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A Focus on Grain

Bourbon and whiskies are made from three ingredients: water, yeast, and, most importantly, grain. Some may say that the casks in which the spirit is matured could be considered an additional ingredient due to their influence on flavor over time, but for the purpose of this blog, it's water, yeast, and grain.

For non-whiskey drinkers, grain may be seen as quite innocuous. Bread doesn't have the flavor we rave about, and when was the last time we examined the quality of our breakfast muesli? But take some grain, ferment it, and turn it into spirit, and there is a whole world of flavor to explore.

In this article we will look at Corn, Rye, Wheat and Barley; the flavor they impart and some cocktails that use these grain spirits…well, summer is arriving and what better than a cocktail to celebrate!


Corn (maize) is the primary grain in bourbon. (Bourbon is legally required to be a minimum of 51% corn and the remainder of other grains. See our article on American Whiskey for more info: American Whiskey, a simple drink? - Barrel Global ).

If you eat corn in its natural state, you know that it has a lovely sweetness that works well with butter; BBQing brings out those sugars, and of course, popcorn, which can be salted, sweet, drizzled with butter, maple syrup, and so much more. Corn gives us some great flavors and pairings.

So, what does corn bring to whiskey and bourbon? Well, quite simply, corn brings the flavors already discussed. It combines well with chocolate, cinnamon, and honey…it almost sounds like we're describing cereals. Well, there's a reason Mr. Kellogg chose corn for his cereal production, and we agree.


While corn is a gentle, sweeter grain, rye offers a spicier experience in your dram. In its pre-whiskey form, rye can offer a slightly sweet and sour flavor profile. Once it has been made into spirit, it is known for adding a little more mouthfeel to a dram. Baking spices like nutmeg and cinnamon and less sweet elements of pepper, oak, mint, and dried fruit are present in this spicier dram.


While wheat is used less in whiskeys, it adds another taste experience to a dram. While wheat whiskey needs to be at least 51% wheat grain, wheat is added to the mashbills of other whiskeys and bourbon. A prominent recognized flavor of wheated whiskey is fresh, honey-baked bread. So, another gentle, sweeter taste, which for the whiskey-curious may be a great place to start a whiskey journey.


While barley is the predominant grain in Scotch and other world whisky, it is used less in American whiskies. Malted barley in spirit form can give notes of malted biscuits and light orchard fruitiness; the flavor also depends on the distillation process. (Copper contact in the stills, still shape, and fermentation times impact the flavor notes in the spirit). Unmalted barley adds a layer of sharpness to the spirit, and you may find notes like lemon and green apples.

Of course, there is not just one variety of each grain species. For example, there are approximately 200 varieties of corn alone. While these grains offer fantastic flavor profiles alone, the magic happens when distillers create their mashbills (recipes) using the grains in varying amounts. The joy for consumers is that it means there are so many variations of spirit that you will never run out of new whisky to try.

We promised some cocktail recipes:

Rye Whiskey based Boulevardier;

  • 1 1/4 ounces rye whiskey
  • 1 ounce Campari
  • 1 ounce sweet vermouth
  • Garnish: orange twist


  1. Add bourbon, Campari and sweet vermouth into a mixing glass with ice and stir until well-chilled.
  2. Strain into a rocks glass over fresh ice.
  3. Garnish with an orange twist.

Rye based or bourbon (using a mix of grain); Blinker


  • 2 ounces rye whiskey
  • 1 ounce yellow grapefruit juice, freshly squeezed
  • 1/2 ounce raspberry syrup*
  • Garnish: 3 raspberries, skewered


  1. Add the rye whiskey, grapefruit juice and raspberry syrup into a shaker with ice and shake until well-chilled.
  2. Double-strain into a chilled coupe glass.
  3. Garnish with skewered raspberries.

*Raspberry syrup: Add 2 cups of demerara sugar and 1 cup of water into a saucepan over low heat and stir until the sugar has dissolved. Remove from heat and add 1 cup of raspberries, fresh or frozen, stirring until the berries form a pulp. Allow mixture to cool, then strain into a sealable container. Will keep, refrigerated, for up to 1 week.

(Cocktail credit to The 20 Best Rye Whiskey Cocktails to Try Right Now (

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