From Whisky to Whiskey

By Julia Sharp

Photography by Emily Long

Bottles provided by Athens Distributing and Imbibe

For centuries, Scotch was the uncontested king of whisky. The spirit reigned far and wide, but the heart of the kingdom was deeply rooted in the Scottish Highlands. Distilling was initially done by monks in 16th century monasteries, but as those sanctuaries were broken up, the monks spread their knowledge throughout Europe.

The craft eventually made its way to the U.S., nearly 300 years after the first record of Scotch distillation in 1494. European settlers, often from Scotland, moved to the rich farmlands of Kentucky in the late 1700s. While many settlers were familiar with the distilling process from their home country, they didn’t have access to the malted barley and peat that made up traditional Scotch. Instead, they used the South’s abundance of corn to create a new beverage that would rival Scotch in popularity – Bourbon.

While personal taste plays a large part in whether you prefer Scotch or Bourbon, these matchups celebrate the best of both worlds and show that no matter where you’re from or how you spell it, whiskey is an integral part of Southern culture today.

 Whisky vs. Whiskey

While both spellings technically mean the same thing, whisky is the Scottish spelling and whiskey is used in Ireland and the U.S. This is because the word, which is derived from Scottish and Irish Gaelic, is spelled differently in each language. In this piece, we use whisky when referring to Scotch and whiskey when referring to Bourbon. When referencing both, we use whiskey.


The Rising Star

Kilchoman Machir Bay & Larceny

Whiskey takes many years to age, and it can take a distillery even longer to become well established. Given the amount of time required to create the product and brand, the number of rising stars can be few and far between in the industry. However, Kilchoman and Larceny have created a solid product and gathered a substantial following since they were both launched in 2012. Kilchoman Machir Bay is aged in ex-Bourbon barrels and ex-sherry butts. That combination adds complexity and creates a unique Scotch with both smoky peat and fruity citrus notes. Larceny is made primarily from corn, but unlike some Bourbons, the second ingredient is actually wheat instead of rye. This gives it a smoother taste and clean finish, which is complemented by flavors of sweet molasses and peppery spice.

The Sweet Treat

Glenmorangie Nectar DíOr & Cognac Cask Finished Belle Meade Bourbon

After a delicious meal, it’s common to enjoy a sweet treat. While this is often a baked dessert or glass of wine, there are also sweeter whiskeys that can satisfy an after-dinner craving. One is Glenmorangie Nectar D’Or, which is aged for 12 years and finished in French oak casks that were once used for Sauternes wine. The effect is a sweet, nectar-like whisky with nutmeg and honeycomb flavors and a long vanilla and lemon zest finish. Another similarly sweet whiskey is the Cognac Cask Finished Belle Meade Bourbon made by Nelson’s Greenbrier Distillery. After maturing in a proprietary series of different barrels, the six- to nine-year-old spirits are combined and finished in ex-cognac French oak casks. This allows the Bourbon to soak up the fruity sweetness, light spice, and brown sugar flavors from the cognac.

The Bottle You’ll Want to Keep

Bruichladdich Port Charlotte & George T. Stagg

Sometimes it can take years to finish a great bottle of Bourbon or Scotch. Other times, a bottle is finished after mere months of savoring the drink and sharing with friends. No matter how long a bottle actually sits on the shelf, there are some that beg to be sipped slowly simply because the bottle is too handsome to discard. One of these is Bruichladdich’s heavily peated Port Charlotte, which is aged inside nineteenth-century stone warehouses in Islay. The bottle only lists minimal details, leaving the real experience for tasting. Similarly simple in design, George T. Stagg from Buffalo Trace Distillery tells you what you’re drinking but not much else. The Bourbon is aged for at least 15 years in new charred oak and is bottled straight from the barrel, which creates a robust flavor with hints of molasses and tobacco. These elegant, nondescript bottles are thoughtfully designed and let the spirits speak for themselves.

The Unexpected Location

Highland Park Dark Origins & Jefferson’s Ocean

While Scotch is made exclusively in Scotland and Bourbon is typically produced in the American South, there are some distilleries that choose to hone their craft in less traditional locations. Highland Park is the most northern whisky distillery in Scotland, located on one of the very remote Orkney Islands. Highland Park Dark Origins boasts a richer flavor than it’s classic 12-year Scotch, which is attributed to using ex-sherry butts. Also made in a far flung destination, Jefferson’s Ocean is a Bourbon distilled in small batches out at sea. As the whiskey matures during the voyage, the ship typically docks at over 30 ports across five continents and crosses the equator four times. Both Highland Park and Jefferson’s Ocean have weathered extreme natural elements and been distilled in uncommon or nearly uninhabited parts of the world. It’s that resiliency that makes tasting each spirit an experience of its own.

