A lot of us out there like to try different types of liquor every now and then, but there are lines in the sand that are tough to cross. One big one pits the national liquor of Scotland against America’s native spirit. Either you are a Scotch person or a Bourbon whiskey person, but rarely does someone like both equally, or consider them substitutes for each other.
This isn’t a case where patriotism always carries the day.When it comes to scotch vs. bourbon, the tastes are different enough that they simply aren’t great substitutes for each other. If you crave a smoky single-malt Scotch, you probably aren’t going to be thrilled to get a Maker’s Mark bourbon instead. Similarly, if what you’re looking for is the subtle sweetness of a great bourbon, Scotch isn’t going to please your palate.
While comparing scotch vs. bourbon we must state that both of those are great whiskies, and worthy of further exploration. Each comes in countless varieties that can mean years of enjoyment to those who learn to appreciate their qualities. But there are big differences between the two, some of which are explored below.
Scotch VS. Bourbon – Premier Scottish Export
First thing we must say when comparing scotch vs. bourbon is that, aside from golf, Scotch whisky has to be the most popular Scottish export to hit the United States. That’s an appropriate pairing, since both can take just a moment to fall in love with but a lifetime to truly appreciate. Both are deceptively simple at first glance, but in the hands of a master craftsman can turn into something wonderfully complex.
The ingredients of traditional Scotch are simple: malted barley (occasionally augmented with other grains, which we’ll get to later), water and yeast. The barley is ground into flour and allowed to steep in hot water, the mashing process that converts the starches in the grain into sugars. When yeast is added, the fermentation process begins, and at that point it’s all about storage and aging. To be called Scotch whisky, it legally must be aged at least three years in oak casts within Scotland itself, though many are aged for far longer.
For a Scotch to be considered malt whisky, the only grain it can contain is malted barley. It that is mixed with unmalted barley or other cereal grains, it becomes grain whisky. Note: in this case, “grain whisky” doesn’t mean that it’s cheap, potent, and terrible, like the kind you may have mixed with fruit punch at a fraternity party, it’s just a different type of Scotch.
When most people think of fine Scotch, they think of single-malt Scotch. That’s a particular kind of Scotch (using only malted barley as the grain) that is distilled within a single distillery in a pot still (the latter part mandated in the 2009 Scotch Whisky Regulations). All the malt must come from the same distillery, and many are aged for more than a decade before coming to market.
Scotch has a smoky peat flavor, but is a lighter whisky than bourbon. Peat was traditionally used as fuel to heat the oven that stopped the germination that turns the starches in the malted barley to sugar. Few distilleries do it that way now, but some blow peat smoke over the grain during this germination process in order to retain the old-school flavor, since for many the Scotches that don’t do this taste like another beverage entirely. But it also makes the flavor here very different than in other spirits, so if you’re use to something more conventional it’s going to be a shock to your taste buds when you try some for the first time.
The beauty of Scotch is that for something with such a simple recipe, every bottle tastes a little different. Most Scotches are just malted barley, water and yeast, and yet the different ways of aging, the types of stills and casks used, and the other tricks that the master distillers use can result in different strengths and tastes depending on the brand.
Part of that is that with a mashbill that simple, every difference in the distilling process becomes important. For example, the quality and types of water can vary, and every distiller will tout the benefits of their particular H2O. Scotches distilled in the Northern Highlands have a slightly salty taste, since they are distilled by the sea. And the Scotches distilled in water from the River Spey are so distinctive that Speyside is considered a distinct region from the Highland for production purposes.
Bourbon VS. Scotch – Americans’ Take on Scotch Whiskey
Scotch vs. bourbon comparison continues with an american side of the story. While Scotch signifies the essential Scotland to many, Bourbon is often associated with the state of Kentucky in particular rather than the United States as a nation. There’s no law that says it can’t be distilled elsewhere, but most of the varieties are from the Bluegrass State. It is so associated with Kentucky, in fact, that similar products from Tennessee are usually labeled as Tennessee whiskey or Sour Mash whiskey instead to be more distinctive (with Jack Daniels being one exception). But it has to be made in the United States to be considered to be a bourbon.
In contrast to Scotch, bourbon is not a single-grain spirit. Legally speaking, the mashbill has to contain at least 51% corn, and most use that for somewhere around 70% of the mixture (if it contains more than 79% corn, it’s technically a corn whiskey). The rest usually comes from rye or wheat, augmented by malted barley. Because of the differing mashbills, bourbons can have a very different taste and sensation depending of whether they are wheated or rye bourbons (categories determined by the second grain in the recipe).
The distillation process is similar to Scotch, and the spirit is aged in new, charred oak barrels. The charred barrels, a tradition that dates back to Colonial America, helps give the drink its distinctive color. Bourbon must be distilled to no more than 160 proof, and bottled at 80 proof or higher, meaning all bourbon is at least 40% alcohol.
The result is a liquor that has a very different taste than Scotch, fuller-bodied and sweeter. Obviously, the “sweeter” is relative – it’s not like this is a soda, or Bailey’s Irish Crème – but the corn produces a more sugary sensation that the peatness that Scotch provides.
