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WineAdvisor/Whisk(e)yTN: Bourbon or Scotch whisk(e)y?

by Robin Garr » Fri Jun 08, 2007 12:42 pm

<table border="0" align="right" width="220"><tr><td><img src="http://www.wineloverspage.com/graphics1/frednoe.jpg" border="1" align="right"></td></tr><tr><td>Fred Booker Noe, Jim Beam's great-grandson, ponders four glasses of whisk(e)y.</td></tr> </table>Bourbon or Scotch whisk(e)y?

When it comes to liquor, what's your pleasure? Scotland's "water of life" or Kentucky's corn-based nectar?

In one of our rare, occasional breaks from wine for a visit to other adult beverages, let's peek in on an unusual, mouth-watering "debate" on the relative merits of these two historic whisk(e)ys.

That parenthesized 'e' is intentional, by the way: The corporate organizers of the Great Whisk(e)y Debate held this week at Louisville's Churchill Downs racetrack styled it that way to reflect trans-Atlantic customs: In Scotland, the wee dram is spelled "whisky," while Kentuckians usually add the (e) in Bourbon "whiskey."

This was just one of dozens of whiskey-related factoids that flew fast and furious in Wednesday's "debate" between Scotch and Bourbon experts.

The debate showcased four products of Future Brands LLC, a Chicago-based drinks conglomerate that distributes Jim Beam Bourbons and their upscale "Small Batch Bourbon Collection," Absolut vodka, various Scotch whisky brands and many other potables.

It pitted the company's "Scotch Master Ambassador" Simon Brooking, resplendent in tartan kilt and sporran, against Fred Booker Noe, a Kentuckian who almost literally has Bourbon running in his veins as seventh-generation Beam family heir and great-grandson of namesake Jim Beam. It was moderated by Bernie Lubbers, a local comedian and singer who, in his day job, sports the title "whiskey professor" as Future Brands' "Goodwill Ambassador of Brands."

Brookings' soft burr played counterpoint to Noe's twangy rural Kentucky drawl as Lubbers tossed them softball questions in turn. The debate proved more of a love-fest (with jokes) than a fight, and the final result was declared a tie. But plenty of interesting information came to light, with small tastes of two excellent Bourbons and two fine Scotches at the end.

Let's sum up a few highlights, then finish up with brief tasting notes.

* <B>What is whisk(e)y?</b> Under U.S. law, whiskey is an alcoholic beverage distilled from a fermented "mash" of grain - typically corn, rye, wheat or barley - and aged in oak barrels. Types include Scotch, Bourbon and other American whiskeys, Irish whiskey and Canadian whiskey.

* <B>What is Bourbon?</b> Under the law, Noe said, Bourbon must be made in the United States (virtually all of it is made in Central Kentucky), and must be made from at least 51 percent corn. It must be aged for at least two years in new, charred oak barrels.

* <B>What is Scotch?</b> Made in Scotland, of course, this whiskey is made from malted barley smoked over peat, distilled in copper pot stills and aged for at least three years in oak barrels that usually have been previously used for other beverages such as Sherry or even Kentucky Bourbon. Thrifty Scots re-use <i>everything</i>, joked Brooking, adding, "we have short arms and deep pockets."

* <B>Who wins the numbers game?</b> Kentucky has just 10 distilleries; Scotland, which is slightly smaller than Kentucky, has 93. (Both regions used to boast hundreds, maybe thousands, of tiny small-farm distilleries, numbers that have diminished considerably after Prohibition in the U.S. and corporate integration in a globalizing world.)

* <B>How long have they been at it?</b> Bourbon arrived in Kentucky shortly after the first settlers arrived in the 1770s, Noe said, adding that canny Kentucky farmers, fleeing whiskey taxation in the original 13 states, planted corn and turned a good bit of it into whiskey. Scotch whisky, originally "<i>uisqebaugh</i>" ("water of life") has been made since the 13th century, Brooking said. "We regard Bourbon as a bit of a fad ... it's only been around a couple of hundred years."

* <B>Does climate matter?</b> Scotland is chilly and damp, creating a gentle environment for aging whisky in its barrels over a long, slow spell. Kentucky's distinct four-season climate, with short but freezing winters and searing summers, moves things along more briskly, so fine Bourbon matures as much in seven or eight years as a Scotch in 15 or 20. Moreover, Noe said, Kentucky's climate is perfect for growing the corn that gives Bourbon its signature flavor.

