Friday, July 12, 2013

You Don't Need To Know Anything About Scotch to Enjoy Bourbon

The way Louisville is quickly mophing itself into the gateway city of bourbon country, it might be tempting to call it 'the Glasgow of Bourbon.'

Please don't.

For as long as people have written about whiskey, they have considered scotch first, then defined all other whiskeys by how they are not like scotch. This is not a slam at scotch, scotch is great, but if you are primarily interested in bourbon and rye -- American whiskey -- you don't really need to know anything about scotch.

American whiskey is its own thing, with a tradition almost 400 years old, that developed largely unaffected by European influence for most of that time.

The comparison between bourbon and scotch fails because the differences are so fundamental. They start with the basic ingredients; corn for bourbon, malted barley for scotch.

They couldn't be more different.

Malted barley, of course, has a tradition that goes back about 8,000 years, to the brewers of the Fertile Crescent. When the distillation of fermented beverages began to catch on, in about the 12th century, the most common fermented drinks were beer, made from malted barley, and wine made from grapes.

Corn or maize, on the other hand, was unknown to Europeans before Columbus, although it had been cultivated in the Americas for thousands of years. Getting it to ferment was tricky. The starches in corn are tough, they don't want to dissolve. Americans themselves abandoned corn whenever something easier came along: apples, molasses, rye. Americans only turned back to corn for whiskey-making when they found themselves deep in the post-Revolutionary frontier with a lot of corn and very little of anything else.

One other thing they had plenty of was white oak, a particular species also unique to the Americas. They eventually decided they liked the flavor of whiskey aged in first-use barrels that were deeply charred on the inside. Barrel aging was an old idea but using the barrel just once was a new one, an American one. (Before you say anything about waste, the barrels get re-used, just not for bourbon or rye.)

Similarly, the column still was invented in Scotland but by the time it got to Kentucky, they found a completely different way to use it. Instead of using it to make a different kind of spirit, like the Scots did, they used it to make their style of whiskey more efficiently.

You can learn about American whiskey by constantly comparing it to scotch, but why should you? It's much easier and better to learn about it in its own right. References to scotch are simply unnecessary.

That, in a nutshell, is what motivated me to start writing about bourbon more than 20 years ago. Back then, if you wanted to learn about bourbon you had to learn about scotch first. Since the writers were primarily scotch experts, they didn't always get the differences right. It was a frustrating course of study.

But I was lucky. I didn't have to rely on books and articles alone. I had lived in Kentucky and knew many people in the business. I could get my information directly from the guys who sat next to the still and turned the valves, or who walked the barrel warehouses looking for leaks and opening or closing windows. I could get it from the scions of families who had been making it for hundreds of years. So that's what I did.

Plus when I was there we were always drinking, tasting overaged whiskey, underaged whiskey, whiskey straight from the still, and whiskey that was just right.

I found the history I wanted, not in books, but in little county historical museums. I remember a women in Woodford County who reached into a drawer and handed me an unpublished manuscript by a former editor of the local newspaper, a biography of Dr. James C. Crow, the most celebrated master distiller of the 19th century.

I wasn't alone. There were other people trying to rediscover America's native spirit, at a time when most American consumers had abandoned it, people such as Gary Regan, Chris Morris, Michael Veach, and John Lipman.

Americans declared their independence from Great Britain in 1776 and won it in 1783. By the early 19th century, writers such as Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Edgar Allan Poe had begun to establish an American voice in literature. Meanwhile, American whiskey struggled to survive. In the 19th century it suffered the depredations of the Whiskey Ring, then the Whiskey Trust. In the 20th century it was almost killed twice, first by Prohibition, then in the 1970s by major cultural changes. Only now is American whiskey finally finding its own voice as a distinctive spirit with a worldwide reputation.

One thing American whiskey is not, not anymore, is scotch's provincial cousin. They are both whiskey (or 'whisky' if you prefer) but the comparison ends there.

15 comments: said...

Great commentary. I've always told people Bourbon is a lot more like Cognac than Scotch. Not from the grain or grape perspective, but from the flavor profile and the geographical elements. In Veach's talks, he also notes that Cognac makers were more likely the influencers of charring barrels. The nose on Cognac sure smells a whole lot more like Bourbon than Scotch!

J.B. Koch said...

Loved your article and especially the credit you have given to both Mike Veach and John Lipman, both of whom are personal friends.

Anonymous said...

Richnimrod said;
I LOVE Bourbon.
I HATE (most) Scotch!
So there it is; I said it... and, I won't take it back.
Bourbon lovers should never apologize for not liking Scotch better, or first or ... at all!
...Or, for not bothering to compare their drink with someone else's idea of Whisky-perfection.... especially if it were to be Scotch (yeeeewwwww).

