Spirit Showdown: Scotch vs Bourbon

For many drink enthusiasts, Scotch and Bourbon stand strongest at opposite ends of the “brown spirit” battlefield. To the West, the sweet punch to the face of Bourbon, America’s whiskey; to the East, Scotch whisky — a deep, smoky Highland warrior.

While plenty of whisky — or “whiskey,” take your pick — drinkers cross sides, most have their favorite kind. Far more, however, couldn’t tell the difference between a Maker’s Mark and a Johnnie Walker, or don’t realize there’s a difference in the first place.

If you’re only experience with drinking whisk(e)y involves a chaser, you’re doing it wrong. Not that shots suck (never would I say such a thing), but they do limit the drinking experience to “not drunk” and “drunk,” without leaving room for a bit of beverage enjoyment – you know, tasting the whisky, not just washing it down.

Between that and not knowing where to start among the thousands of different whiskeys, it doesn’t seem worth the effort when alcohol still works, regardless of what you know.

But with a little bit of knowledge, a whole new world of drinking is opened up to you. Plus, people will think you’re smart. Here’s how to spot the differences and appreciate Scotch and Bourbon alike.

“Whisky” vs. “Whiskey”: You may have noticed me spelling the same word two different ways or with an “(e)” in the middle. It’s not because I’m retarded. Both spellings refer to the same category of spirit, which includes Scotch, Irish whiskey, Canadian whisky, Bourbons and other American whiskeys, and Japanese whisky.

The “whisky” spelling refers to those distilled grain spirits from Scotland, Canada and Japan. “Whiskey” is used with those made in America and Ireland.

Grammatically speaking, both are correct. But the distinction is a matter of tradition, same as the process of making whisk(e)y itself. So don’t be fooled by people telling you whisk(e)y is better than Scotch or Bourbon–Scotch and Bourbon are whiskeys.

Scotch whisky: Legally speaking, in order for a distilled spirit to qualify as a “Scotch whisky,” it must: be made only of water and whole barely (with caramel-coloring OK), aged in Scotland, in oak barrels (casks), for a minimum of three years, and be bottled at no less than 40-percent alc./vol. (80-proof). It is within these boundaries that the hundreds of distilleries use their environment and know-how to make their specific type of whisky.

Scotches are often smoky, since they are smoked with bricks of peat, which are made from ancient, decayed vegetable matter. (Scotches made in the Speyside region are much lighter and less peaty; Islay (eye-luh) single malts taste like burnt dinosaur bones.)

Bourbon (whiskey): Contrary to what many will tell you, Bourbon does not have to be made in Kentucky, though it is named after Bourbon County, Kentucky, and you could get shot there for saying such a thing.

Regardless, Bourbon must be made in the United States, from a grain alcohol mixture (any alcohol distilled from fermented grains, like barley, corn or rye), consisting of at least 51-percent corn alcohol, and be aged in new oak barrels that are charred (slightly burnt), sometime up to three time, on the inside. Most Bourbons today are two-thirds corn alcohol mixed with another grain alcohol–often rye–and are aged for at least two years.

Because of the corn alcohol flavor, Bourbons are generally much sweeter than Scotch. However, with an increase in small batch Bourbons, as well as single barrel Bourbons, the flavor pallet has expanded to both ends of the taste spectrum. Bourbons high in rye alcohol content are often more dry and less sweet than those with other grain alcohols.

While the flavors of Scotches and Bourbons can differ greatly, these two whiskeys are forever bound. Both Scotch and Bourbon must be aged in oak barrels.

To cut down on barrel production, most Scotch distilleries partially age their whisky in pre-used bourbon barrels, since Bourbon must be aged in new barrels, by law.

During aging, whiskeys soak into and out of the wood of the barrel, caused by changes in temperature, which extracts flavor from the cask with each cycle. So any Scotch aged in Bourbon barrels contains some of the Bourbon flavor.

Choosing between the two: Don’t, you can drink both! If you are new to whiskeys in general, start with what you like: If you prefer cookies over beef jerky as a snack, I’d go with Bourbon first. If it’s the other way around, aim towards Scotch whisky. Single malt Scotches will often be bold and intense. Blended Scotches (various single malt Scotches, mixed with a lighter grain alcohol), like Johnnie Walker and Dewar’s, will be easier to drink than single malts, since that’s why blended whiskeys were invented in the first place.

Below, I’ve listed my recommendations for what to try to become both a Scotch and a Bourbon man.

Top Five Bourbons for the Scotch drinker:

1. Old Rip Van Winkle, Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve, 15-year-old: Rich and full-bodied, caramel and toffee flavors with a peppery spice. Basically, a perfect bourbon.

2.Booker’s Bourbon: Completely badass, 100-percent uncut and un-filter, bottled straight from the barrel between 121-proof and 127-proof, this whiskey will teach you a few things about being a man.

3.Elijiah Craig Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey: Butter, sweet, and a little smoky, with a crisp, dry finish.

4.Knob Creek: Another of the original small batch bourbons, Knob Creek is aged nine years and bottled at 100-proof, as God intended.

5.Jim Beam Black: Aged eight years, semi-sweet, dry, with a toasty finish. Solid and less expensive than the rest.

Top Five Scotches for the Bourbon drinker:

1.The Dalmore 12-year-old: Rich, deep and woody, this Highland single malt is more orange and spice than smoke and seaweed. Don’t worry, it’s way better than it sounds.

2.Ledaig 10-year-old: Sweet and smoky, this is one of the few single malt Scotches that goes well with food. Try cheese, dark chocolate, or even chocolate chip cookies.

3.Glenkinchie 10-year-old: Produced in the Scottish Lowlands, near Ireland, Glenkinchie is lighter and less smokey than many Scotches, with a fresh, sweet, flowery flavor and light, dry finish.

4.Johnnie Walker Green Label: Frat boys will tell you that Blue Label is the best. And it is damn good. But Green Label blows it out of the water. A “vatted”whisky, Green Label is a perfectly blended mixture of 15 of Scotland’s greatest single malts, as opposed to “blended” (think Dewar’s) whiskys, which contain an unaged, grain alcohol (often from corn or barley). And Green costs $120 less than Blue.

5.Bunnahabhain 12-year-old: Fruity and light, with vanilla and a slightly smoky aroma, this Islay single malt will open the door to the rest of the island’s heavy peat hitters, like Laphroaig, Lagavoulin and Ardbeg.

If you’re just getting started, it’s best to go in with a friend or two on a bottle, before sinking a fortune in whiskies you don’t like. And bars will either rip you off or, more often, not have what you’re looking for. (However, if you’re going to drink at that particular bar anyway, you can try to request that they stock certain bottles.)

In the end, neither Scotch nor Bourbon prevail in this centuries-old spirit battle. The real winner is you. And the loser is the cab driver that had to clean up your puke.

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