Friday, June 18, 2010

What's The Difference Between Scotch And Bourbon?

The question I am probably asked more than any other is, "what's the difference between scotch and bourbon?"

Sometimes I start by explaining the difference between blended and single-malt scotch and then draw a parallel to American whiskey. Scotland has blended whiskey and so does the United States. Scottish blends are like American blends and single malt scotch is like bourbon, right?

Not exactly.

You might think everybody at least knows what whiskey is, but there are points of contention there too. Europeans declare that grain spirit aged for less than three years is not whiskey. Indians declare that any spirit that resembles whiskey in appearance and taste is whiskey, even if it’s not made from grain.

What is the real difference between scotch and bourbon? They taste nothing alike, that’s the real difference. Why do they taste nothing alike? The legal regimes under which they operate have a little bit to do with it. But the traditions and aspirations of producers, and the preferences of consumers, are most of it.

Take the difference between Scottish and American blends, for example.

Everybody knows what vodka is and nobody considers it whiskey, even though most vodka is made from grain. It isn’t whiskey because it is distilled to neutrality (generally considered to be 95% alcohol) and not aged.

But, in effect, the United States says vodka is whiskey if you replace at least 1/5 of it with straight whiskey. Then it is blended whiskey (20% straight whiskey, 80% vodka).

Canadians and Europeans get to just about the same place by a different and slightly less magical route. Instead of 95% alcohol they distill their beer to 94.5% alcohol and put it in wood for three years. They call that whiskey and it is found in virtually all of their blends.

So on paper, at least, Scottish, Irish, Canadian, and American blends are almost the same, yet anyone who has tasted both would vehemently disagree. The difference isn’t the 1/2 of 1% neutrality difference, or even those precious three years in wood. It’s that the Scots (and the Irish and Canadians) produce cheap blends but also very fine and expensive blends, and everything in between, while the U.S. produces cheap blends only.

That has nothing to do with rules and regs.


Scott said...

Do you think a premium American blend could be successful? Something that was, say, 40% straight whiskies and the balance light whiskey, all of which was aged 8-12 years?

Chuck Cowdery said...

The product would have to be very good, different from bourbon/rye, and a good value. Maybe it doesn't even have to be different. But it does have to be from a company willing to invest in and develop it. It won't work as an "if you build it they will come" proposition.

I don't even know that it all has to age that long, because American whiskey isn't scotch. The straights component could include some old whiskey. The light doesn't have to be old because it likely will all be aged in first refill bourbon barrels.

If nothing else, the economics of having a good steady use for your own used barrels would be good for any bourbon producer.