One interesting connection between the two spirits is in the barrels used in the distilling process. By rule, bourbon is aged in new, charred oak barrels. Scotch is generally aged in used barrels, with bourbon barrels commonly chosen for that purpose (sherry is also a popular choice, as are those that once held rum and port). The barrels impart some of the flavor of the original liquor while the Scotch ages, so a bourbon drinker looking to branch out into Scotch would likely be most happy with a brand that is aged in something that used to be the home of their spirit of choice.
Whiskey vs. Scotch – How Old is Old Enough?
By law, Scotch can be aged as few as three years, while bourbon has no aging requirements (though specific bourbons do require a specific amount of maturation, such as two years for a straight bourbon). In practice, distillers are usually proud of how long their particular wares have been aged, and most will let you know on the label, figuring that you’ll see the “Aged 12 Years” and assume that it is a premium product worth paying more for.
Scotch typically takes longer to mature than bourbon, and many are aged a decade or more. The longer the aging process, the smoother the resulting beverage in both cases, though many find that a bigger deal when purchasing Scotch. There are plenty of excellent bourbons distilled between six and eight years, for example, but for a quality Scotch a good rule of thumb is to start at a decade and work upwards as time and budget permits.
One thing to note with both Scotch and bourbon is that the maturation process ceases once the product is bottled. If the label doesn’t indicate how many years the spirit has been aged, or the dates of both distillation and cask bottling, it can be hard to tell how aged the product is.
Scotch VS. Bourbon – Steeped in Tradition
Whisky has been distilled in Scotland for centuries, introduced by the legendary St. Patrick if you believe the mythology, and documented since the late 15th century. It’s been part of the national landscape long enough to become an institution.
Though it’s the national liquor, its production is concentrated in certain regions of the country. Many of the distilleries in the country are in the Speyside region in Northeast Scotland, with Highland also a popular home. Islay has eight distilleries, while Lowland and Campbeltown have only three apiece.
Each of those regions produces liquors with subtle distinctions in character and flavor. Differences in how the barley grows, and the water sources used, are distinct enough that an experienced Scotch drinker may be able to tell an Islay from a Highland, or even a Highland from a Speyside.
Despite being a younger spirit from a younger country, Bourbon’s specific origins are uncertain and depend largely on which distiller you talk to and what the story is that they are trying to tell. Elijah Craig and Jacob Spears are two names often cited, but calling them the founders of bourbon are very nearly as mythological as saying St. Patrick brought Scotch beyond Hadrian’s Wall. There were enough people distilling whiskey in the new Kentucky region, and corn was the plentiful cereal that was the natural choice to be converted into alcohol, that its development was an organic process rather than an invention.
In both cases, the spirits are reflections of their national character. Scotch has a strong note of peat because that was the fuel originally used in its distillation. Bourbon is corn-based because that’s what grew the best in the region of the United States where the liquor is distilled, and is traditionally aged in charred oak barrels because one of the early distillers had barrels damaged by fire and didn’t want to waste them.
But both Scotches and Bourbons seem to pride themselves on their stories. Every bottle from every distiller has a tale behind it, and part of the fun of the drinking both is to listen to the sales pitch on what sets them apart. If you find a brand that you like, take the time to go to their website and read up on their history and their distilling process. And if you get a chance, spend some time on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail or the North of Scotland, touring the distilleries where these are made.
Bourbon VS. Scotch – Selling Luxury
Scotch comes in two types that can also be combined into three blends. Single Malt Scotch is produced by a single distiller in pot stills, while Single Grain Scotch can include other grains in the mashbill (in this case, the “single” in the name refers to the fact that it can only use a single distillery, and does not reflect the number of grains that may be used).
Blended Scotch whiskies are a combination of one or more Single Malt and Single Grain Scotch. Bourbon blends follow a similar path, and the benefit to both are that it makes it easier to smooth out rough edges and ensure a consistent taste from year to year and batch to batch. It also makes it easier to keep the prices down.
When most people think of Scotch, however, they aren’t focusing on the blended versions. It’s single-malt Scotch that connotes luxury, and is one of the more traditional ways of impressing others. To a connoisseur, single-malt Scotches are like fine wines, with different distilleries and different years producing spectacular vintages.
Bottles can run into the hundreds of dollars, and along with the fine cigar is the stereotypical end to many a business deal or fancy dinner. Bourbon doesn’t have quite that cache, although it’s getting there. But if you haven’t tried Scotch before, be wary before spending that kind of cash for a premium bottle. The flavors are such that it can overwhelm a new drinker and lead to a very unpleasant experience. And with both Scotches and Bourbons, cutting a high-end bottle by combining it with soda is considered poor form. An ice cube or two is OK, but for those who like a chilled beverage a cold glass is better.
Both large and craft distillers have caught the trend of making exclusive, limited luxury versions of their products, and every year sees more hitting the market. It’s easy to spend a lot of money searching for something truly special, but one way of doing so on a budget is to look for tastings at bars or liquor stores in your area. It’s a great way of sampling several brands without having to spend the mortgage on a collection of bottles.
Whiskey vs. Scotch – Your Favorite – Scotch or Bourbon?
Doesn`t matter what you prefer in Whiskey vs. Scotch because In either case, once someone picks a favorite drink, that is often a decision that determines drinking habits for a lifetime. If starting a Scotch VS. Bourbon discussion, however, there are plenty of options to sample that can offer strong evidence to any argument over which one is better.