Bourbon or Scotch? (Both, please).
I remember being rather irritated when I tasted my first Bourbon. Irritated because, being at that time an inveterate Scotch snob of several years standing, I discovered I rather liked it. ‘Eurgh,’ I proclaimed loudly to the assembled masses – one has to save face when one has spent years proclaiming non-Scotch-whisk(e)y to be gutrot. The day afterwards I bought a bottle. The rest is a mixture of history and current affairs.
Bourbon is growing in Britain. As evidence: this group. And eight years after my aforementioned Eureka moment (Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select if you were wondering) I suppose America bears as much pre-emptive blame for my future liver failure as Scotland does. But when a friend asked me how my experiences with Bourbon differ from my experiences with Scotch, and wasn’t satisfied with ‘they taste different,’ it caused me a bit of head-scratching. The scalp has now been sufficiently raked, so here, for consideration, is my answer.
Bourbon is ‘cooler’. Now I don’t drink whisk(e)y because I want to look cool; the spirit’s not been distilled that could help me on that front. What I mean is that the whole image of Bourbon; the branding, the stories, the way it’s positioned and – to generalise horrendously – its consumer base, is more laid back than that of Scotch. Scotch is still sloughing off the stereotype of decanters in expensive Gentlemen’s clubs. Bourbon’s persona is more ‘anyone, anywhere.’ Which isn’t to say it can’t be every bit as ritzy – just look at the Van Winkle Range. But let me put it this way: tasting Pappy after a burger felt absolutely normal. Tasting, for example, Diageo’s annual Special Releases, in the same setting has probably been rendered illegal by the Scotch Whisky Association
Bourbon, on the whole, also offers better bang-for-your-buck at the value end of the price spectrum than Scotch does. Right now the only whisk(e)y available in the UK for £20 or under which can punch with Buffalo Trace is Jameson’s. Which is, of course, Irish. Between £20 and £30 there are a few Scottish gems, but for the most part the likes of Woodford, Maker’s Mark and Four Roses Small Batch mean the best buys are still American.
Where Scotch takes the laurels, as it does over any nation currently producing whisk(e)y, is on spectrum of flavour. Which isn’t to say that Bourbon’s, or American whiskey’s generally, is narrow – simply that Scotch’s is gargantuan. In the last year I’ve visited 47 distilleries in Scotland, and tasted whisky from probably over 100. And the difference in flavour between the new-make spirit of someone like Ardbeg compared to someone like Glencadam is extraordinary. And that’s before it’s even gone into casks. Glenfiddich alone have about 75 different cask types maturing in their warehouses. That’s a lot of different flavours – and we haven’t even started vatting or blending. Now, granted, not all of those flavours tick everyone’s boxes – peat is particularly polarising – but if, like me, you like a wide range of whiskies, then Scotland is your most amply provisioned Aladdin’s dunnage warehouse.
Generality alert: Bourbon is almost always sweeter than Scotch; new American oak in a hotter climate tends to do that. There are a few exceptions, like Glenmorangie Milsean, or Glenmorangie Ealanta, or Glenmorangie Nectar d’Or, or...gosh, Glenmorangie actually make a lot of pretty sweet Scotches now I think on it... On the whole though I direct my friends with sweeter teeth towards the juice of the New World. Though ‘sweet’ is probably going too far. Most of the time it’s not much more than ‘off-dry,’ albeit Woodford Reserve Double Oaked is currently looking shiftily at the ground and whistling nonchalantly...
The bottom line is that Scotch and Bourbon are apples and oranges, and by and large it’s pointless doing a comparison. In terms of quality, the pyramids are equally high, though Scotch’s is somewhat bulkier, there being, after all, a lot more Scotch about. As British consumers we’re increasingly well-served in Bourbon availability though; without terribly much effort I’ve tried dozens and dozens this year alone – and I live in Reading.
But then whisk(e)y in general has never been more widely available, or in such a diverse array of national colours. I could drink a whisk(e)y from a different country every day for four weeks without trying anything from Scotland, the USA, Canada, Ireland or Japan. And you know what? They’d be four bloody tasty weeks.
Different does not mean ‘better’, and it does not mean ‘worse’. I’m asked the boring, obvious question about Scotch and Bourbon fairly frequently, and I don’t usually dignify it with an answer. Unless an angry rant counts as an answer. Of course they’re different. Thank God for that. ‘Better’ need not apply. My advice: embrace the lot of them. Just maybe in separate glasses.
Oh – one last thing for the prospective British Bourboneer. It’s James Bond’s most regular pour. Make of that what you will...