* <B>Old barrel, new barrel, who cares?</B> The freshly charred wood inside the barrel imparts the color and much of the flavor to both drinks, increasing in depth and complexity over time as seasonal temperature and atmosphere pull the spirit in and out of the wood. New, deeply charred Kentucky oak, and specifically the caramelized sugars that the char brings to the surface, are a big part of Bourbon's character, Noe said. Brooking argued in favor of the more subtle aromas that old wood imparts, adding that such delights as "pre-owned" Oloroso Sherry or Kentucky Bourbon barrels can add intriguing nuances. (The used barrels, however, are scraped and re-charred before being put to use for Scotch.)

* <B>How do you taste this stuff?</B> Pretty much the same way you taste wine, with some modifications based on its high alcoholic strength. It's essentially the same process, though, breaking down the pleasant analysis into four sensory steps: Look, smell, taste and think about it all.

Darker color (more wood extract) tends to predict body and robust flavor. Put your nose in the glass and sniff, just as you do with wine; both experts recommend, however, opening your mouth wide as you smell - a procedure not usually needed with wine - to allow the strong alcoholic aromas to dissipate and better display the more subtle aroma elements. An old distiller's trick: Put your hand over the glass and shake it just enough to lightly dampen your palm. Rub your hands together, then open your palms and smell. The effect, Brooking said, is like opening a door and walking into the distillery barrel room.

When you taste, Noe said, swish the fluid all around the inside of your mouth, just as with wine. And unless you're a professional sampling dozens of samples, don't spit. "When I see a Bourbon maker spit it out, I know he's got a <i>bad</I> batch," Noe laughed. Even if you normally prefer your liquor "straight," consider putting in a splash of water for analytical tasting; diluting the spirit to reduce its alcoholic strength may help show off its more subtle flavors.

Tasting report

The whiskeys, all from Future Brands' portfolio, were clearly chosen to represent Bourbon and Scotch at their stylistic extremes. Each pair featured one spirit in a light, approachable style and one in a bold, pedal-to-the-floor rendition. The dignitaries walked the group through the tasting with detailed analysis and descriptions, but I sneaked in most of these notes before their presentation, preferring to draw my conclusions without guidance.

<B>Basil Hayden's 8-year-old Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey</B>
Pale gold color suggests a Bourbon in the lighter style. Spice and grain scents suggest rye grain in the "mash bill" (recipe), an assumption that Noe later confirmed. On the light side for a Bourbon, almost delicate, an approach that's almost too effete for this Kentuckian, and perhaps for Noe, too, as he pointed out that it's a good choice for mint juleps because the light whiskey flavor doesn't overpower the mint.

<B>Knob Creek 9-year-old Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey</B>
Relatively dark in color, a rich copper-gold, it offers characteristic Bourbon aromas of sweet caramel, leading into a smooth, sweet flavor that invites quiet, contemplative sipping, perhaps best taken neat from a heavy glass with a single ice cube.

<B>The Dalmore "Cigar Malt" Single Highland Malt Scotch Whisky</B>
Clear, transparent bronze, with a sweet, light aroma that carries a hint of iodine and a touch of sea breeze on the nose, distant honey on the palate. As a Scotch, this Highland malt is comparable to the Basil Hayden's: It's on the light, inoffensive side, easy to sip.

<B>Laphroaig "Quarter Cask" Single Islay Malt Scotch Whisky</B>
Dark gold, this peaty, smoky potation pushes the wild aromas and robust flavors of the Scottish island malts to the extreme, and I like that.

As a Kentuckian, I have an instinctive attraction to quality Bourbon, and it's been a pleasure to watch the development in recent decades of top-tier "small-batch" and "single barrel" bottlings that seek to capture some of the high-end market that single-malt Scotch had dominated for years. But I'll confess to a certain fondness for fine Scotch, too, particularly those hearty, peaty Islay malts. Isn't it good that we've got both to choose from?

Monday, we'll be back to wine, with reviews of a couple of good new wine books including a preview of an outstanding item on Beaujolais that's coming out this autumn.

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Re: WineAdvisor/Whisk(e)yTN: Bourbon or Scotch whisk(e)y?

by Keith M » Fri Jun 08, 2007 1:16 pm

<B>Knob Creek 9-year-old Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey</B>
[snip] perhaps best taken neat from a heavy glass with a single ice cube.


