If you know a little bit about cocktails, you can probably spout off the main whiskey in a Manhattan (rye) and an Old Fashioned (bourbon).
But could you actually tell the difference between the two whiskey flavors? Probably not, says a new study in the Journal of Food Science.
When scientists asked participants to organize whiskeys in a blind flavor test, they couldn’t sort the booze samples by type (bourbon or rye)—only by brand (like Jim Beam).
Distinguishing flavor is tricky because bourbon and rye both fall in the same whiskey family (alongside scotch and Irish). So you have to look for nuances, says Tim Harland, the vice president of sales and marketing at Grand Teton Distillery in Idaho.
If you’re handed a highball glass from your girlfriend’s dad or from your boss at the next dinner meeting, here’s how to tell the difference between bourbon and rye to prove your whiskey prowess:
Bourbons have a sweeter, mellower undertone because they’re made from more corn than other whiskies. You’ll also pick up more of a caramel taste in bourbons, which comes from the oak barrels distillers use to age them.
Ryes, meanwhile, are a bit spicier, dryer, and more full-bodied than bourbons.
But the best way to ID bourbon, rye, and other whiskeys is to keep trying different bottles, and take mental notes of what you taste.
“Each individual picks up different flavors in the same glass of whiskey,” Harland says. You may taste caramel while your buddy gets more vanilla on his tongue. The more types of whiskeys you taste straight, the more you’ll understand how their flavor profiles differ.