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.'
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.