HOW DO SCOTCH AND BOURBON DIFFER?
HOW DO SCOTCH AND BOURBON DIFFER?
Every great story needs a good-natured rivalry. You can think of Scotch and bourbon as the frenemies of whiskey’s upper crust–two very different spirits, each one at the top of their game, both beloved by legions of adoring whiskey drinkers around the world.
So what’s the difference between the two? At first blush, it seems like nearly everything, from where they’re made to what they taste like. But underneath those differences, bourbon and Scotch whisky share plenty of commonalities, too. Let’s get down to brass tacks.
KNOW THE RULES
Scotch and bourbon are both heavily regulated by their respective countries of origin. That means there are a number of rules producers have to follow if they want to sell their products as bourbon, or Scotch whisky. Here’s the (condensed) breakdown.
Scotch whisky is:
● Distilled, aged, and bottled in Scotland
● Grain whisky be made from any grain or combination of grains; malt whisky must be made from 100% malted barley
● Distilled to no higher than 190 proof
● Must be aged in wooden containers, usually previously used casks, for at least three years (in practice, it’s often far longer)
● Distilled, aged, and bottled in the United States (not just Kentucky!)
● Distilled from a fermented grain mash of at least 51% corn (the remainder can be anything, but is usually malted barley, plus either rye or wheat)
● Distilled to no higher than 160 proof
● Aged in new, charred oak barrels
One of the most important distinctions, yet arguably the one that makes the least impact on flavor, is where a product is made. Theoretically, there’s no reason a Scottish producer couldn’t follow every rule in the bourbon playbooks–distilled from at least 51 percent corn, aged in new charred oak barrels, and so forth–to make a delicious whisky. But it would still be called a Scotch whisky because of where it’s distilled.
On the flipside, if a dyed-in-the-wool Kentucky bourbon producer got a notion to replicate Macallan, spent millions of dollars installing old-school mash tuns and Forsythe pot stills, bought top-tier malted barley, and waited patiently for 12 years while it matured in Spanish oak casks, they’d probably have a wonderful whiskey. But it wouldn’t be Scotch whisky, because it’s not distilled in Scotland. And it wouldn’t be bourbon, because it wouldn’t follow any of the bourbon rules. It’d just be American whiskey (definitely not a bad thing!).
WHAT ABOUT FLAVOR?
Ah yes, the most important question. What’s the difference between how Scotch and bourbon taste?
Oak plays a key role in all types of whiskey, but bourbon and Scotch whiskies really showcase two different facets of the all-important wood. Bourbon generally has a more overt, assertive oak character due to the new casks–think vanilla, caramel, coconut, and cinnamon. The heavy char can also contribute a smoldering, barbecue-like smokiness.
Bourbon’s grains make distinctive contributions, too. Corn can make a distillate that’s fruity and tropical, wheat can be soft and sweet, and rye can be herbal, spicy, or grassy.
Scotch whisky can be aged in a veritable cornucopia of cask types, but in practice much of it gets matured in used bourbon barrels. That translates to a delicate, more toned-down oak tone that lets the flavor of the underlying spirit shine through more clearly.
Of course, Scotch producers can also use barrels that previously held other drinks, like sherry, Port, rum, and dessert wine. Each of those contribute the distinctive taste of their previous contents–sometimes subtle, sometimes intense.
And, of course, there’s the flavor of the spirit itself, which ranges from the simple cracker-like graininess of wheat in grain whisky, to the pungently smoky, saline tang of peated barley malt used to make single malts on Islay.
So which one tastes better? That all depends on you–your palate, your preferences, and your perspective. Us? Well, without Scotland, there might not be a Barrell Craft Spirits. Our first inspiration came from the independent bottlers of Scotland, whisky merchants who sussed out the tastiest, most interesting, or most unusual barrels and blends for their discerning clients.
On the other hand, with headquarters in Louisville, Kentucky, you might guess that we’re confirmed bourbon lovers. You’d be right. There’s a reason we have so many amazing bourbons to choose from. It’s because the spirit has a special place in our hearts (along with our many other loves, like rye whiskey, Tennessee whiskey, American single malt–you get the drift.)