Sunday, August 22, 2010

Bourbon versus Scotch

Bourbon versus Scotch

This blog is dedicated to philosophy so it may appear odd to have an entry about tasting the difference between Kentucky bourbon and a 12 year old single malt scotch. First let’s explore the philosophical implications of such an experience.

Philosophers have been debating the importance of physical experiences, or sensations since the beginning. Epicurus is said to have commented that it is best to have water and bread everyday of ones life so that when presented with cheese it will appear a feast. Now Epicurus while father of hedonism, ended up a hermit who reveled in simplicity, while later followers of his philosophy took it mean living in the extremes of pleasure. Moderation has dominated the content of most ethical talk of sensations and pleasure over the years, allowing for people to enjoy life and its sensual pleasures so long as not to overindulge in any one aspect of sensual delights. In keeping with this, expanding ones breadth of sensual experience will allow for a greater range of moderate sensual appreciation and a deeper enjoyment of life.

That being said, I have always been jealous of those who can enjoy a good whisky, wine or cognac. So in an attempt to be able to appreciate the joys of such spirits I have decided to embark on a spiritual culinary journey whereas I attempt to develop a taste for whisky.

Whisky is made from the distillation of a cooked fermented mash of grains. A grain or combination of grains is mixed with water and yeast, similar to the mash created to brew beer, and let to ferment; a process wherein the yeast eats the sugar in the grain and as a byproduct releases alcohol. The mash is boiled and the alcohol is distilled and collected. Distilling is the process by which the alcohol vapor is separated from the mash and cooled through copper tubing and collected as a clear, odorless and tasteless spirit. The clear liquid is not whisky until its aged in a barrel, typically an American white oak barrel.

Let’s talk about the difference between Bourbon and Scotch. First we will look at bourbon. A bourbon mash is made from 51% corn and a combination of other grains such as rye, wheat and barley. Water from the bluegrass region of Kentucky contains little or no iron, rather it is hard water that is limestone rich. The only way a whisky can be called bourbon is if it is distilled and aged in Bourbon county Kentucky. To be called bourbon the whisky must also be aged in a charred American white oak barrel. These barrels are only used once and then they are sold to distilleries that make other whiskies such as scotch.

Single malt scotch is made from a mash of 100% malted barley. Malted barley is barley that has begun to germinate before it is combined with water and yeast in the mash. For a whisky to be called scotch it must be distilled and aged in Scotland. The key to the flavor of scotch is that the malted barley is smoked by a peat fire. Of course local water is the other key ingredient in the flavor of the scotch. Distilleries often remain in the same location because of the water source used in the whisky. Most scotch whiskies are aged in used charred bourbon barrels made of American white oak. A cooper will often re-fire the used bourbon barrels for use in scotch aging. A scotch whisky can use the older barrels because the scotch is aged longer and require the subtle notes that can be gained from the repeated expansion and contraction of the barrels season after season.

To the taste test. I have an ounce of Maker’s Mark Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whisky, 90 proof, over a large ice cube and ounce of The Speyside Single Highland Malt Scotch Whisky aged 12 years, 86 proof, over a large ice cube. To set the mood I set my Pandora to the Frank Sinatra station and sipped each drink following it with a palate cleanser of ice water (I know ice water is an inadequate palate cleanser but I did also take a moment in between each sip to reflect on the flavors).

How do they taste? Well, at first taste, right after poured over a large ice cube, I preferred the sweeter taste of the scotch to the bourbon. However, after the ice began to melt the bourbon’s stronger flavor better offset the kick of the spirit underlying both drinks. It may have been Summertime playing on the radio but something about that American born bourbon sat well with me in the end.

Bourbon is a truly American drink and that may have affected my opinion in this particular tasting but I have yet to really gain a taste for whisky. Made from mostly corn, that most truly American grain, and only made in Kentucky there is a certain national pride associated with bourbon that I’m sure resides in every Scotsman as relating to scotch.

In short this not over by far as I have an entire bottle of Scotch to begin to enjoy and most of a bottle of Bourbon to finish. Cheers!

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