Ummm, not to be picky, but if you added ice, it wouldn't be neat, would it? Or have I the wrong idea about what neat means?
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Re: WineAdvisor/Whisk(e)yTN: Bourbon or Scotch whisk(e)y?

by Robin Garr » Fri Jun 08, 2007 1:25 pm

Keith M wrote:Ummm, not to be picky, but if you added ice, it wouldn't be neat, would it? Or have I the wrong idea about what neat means?


Darn good question, Keith. Being a wine guy, not a spirits guy, I probably screwed up, and if I hadn't already mailed the thing to 50,000 of my nearest and dearest friends, I'd probably go back and edit it.

I was thinking of "neat" as meaning "not diluted with branch water, Coke, orange juice or other foreign fluids," and the old ice-cube trick as a means to introduce just a tiny amount of water (and coolness) to soften the hot alcoholic edge rather than as any kind of serious mixer. But as a technical matter, I expect you're right.
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Re: WineAdvisor/Whisk(e)yTN: Bourbon or Scotch whisk(e)y?

by MtBakerDave » Fri Jun 08, 2007 2:13 pm

I was taught to use a single drop of water to open up the nose. That seems to be enough to me.

I'm definitely in the Scotch camp, and in fact I go for some of the most extreme examples of Single Malt Scotch. One of my favorites for example is Lagavulin 16year. With all the peat, smoke, sea salt and phenolics in Lagavulin, I can't imagine a Kentuckian could make something like that with the materials at hand.

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Re: WineAdvisor/Whisk(e)yTN: Bourbon or Scotch whisk(e)y?

by Keith M » Fri Jun 08, 2007 2:55 pm

MtBakerDave wrote:I'm definitely in the Scotch camp, and in fact I go for some of the most extreme examples of Single Malt Scotch. One of my favorites for example is Lagavulin 16year. With all the peat, smoke, sea salt and phenolics in Lagavulin, I can't imagine a Kentuckian could make something like that with the materials at hand.


I tend to lean toward the extremes too, Dave, as the Ardbergs and Lagavulins catch my fancy. And the whole thing is a bit of comparing apples and kumquats. But, for me, enjoying a Jefferson Reserve or Elijah Craig 18-year leaves no doubt that bourbon is serious stuff. Scotch ain't bourbon and bourbon ain't scotch and some will prefer one and not the other--but I wouldn't be willing to give up either!
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Re: WineAdvisor/Whisk(e)yTN: Bourbon or Scotch whisk(e)y?

by Jeff Yeast » Fri Jun 08, 2007 3:11 pm

Neat is definitely sans ice.
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Re: WineAdvisor/Whisk(e)yTN: Bourbon or Scotch whisk(e)y?

by Jeff Yeast » Fri Jun 08, 2007 3:13 pm

I'm not a big fan of Basil Haydens, but Knob Creek is nice enough. My favorite Beam bourbon is Baker's. At 107 proof some might prefer a little ice or water to bring it down to a reasonable 90 proof or so.
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Re: WineAdvisor/Whisk(e)yTN: Bourbon or Scotch whisk(e)y?

by MtBakerDave » Fri Jun 08, 2007 3:19 pm

Oh, yes, of course they're two different animals, related as much by name as anything else. And, I must admit, I haven't tasted the high-end Bourbons that you and Robin mention. I'll try sometime, but there are so many drinks, and so little time!

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Re: WineAdvisor/Whisk(e)yTN: Bourbon or Scotch whisk(e)y?

by Mike B. » Fri Jun 08, 2007 4:50 pm

I can go either way when it comes to Bourbon and Scotch (but I detest rye whiskey).

I do love the campfire nose and taste of Lagavulin, as Dave mentions. I prefer letting an ice cube melt a bit in it first to take the edge off, though.

Glenrothes is perhaps my favourite pick. It has orange rind on the nose, I find.

A couple of years ago I attended a tasting where we went through a number of scotches aged in different types of barrels, i.e. sherry, port, madeira, Havana rum. The differences were very apparent.

But I heard that sherry-wood scotches are becoming rarer, as the production of sherry decreases. What a shame!
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Re: WineAdvisor/Whisk(e)yTN: Bourbon or Scotch whisk(e)y?

by Hoke » Fri Jun 08, 2007 5:27 pm

I can go either way when it comes to Bourbon and Scotch (but I detest rye whiskey).


Careful there, me lad, with the broad statement on rye detestation.

From your location given I would assume you're talking about the so-called "Canadian rye whiskey". Well, truth is, most Canadian isn't rye whiskey...and hasn't been for a good long while.

