The study may be small, but researchers at Drexel University have opened an inquiry into whether modern bourbons and ryes—both types of whiskey—are different enough to be discernible to the average taster, and they've come back with a resounding "no." Reporting in the Journal of Food Science, lead author Jacob Lahne says the average consumer doesn't appear to be able to tell the two flavors apart, and that any perceived differences may be remnants of a bygone era when the two may have been produced more differently than they are today. "In a way it's fun and exciting," he says of the impact his findings may have on certain cocktail recipes. "It gives you a bigger universe to play with."
What separates a bourbon from a rye is its mash bill: To be legally called a bourbon, which comes from an "Old Bourbon" area of Kentucky, reports the Huffington Post, the mash must be at least 51% corn, while rye has to use at least 51% rye. In other words, it's possible for the two to be nearly identical, with only a 2% difference in primary mash content. And when the researchers presented 21 participants with a tray of five bourbons and five ryes in anonymized labels and randomized order, had them sniff each, and then a few days later drink each and group them into whichever categories they pleased, people tended to catalogue the drinks based on alcohol content, bottling age, and brand (i.e., Jim Beam whiskeys are known for undertones of roasted peanuts). Telling apart a drink's mash bill, on the other hand, may need to be left to the professionals—perhaps the subject of a future food science test. (See why bourbons are in short supply.)