It is then heated to no more than 140 to 158 degrees and 2 to 3 percent moisture. The resulting product is called “maltose.” After this roasting, the maltose is ground in preparation for adding it to the mash. The maltose contains enzymes which convert the unfermentable grain starch (from the rye and other grains) into fermentable sugar. Even at no more than 10% it can convert all of the starch in the unmalted grains.

Once inside the mash tank the unmalted mash is cooked by forcing steam up through the mash from the bottom of the tank. It is then cooled with cold water circulating inside coils. When cooled, the ground malt is added and the mixture is agitated. This converts the grain starch into fermentable sugar. The mash is then pumped through cooling pipes. This mash is now “distiller’s beer.” This is pumped into the still. The still separates the alcohol from the beer and it rises out of the top of the still into the condenser. Cold water is pumped into a jacket around the condenser which cools the vapor and creates “new whisky,” which is 100 to 120 proof. This new whiskey is aged in charred white oak barrels. The charred liner absorbs impurities.

How is Rye different from Bourbon, Gin or Scotch?

Bourbon whiskey is made the same way, except that the main ingredient is corn with a small portion of rye. The final proof is no more than 160 or it becomes “corn whiskey.”

Gin is made of the same materials and in the same manner as well, with one addition; juniper berries are boiled in the last distillation, imparting their peculiar flavor.

Scotch is whisky made in Scotland and substitutes barley for rye. A peat or smoky flavor is imparted by roasting the malt over peat fires.

Current Requirements: Departing from historical sources, the requirements for the different American whiskeys are as follows:

27 CFR § 5.22(b)(1)(i) “Bourbon whisky”, “rye whisky”, “wheat whisky”, “malt whisky”, or “rye malt whisky” is whisky produced at not exceeding 160° proof from a fermented mash of not less than 51 percent corn, rye, wheat, malted barley, or malted rye grain, respectively, and stored at not more than 125° proof in charred new oak containers; and also includes mixtures of such whiskies of the same type.

      Rye Whiskey: 51%+ rye grain, less than 160 proof, poured into new charred oak containers at 125 proof.


      Bourbon Whiskey: 51%+ corn, made in the U.S., less than 160 proof, and poured into new charred oak containers at 125 proof.


If the whiskey stays in the barrel for at least two years, it can qualify as a “straight” whiskey, though this is a term rarely sought after by producers.

If the whiskey is made outside of the U.S. it cannot be called “bourbon” here in the U.S.

If the whiskey is made in Tennessee, it can be called “Tennessee Whiskey” regardless of whether it is run through the “Tennessee Process.”

Henley’s Twentieth Century Book of Recipes, Formulas and Processes.
May 27, 1946 Life Magazine, “How Liquor is Produced.”
May-October 1886 Popular Science, “How Alcoholic Liquors are Made.”


5 thoughts on “What is Rye Whiskey made of and how is it made?

  1. At one time, Hammond, Indiana had the largest distillery in the world. It closed when Prohibition passed and has never come back. We are looking for economic development initiatives now in downtown Hammond and a artisan rye whiskey plant might work. To explore the feasibility of starting up a new artisan distillery, we would need a business plan, an equipment list, and a good how-to-do-it manual. I think we can raise the investment to make it work. How might we go about the task of rebuilding this industry in downtown Hammond, Indiana?

    (See: hhs59.com ) for photos of early Hammond, Indiana.

    Thanks in advance.

    • One thing to keep in mind is that a distillery can make rye whiskey, bourbon, single malt, rum, and a large number of other whiskeys and spirits. If you just make rye whiskey, then your buyer will only buy a new bottle when they finish that bottle. Sell four or five different spirits, and you can spread those marketing dollars over the same customer base. There are notable exceptions to this concept, but many of the successful artisan distilleries are making a multitude of different products.

      The second thing I’d mention is that the biggest stumbling block to actually getting a distillery open and running is the aging of the spirits. There are few business ventures in the world where you cannot sell your product for two to five years. (aerospace and pharmaceuticals are exceptions) Sure, you can sell white dog, white rum, or vodka as soon as it comes out of the spirit still, but you don’t have a product that will really compete on a price or quality level. So, the business plan needs to account for that extreme lead time. A lot of so-called artisan distilleries actually contract out their distillation to a large, established company and then step in to take control of the product at the aging, bottling or even the marketing stage. Once they take that step, they never end up making their own product. Contracting out the distillation is fatal to making your own whiskey.

      Third, and I’m only just getting going here, you need a story. A popular marketing tool is to claim some connection to a historical distillery or product. Name rights come up for sale every once in awhile, but the major distilleries have bought up most of the names and will not part with them if they think that there is any value to be lost. Using the history of the old Hammond Distilling Company might work, but finding a connection might be difficult. The original site appears to be empty from Google Earth though nothing from the original plant remains.

  2. Thank you so much for sharing your insights. We are presently in Missouri and plan to visit the Copper Run still this week.

    Please keep us posted on your ideas …

    Richard Barnes, Ph.D.

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