If you like Bourbon, or some Bourbons, as you said, Mike, then you probably DO like rye, but just don't realize it is rye. Because a lot of the Bourbons are heavy-up rye base blends.

By law the specs require 51% corn for Bourbon---but the rest of the blend of grains can vary. So some companies do "wheated" whiskies and some do heavier rye blends.

Personally, I love rye as a component, and almost always favor the heavy-up rye blends. For instance, you can taste Maker's Mark, which is a fine whiskey, make no mistake; but it is a wheated whiskey, which means it's light, sweet and fairly simple in aroma and flavor. Compare that (product shill warning alert here: this is not only one of my favorites, but also one of my company's products) a Woodford Reserve, which has a good healthy wallop of rye in the mix. All the difference in the world: more intense and more complex aromatics, very much spicier nose and deeper, more complex flavor combinations. For me it's a more intricate and interesting drink than a wheated whiskey.

You can do the same thing with, say, Weller's (wheated) and Old Forester (rye heavy blend). You'll get the same results, trust me.

Or you can try and try and try to find a bottle of Van Winkle Rye (rare and precious stuff) or Sazerac Rye, Rittenhouse, or another good rye whiskey, and try that. There are Ryes that have the depth and complexities and richness of the top notch single malt Scotches, Mike. I'm serious.

Hey, Robin: why can't we do a Whiskey category instead of a wine category in your pick of the month forum? Huh? Huh?? Huh??? (Be an interesting change.)
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Re: WineAdvisor/Whisk(e)yTN: Bourbon or Scotch whisk(e)y?

by Robin Garr » Fri Jun 08, 2007 5:38 pm

Hoke wrote:Hey, Robin: why can't we do a Whiskey category instead of a wine category in your pick of the month forum? Huh? Huh?? Huh??? (Be an interesting change.)


In principle, I wouldn't oppose it, Hoke, but the problem is that the nature of Wine Focus limits us to one per month, and when I think about the slow (but lovable) traffic in the old Spirits Forum, I'm not sure it's a good idea <i>to do it that way</i>.

But! I'd be very much up for an Open Mike on a particular brand of spirits, or a floating tasting/tutorial thread on spirits in the main forum. Work with me here, man ... we can make this happen ...
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Re: WineAdvisor/Whisk(e)yTN: Bourbon or Scotch whisk(e)y?

by Jeff Yeast » Fri Jun 08, 2007 6:03 pm

Fact is, most commercially available straight rye whiskies are only one or two percentage points removed from being bourbon. IOW, to be a straight rye, it must contain 51% rye. Most ryes in production today are between 51 and 55% rye, with corn and malt making up the difference. They can, and mostly do, taste very similar to bourbon, but a little spicier.
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Re: WineAdvisor/Whisk(e)yTN: Bourbon or Scotch whisk(e)y?

by KarlLung » Sat Jun 09, 2007 12:15 am

According to my knowledge:

(1) The Irish also has the "e" as Irish Whiskey
(2) Scotch whisky can also use grain (cereals), although they mush use some malted barley. They need to use 100% barley only if they claim to be malt whisky. Typical Scotch brands are blended mainly from grain whisky.
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Re: WineAdvisor/Whisk(e)yTN: Bourbon or Scotch whisk(e)y?

by Bill Hooper » Sat Jun 09, 2007 1:19 am

Not being a Whisk(e)y guy, I have questions. I was gifted a bottle of Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye 13yr old and know nothing about it. Is it good? What is the scoop on Rye Whiskey? I don't know what I'm going to do with it. I can't imagine ever opening it for myself, but maybe I should.
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Re: WineAdvisor/Whisk(e)yTN: Bourbon or Scotch whisk(e)y?

by Randy Buckner » Sat Jun 09, 2007 1:55 am

Bill, here is a reply on the subject from a Bourbon board -- sounds like it is pretty good stuff:

"The ones you mentioned always reading about (15yr 107 Proof, 20yr Family Reserve, and 13yr Family Reserve Rye) are the stars of the Van Winkle show. The others don't seem to get the same "airplay", but most companies would die to have any one of them in their lineup. There are also others that you might not even realize are Old Rip in different clothing. Bill mentioned one, Berghoff. Twisted Spoke and Old Commonwealth are others. I'm sure Julian can add more. By the way, many believe that the better of Van Winkle ryes is not the 13yr Family Reserve but the 12yr old. In fact, for me and everyone I know who's ever tasted it, the 12yr Old Rip rye is the best rye whiskey available, period. It even edges out over Sazerac 18yr (barely, but consistantly)."
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Re: WineAdvisor/Whisk(e)yTN: Bourbon or Scotch whisk(e)y?

