IS BOURBON SMOOTHER THAN WHISKEY?
IS BOURBON SMOOTHER THAN WHISKEY?
It’s one of the most common questions from new whiskey fans. Which kind is smoother? Is bourbon smoother than whiskey? And how do styles like rye, Scotch whisky, Irish whiskey, and single malt stack up?
It’s a tough question to answer. Bourbon is just one of many different types of whiskey, and the elusive experience of “smoothness”--generally used to describe a kind of soft, easy-drinking quality--can vary dramatically between different brands within any category.
Rather than trying to give a definitive answer, we think it’s better to ask a deeper question: What makes a bourbon--or any distilled alcoholic beverage--”smooth” in the first place?
Proof is one important factor in creating smoothness. If you were to knock back a shot of 160 proof unaged whiskey straight from the still, it would be eye-wateringly rough. Very strong spirits tend to have some burn to them, especially for people who don’t often drink liquor straight.
Generally speaking, the weaker in alcoholic strength that a spirit is, the more it comes off as easy going. But there are exceptions.
All of Barrell Craft Spirits’ products are bottled at cask strength, which is sometimes over 120 proof. Yet customers often sample a pour of Small Batch Bourbon or BCS Bourbon and exclaim over how smooth it is. What gives?
A TOUCH OF SWEETNESS
Proof is just one part of the smoothness puzzle. The kind of barrel a whiskey is aged in (and for how long) matters, too.
In the United States, bourbon is aged in new, charred oak barrels. Other American whiskeys, like rye whiskey, are aged in the same manner. Those new, charred oak casks help make a whiskey taste “smooth” in a couple of ways.
First, the charcoal on the inside acts as a kind of filter, kind of like the charcoal cartridges in water filter pitchers. Second, the charring process actually caramelizes sugars in the wood, which are then dissolved into the spirit, giving the whiskey a certain sweetness that helps it feel rounded and balanced on the palate.
That subtle sweetness can be amplified further by finishing a spirit in a cask that once held something sweet. You can taste that for yourself in a handful of our Barrell Private Release bottlings, including some rested in Sauternes, Tokaji, and ice wine barrels.
Cocktails are a great example of how a little bit of sweetness enhances smoothness. Even spirit-forward cocktails like the Moon Dance, which pairs Barrell’s American Vatted Malt with Barrell Bourbon Batch 025, are almost dangerously easy-drinking thanks to the addition of a touch of simple syrup.
Beyond the extraction of wood sugars, other reactions happening inside the barrel boost smoothness, too. Evaporation is important, and so are complicated chemical interactions that help transform the sometimes rough, funky flavors of corn mash, malted barley, or other fermented grain into that complex, beguiling aroma of finished whiskey.
Generally speaking, the longer a whiskey ages, the smoother it will be. Straight bourbons must be made from a mash of at least 51% corn and be aged at least two years--four years if there’s no age statement on the bottle. But many are aged for much longer. Once a bourbon reaches five or six years of age, it’s going to come across as much mellower, more integrated, and smoother than a younger bourbon.
Single malt tends to be aged even longer than bourbon. One reason for that is that single malt is usually matured in used casks, which aren’t as active. (Think of the difference between brewing tea with fresh leaves, versus brewing a second cup with tea that’s been steeped once before.) They’re also often aged in mild climates, where maturation proceeds more slowly.
The flip side is that single malts can really go the distance, aging gracefully for 20, 30, or even 40 years to (hopefully) reach new pinnacles of smoothness. If you aged a bourbon through that many sweltering Kentucky summers, the barrel would evaporate completely.
Barrell Craft Spirits is a firm believer in the principle that age is just a guideline. If you’re paying attention, a whiskey will tell you when it’s ready. We’ve bottled bourbons at five years of age, and at fifteen and beyond. By regularly monitoring how the whiskey’s progressing, we can make sure to bottle each barrel at exactly the right moment to capture the perfect balance of beguiling smoothness, distinctive character, and rich flavor.