When chatting about what I do over a pint at the local watering-hole, I’m often asked if bourbon is really whisky. Once, while hosting an ‘Introduction to Whisky’ tasting event several years ago, I included a bourbon. One guest was so shocked that they almost walked out of the tasting!
Simply put, Scotch is whisky made in Scotland, bourbon is a variety of whiskey (note the ‘e’) made in the USA.
Let’s start with the spelling. The ‘e’ in bourbon whiskey has two origins, the first being from the Irish spelling. The second to make it sound like a more up-market product than simple whisky in an age when Scotch was not at its best. The name ‘bourbon’ originates from the French bourbon dynasty, when France ruled of large swathes of what is now the USA.
While most associated with Kentucky, bourbon can be made anywhere in the USA. It must be made from over 51% corn (with the rest of the malt bill made up of rye, wheat and barley). And aged in new fill (or ‘virgin’) charred American-oak barrels for a minimum of two years. On the other hand, Scotch whisky must be aged for a minimum of three years, and usually in second hand (or ‘re-filled’ barrels) that were previously those used to age bourbon whisky.
While most Scotch whisky is mass-produced and blended from numerous malt and grain distilleries, most whisky lovers enjoy Single Malt Scotch. This is usually aged twice as long as bourbon whisky in a much cooler environment. Resulting in a softer and subtler drink than bourbon which is usually full-flavoured, oaky and spicy.
Single malt scotch
Single Malt Scotch is therefore often viewed as the higher quality whisk(e)y which is not a wise assumption to make. While the Scotch Whisky Association’s rules are strict, they still allow for the use of caramel colouring E150A; this is banned in bourbon. Especially when drinking entry-level whiskies, a cheap bourbon is often a better choice than a cheap Scotch. Next time you’re out, compare a Woodford Reserve to a no-age-statement Glen Keith. I know which one I’ll be drinking!
For an older dram, you’ll probably be wanting to go for a Single Malt Scotch. The evaporation rate of bourbon is so great that it’s rare to find one that’s anywhere near 12 years old, let alone 21! The use of less active oak casks, 100% malted barley, and a slower maturation, results in a much more complex flavour. With hundreds of distilleries and cask types to choose from, the choice is endless!
At the end of the day, I drink young Bourbon and old Scotch and keep bottles of both…