by Bill Hooper » Sat Jun 09, 2007 2:07 am

Thanks Randy. But as Bourbon goes, I'm unabashedly the proverbial swine before this pearl. Trade anyone?
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Re: WineAdvisor/Whisk(e)yTN: Bourbon or Scotch whisk(e)y?

by Keith M » Sat Jun 09, 2007 2:51 am

Hoke wrote:Personally, I love rye as a component, and almost always favor the heavy-up rye blends. For instance, you can taste Maker's Mark, which is a fine whiskey, make no mistake; but it is a wheated whiskey, which means it's light, sweet and fairly simple in aroma and flavor. Compare that (product shill warning alert here: this is not only one of my favorites, but also one of my company's products) a Woodford Reserve, which has a good healthy wallop of rye in the mix. All the difference in the world: more intense and more complex aromatics, very much spicier nose and deeper, more complex flavor combinations. For me it's a more intricate and interesting drink than a wheated whiskey.


Supremely educational, Hoke . . . and I think my tastes here mirror yours a bit as I very much enjoy both the Woodford Reserve and the Van Winkle. The spiciness and complexity makes rye (and rye-heavy whiskeys) so wonderful to enjoy neat.

For what's its worth, the San Francisco Chronicle had their take on rye here.
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Re: WineAdvisor/Whisk(e)yTN: Bourbon or Scotch whisk(e)y?

by Paul Blood » Sat Jun 09, 2007 3:42 pm

Great posting Robert, thanks.
Not being one to finish a bottle at one sitting, did you get any tips on keeping whisk(e)y in its best condition ofter opening the bottle?
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Re: WineAdvisor/Whisk(e)yTN: Bourbon or Scotch whisk(e)y?

by Keith M » Mon Jun 11, 2007 3:17 am

Paul Blood wrote:Not being one to finish a bottle at one sitting, did you get any tips on keeping whisk(e)y in its best condition ofter opening the bottle?


Welcome Paul! It's good to have you on board!

Regarding storage, I'd say the main thing to avoid is storing your whiskey in direct sunlight. I have heard that whiskey will slowly oxidize overtime, but I have not noticed any change in the taste over the year-or-so that I tend to keep my whiskeys. So just keeping the bottle sealed and storing it out of the light should keep it in good condition. And I'd be worried about anyone who does finish a bottle at a sitting!
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Re: WineAdvisor/Whisk(e)yTN: Bourbon or Scotch whisk(e)y?

by Jeff Yeast » Mon Jun 11, 2007 7:33 am

Keith M wrote:
Paul Blood wrote:Not being one to finish a bottle at one sitting, did you get any tips on keeping whisk(e)y in its best condition ofter opening the bottle?


Welcome Paul! It's good to have you on board!

Regarding storage, I'd say the main thing to avoid is storing your whiskey in direct sunlight. I have heard that whiskey will slowly oxidize overtime, but I have not noticed any change in the taste over the year-or-so that I tend to keep my whiskeys. So just keeping the bottle sealed and storing it out of the light should keep it in good condition. And I'd be worried about anyone who does finish a bottle at a sitting!


That is good advice, and I'll add that if the bottle of whisk(e)y has a cork-finished cap, do not store it on its side. Long-term exposure to high-proof spirits will degrade the cork and affect the taste of the whisk(e)y.
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Re: WineAdvisor/Whisk(e)yTN: Bourbon or Scotch whisk(e)y?

by karenann8sons » Mon Jun 11, 2007 5:03 pm

Robin,

I can't thank you enough for this particular discussion. No, I'm not really a fan of Scotch, Whiskey or Whisky but my husband is. Every year I struggle with what to get, to put in that lovely bottle bag and place under the tree. He isn't the wine lover that I am so I have a hard time shopping for something to "warm the cockles of his heart."

Last Christmas, he received Highland Scotch. Not sure if he loves it and is savoring it or it isn't quite to his fancy but there is very little missing from that bottle.

Having a better understanding of what the difference actually is, will make it easier for me to choose one that he will thoroughly enjoy. Guess where I'm going shopping for Father's Day?

Thanks Again,
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