Anonymous said...

When you say apples were used, do you mean they were made into an apple whiskey, or are you referring to cider and apple jack?

Charles_in_TN said...

I like whiskies from all major types: bourbon, rye, Canadian, Scotch, even some from Japan and India. They are all unique types and need, and deserve, to be appreciated on their own terms. Great article.

Eli said...

I swear I could almost hear the star spangled banner as I was reading this. Great commentary. I think the problem stems from the traditional view that single malt scotch is better than blended scotch, which contains malt whisky and grain whisky. Grain whisk(e)y is looked upon as inferior. There's companies trying to change that way of thinking (Compass Box) but for the most part Single malt is still viewed as superior. Which is unfortunate because both offer an excellent experience.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Applejack (or apple brandy) is made by distilling hard cider. 'Apple whiskey' is an impossibility since whiskey, by definition, is made from grain.

Anonymous said...

I figured apple brandy was what you meant. Just wanted to make sure you didn't mean that apple was somehow used as a corn substitute. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

That didn't stop the folks from making 303 Whiskey distilled from potatoes, Chuck.

EllenJ said...

Said Chuck: "...I wasn't alone. There were other people trying to rediscover America's native spirit, at a time when most American consumers had abandoned it..."

Awww, Shucks! :-))
P.S. - Great article. Of course.

Gary Gillman said...

I agree that the popular view both American and foreign has largely turned around amongst those who take a more-than-casual interest in alcohol (e.g., bartenders, regular imbibers, the popular press). Now, bourbon and straight rye too are regarded as - for once the tired adjective applies - world-class with a reputation and history of their own.

However, amongst a narrower group, of specialists, American whisky was always well-understood and had considerable respect. For example, in An Encyclopaedia of Drinks and Drinking by Frederic Martin, a Briton, he described bourbon in a full-page entry on "American Whiskey" as " ...highly flavoured and (gaining) extra taste from the new wood. This may be one reason why the taste for bourbon has not caught on around the world in the same way as Scotch, though it is nonetheless a major product and a fine spirit". In my edition the copyright date is 1978 although other evidence in the book suggests to me it was written about 10 years earlier.

Numerous other examples of specialist appreciation for bourbon and its history can be cited, leading up to Michael Jackson's beautifully written chapters on bourbon and rye in his 1987 World Guide To Whisky, which I personally believe was the starting point for the American whiskey renaissance of the last 25 years. I can cite other writers similarly back to George Saintsbury. Nonetheless, American whisky was not without some international cultural presence in the dark time. The publicity given to the Old Fashioneds served to the visiting British King by FDR in 1939 is an example, and probably the mint julep's renown is another.

So, well-limned as always, Chuck, but I'd like to make the point that the specialists always knew of the quality of American whiskey and its standing in the league-table of world drinks. I think too they, or at least I, would say that all whiskeys are cousins. They are all related, by source of fermentable sugar (grains of some kind) and the fact of cereal aqua vitae, especially the type that was aged, being an Irish and Scots specialty that peoples of that ethnicity brought around the world or helped to perfect local versions of (e.g., but notably, Dr. James Crow in America). No one is inferior to the other, they are different but share an unmistakeable family resemblance.

This is not to say bourbon may not have been influenced by Cognac - just as fine malt wouldn't be what it is without the history of sherry barrels entering Scotland - although personally I believe the great French drink had little to do with bourbon's development and the two never much taste the same to me.

Regards from another place where fine whisky became implanted by Scots, Irish and indeed American incomers and hope to catch up with you in Bardstown or somewhere whiskeyish soon.


Lazer said...

In the 6th century, fermented date juice was called beer.

Anonymous said...

the early 19th century is a little too early for melville and poe--both of whose reputations were first made in the mid-19th century. this is largely irrelevant to your overall argument but as you made the analogy....

don't you love when english professors comment?

SteveBM said...

I keep it simple:

BOURBON is for American MEN.
SCOTCH is for European sissy-nannies


Anonymous said...

I will do not know enough to know what the historical relationship of Bourbon is to Cognac, if any. Knowledgeable folks don't agree, but many seem to think there is one. But, being one who can (and does) go down a road alone from time to time, I note some similarities twixt Bourbon and Cognac as Bourbon lingers in the barrel for 12+ years. Without so much as a shred of evidence, aside from the insistence of my palate, I think time in the barrel provides a kind of ssubtlety to Bourbon that it gives to older Cognac. Mike Bowers