Bourbon vs. Scotch vs. Whiskey vs. Whisky–The Distinctions Every Gentleman Should Know

Bourbon

Bourbon is a type of American whiskey. It is a barrel-aged, distilled spirit made primarily from corn. Though it may be made anywhere in the United States where it is legal to produce spirits, the word “bourbon” is usually applied to whiskeys made in the South, especially in the state of Kentucky. Limestone-filtered, iron-free water unique to the Kentucky region is believed to contribute significantly to the quality of Southern bourbon. Though the international consensus—for the most part—is that the word “bourbon” should only apply to whiskey made in the United States, what legally qualifies as “bourbon” may differ from country to country. And the United States’ regulations for the labeling and advertising of bourbon only applies to products made for consumption within the United States. Bourbon made to be consumed within the United States must meet the following criteria:  It must be created within the United States; it must be made from a grain mixture, known as the “mash bill,” that is at least 51% corn (rye, wheat, and malted barley are also typically used); it must be aged in new, charred, oak barrels—generally understood to mean American white oak—which contributes to the product’s reddish color and flavor profile; it must be distilled to no more than 80% alcohol by volume; must be put into a barrel for aging at no more than 62.5% alcohol by volume; and must be bottled at 40% or more alcohol by volume. No coloring or flavor additives are allowed.

To make bourbon, the grain is ground and mixed with water, creating a mash. (Sometimes, in a production method referred to as “sour mash,” mash from the previous distillation is added to create a consistent PH across batches). Yeast is then added, and the mash is fermented. The fermented mash is then distilled to a clear spirit, which is then put into new, charred, oak barrels for aging, during which time the spirit gains color and flavor from the caramelized sugars in the charred wood. Maturity, not age, is the goal:  Over-aged bourbon can acquire a “woody, unbalanced” flavor.  Consequently, bourbon has no specified aging period. Some bourbons are aged for as few as three months. But any bourbon aged less than four years must specify the length of aging on its label. And any product labeled as “straight bourbon” must be aged for a minimum of two years. (A “straight bourbon” aged less than four years must specify the length of aging on its label). And the age specified on a label must be that of the youngest whiskey in the bottle.

By law, bourbon barrels may only be used once in the production of bourbon. Consequently, the once-used bourbon barrels end up being used to age other spirits:  The barrels are shipped across the Atlantic to Scotland, where they are used to age Scotch whisky, which, unlike bourbon, may be aged in previously used barrels; barrels are sold to Mexico for the aging of tequila; barrels are sailed to the Caribbean to age rum; and various beer and bitters manufacturers use the barrels to enhance the flavor profiles of their products.  Used bourbon barrels are also used to store coffee beans, tobacco, etc.

It is believed that whiskey-distilling came to Kentucky in the late 18th century with Scottish and Scottish-Irish immigrants. Almost two centuries later, on May 4, 1964, bourbon whiskey was recognized as a “distinctive product of the United States” by the United States Congress. The name “bourbon” ultimately derives from the French Bourbon Dynasty; but the debate continues as to whether the whiskey’s name was inspired by Bourbon County, Kentucky or Bourbon Street in New Orleans, Louisiana. What is known, however, is that the appellation “bourbon” was not applied to the whiskey until the 1820s.

Bourbon is served “neat”; diluted with water or mixed with soda; “on the rocks”; or as an ingredient for cocktails such as “Whiskey Sour,” “Manhattan,” “Old Fashioned,” and “Mint Julep.” [ While virtually all Mint Julep recipes specify bourbon as an ingredient, the official Mint Julep of the Kentucky Derby is made not with bourbon, but with Early Times whiskey, a whiskey made in previously used bourbon barrels of the Old Forester bourbon distillery ].

Jim Beam and Evan Williams are well-known and highly regarded bourbon whiskey brands. Jack Daniel’s, a whiskey made in the state of Tennessee, is not a “bourbon” by definition because it is filtered through maple wood charcoal before being put into oak barrels for aging. And that extra step renders it outside the parameters of “bourbon.”

Scotch

Scotch whisky derives from a Scottish drink called “uisge beatha,” which means “lively water” or “water of life.”  The fist indication of what would become Scotch whisky (oftentimes referred to today simply as “Scotch”) appears in the June 1, 1495 Exchequer Rolls of Scotland:  “To Friar John Cor, by order of the King, to make aqua vitae, VIII bolls of malt.” Cor was the distiller at Lindores Abbey in the Kingdom of Fife. (Approximately 1,500 bottles of liquor can be distilled from eight bolls of malt, suggesting that distillation was already a well-established technology by late-15th -century Scotland). The taxing of whisky in 1644 resulted in its clandestine production—so much so that around 1780, there were only about eight legal distilleries, but about 400 illegal ones.  The 1800s saw a dramatic rise in the popularity of Scotch primarily because of two reasons:  The 1831 introduction of the column still, which improved the quality and flavor of the spirit while reducing its cost; and the destruction of wine and brandy production in much of Europe as a result of the phylloxera bug epidemic of the late 19th century.

