Three enzymes of the Mentha essential oil biosynthetic pathway are highly homologous, namely the ketoreductases (−)-menthone:(−)-menthol reductase and (−)-menthone:(+)-neomenthol reductase, and the “ene” reductase isopiperitenone reductase. We identified a rare catalytic residue substitution in the last two, and performed comparative crystal structure analyses and residue-swapping mutagenesis to investigate whether this determines the reaction outcome. The result was a complete loss of native activity and a switch between ene reduction and ketoreduction. This suggests the importance of a catalytic glutamate vs. tyrosine residue in determining the outcome of the reduction of α,β-unsaturated alkenes, due to the substrate occupying different binding conformations, and possibly also to the relative acidities of the two residues. This simple switch in mechanism by a single amino acid substitution could potentially generate a large number of de novo ene reductases.