Scotch is whisky made in Scotland in a manner specified by law:  Amongst other things, it must be produced at a distillery in Scotland; the mash from which it is distilled must be comprised only of water and malted barley to which whole grains of certain other cereals may be added [Originally, from the late 1400s, Scotch was made only from malted barley. But in the late 18th century, commercial distilleries in Scotland started making whisky from rye and wheat.]; the fermentation may be initiated only by yeast; the distilled spirit must be aged for at least three years in oak casks in Scotland; there may be no added substances other than water and caramel coloring [Whiskies to which no color has been added are generally preferred by whisky purists]; and the finished product must be at least 40 percent alcohol by volume. Whenever the age of a Scotch is declared in numerical form on the bottle, that age must be of the youngest whisky in the blend that is contained in that bottle. It is generally agreed that Scotch does not continue to “age” once bottled.

About ninety percent of all whiskies produced in Scotland are blended—derived from different batches and/or barrels from one or more distilleries. And there are two basic types of Scotch whisky from which those blends are made: “Single-Malt Whisky” (produced from only water and malted barley at a single distillery by batch-distillation in pot stills); and “Single-Grain Whisky” (distilled at a single distillery, but in addition to being comprised of water and malted barley, may have also derived from whole grains of other malted or unmalted cereals). From those two basic types of whisky are derived three types of blends:  1) “Blended Malt Scotch Whisky”—a blend of two or more single-malt Scotch whiskies from different distilleries; 2)  “Blended Grain Scotch Whisky”—a blend of two or more single-grain Scotch whiskies from different distilleries; 3)  “Blended Scotch Whisky”—a blend of one or more single-malt Scotch whiskies with one or more single-grain Scotch whiskies.  Single-malt whiskies are regarded as the most prestigious.

There are five primary whisky regions in Scotland:  Lowland (known for light-bodied, gentle, malty, grassy whiskies); Highland (revered for firm, spicy, dry, and sweet whiskies); Speyside (celebrated for sweet, mellow, sometimes-fruity whiskies); Islay (renowned for full, heavily peated, smokey whiskies); and Campbell (highly regarded for medium-bodied whiskies).

Scotch whisky labeling typically specifies aspects of its production, age, bottling, and ownership. The label always declares the malt and/or grain whiskies used.

A drink-unit of Scotch whisky is oftentimes referred to as a “dram,” the typical serving being about an ounce.  The traditional drinking-ritual is a four-step procedure sometimes called “The 4 S’s”:  swirl, smell, sip, and savor. Traditionally, Scotch is swirled in the glass, coating the sides of the glass and allowing the whisky to breathe. The liquor should be “tasted” by the nose before by the tongue:  The whisky should be inhaled, before the nose is moved away from the glass for about 30 seconds to allow for the inhaled aromas to be interpreted.  Scotch is designed to be drunk in sips rather than as a “shot.” It is oftentimes mixed with a little water (enough to dilute the alcohol content to about thirty percent—typically about one teaspoon of water). Alcohol content can sometimes mask the delicate flavors of Scotch; diluting with a little water allows the subtle flavor profile of the liquor to become more prominent. Once a sip of Scotch has been swallowed, the mouth should be opened slightly to facilitate the tasting of the “finish” of the whisky—its flavors which linger in the mouth.  Experts assert that a tulip-shaped glass is best for sipping Scotch:  It allows the liquor to be swirled without spilling; and it concentrates the whisky’s aroma near the rim of the glass.

Pouring Scotch over ice is considered a practice of the past; most modern aficionados insist that cold temperatures tend to mask the subtleties of the liquor.

 

Whiskey

Unlike bourbon whiskey, which must be made in the United States and distilled from at least 51% corn. and unlike scotch whisky, which must be made and aged in Scotland, whiskey can be made anywhere in the world.

Whiskey is a spirit distilled from fermented grain mash. Various whole or malted grains—especially rye, corn, barley, and wheat—are used.  The spirit is typically aged in casks made of oak.  (See “Bourbon” and “Scotch”). The Irish nation and the word “whiskey” are almost synonymous terms. The first confirmed, written account of whiskey in Ireland dates from 1405, almost a century before the precious beverage is known to have appeared in Scotland.

One of the most rare and prized of all whiskeys is “cask-strength” or “barrel-proof” whiskey.  Only the highest-quality whiskeys are bottled as such—bottled from the cask, undiluted or only slightly diluted.  “Single-cask,” also known as “single-barrel” whiskey is also highly esteemed:  Such whiskeys are bottled from an individual cask, the label on the bottle typically specifying barrel number and bottle number. Because single-barrel whiskey is not blended, taste may vary significantly from cask to cask, even within the same brand. But for the connoisseur who prizes individuality and adventure, each bottle of single-barrel whiskey makes for a unique experience.

While connoisseurs would recommend that the finest whiskeys be drunk neat at room temperature, or perhaps diluted with a little water, whiskey is also used as a mixer in cocktails, and old-school drinkers often drink it on the rocks.

[ “Whiskey,” pl., “Whiskeys” in the Republic of Ireland and the United States.  “Whisky,” pl., “Whiskies” in the United Kingdom].

 

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