The Heritage Brand

Lagavulin & Woodford Reserve

In 1816, two Scotsmen opened the Lagavulin distillery on land that had been the site of a number of different illicit distilleries since the 1740s. For more than 200 years, Lagavulin has used a uniquely slow distillation process to craft their heavily peated whisky. Most Scotch is released after maturing for 12 years, but Lagavulin’s first release is a 16-year single malt that’s worth the wait. Woodford Reserve is also steeped in history and sits on Kentucky’s oldest distilling site where Elijah Pepper began crafting Bourbon in 1812. While their Bourbon has become a widely known and respected brand, it’s still crafted in small batches and has a complex flavor profile with more than 200 notes, including caramel, honey, and tobacco. Building upon the rich cultural traditions of Scotland and the South, Lagavulin and Woodford Reserve have maintained their status as heritage brands for over two centuries.

The Rare Breed

The Macallan 25 & Pappy Van Winkle Family Recipe

When asking Scotch and Bourbon aficionados which spirit they hope to taste someday, many say The Macallan 25 and Pappy Van Winkle 23-Year Family Reserve are at the top of their list. These spirits are more difficult to find, but their elusive nature only adds to the appeal. One of the world’s oldest and rarest spirits is The Macallan 25, which is aged for 25 years in the Speyside region of Scotland. Speyside is known for using ex-sherry butts to produce a lighter, sweeter single malt, and The Macallan 25 is a shining example of that style. First boasting a nose of fruit, honey, and smoky spices, this Scotch is rounded out with full-bodied flavors of dried apricots and nutmeg.  Similar to the fictional character Rip Van Winkle who slept for decades, the Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve hibernated deep within Kentucky’s Bourbon country for 23 years before being released. It’s best enjoyed neat, as any water or ice will dilute the careful combination of vanilla, maple, citrus, and spice. Both spirits have a long, smooth finish, making it clear that these rare finds are meant to be savored for as many years as they took to create—if not more.

The Classic

Laphroaig & Maker’s 46

Classic whiskeys are defined by their traditional ingredients that display Bourbon and Scotch in their purest forms. Using the same distilling process for more than 75 years, Laphroaig is made in Islay, using peat fire to dry malted barley. The result is a rich, smoky flavor with hints of salt and sweetness. Like Laphroaig, Maker’s 46 creates bold flavors using traditional elements such as charred oak barrels, red wheat, and corn. The base of the drink is fully matured Maker’s Mark, but it’s aged even longer in barrels containing seared French oak staves. This process removes the bitterness of an older whiskey and adds hints of vanilla, oak, and caramel flavors.

We chatted with Local experts Justin Welch and Jay Donnelly at Athens Distributing to learn more about Scotch and Bourbon.


What qualifies a drink as  “Scotch whisky?” What laws define or regulate this?

Scotch whisky must be made in Scotland using malted barley and aged a minimum of three years in oak barrels, which are often used Bourbon or Tennessee whiskey barrels. The entire process must happen at the same distillery –water and malted barley must be processed into a mash, converted to a fermentable substrate, fermented by adding yeast, and distilled by volume less than 190 proof.

What qualifies a drink as “Bourbon whiskey?” What laws define or regulate this? 

Bourbon must be made in the U.S., from at least 51% corn. Most are around 70-75% corn and aged in new, charred oak barrels. Bourbon is distilled to no more than 160 proof, entered in to the barrel at no more than 125 proof, and bottled at a minimum of 80 proof (40% alcohol by volume). Bourbon must be aged a minimum of two years with no coloring added.  About 95% of the world’s Bourbons are made in Kentucky, although that is not a law.   

How are the distilling processes similar or different? 

While there are exceptions, most Scotches are distilled in copper pot stills, whereas Bourbons are more commonly distilled in column stills. A pot still consists of a large kettle or pot which is heated from the bottom. In a column still, the mash enters near the top of the still and flows downward, bringing it closer to the heating source below.

How did the tradition behind making each spirit get started? What was the historical significance for that time?

Scotch whisky was distilled in monasteries, but when Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church, he dissolved these monasteries. As the monks were dispersed into the general population, they used their skills to make a living, and their distillation methods began to spread.

Bourbon whiskey began as a result of early American settlers moving West in the late 1700s and discovering Kentucky’s fertile soil and vast deposits of blue limestone, which naturally filters the water. Scottish immigrants were among many of those early settlers, and they altered their scotch recipe to utilize Kentucky’s abundance of corn. Barrel aging came from a transportation need. It was found by accident that in the case of Bourbon, the quality was improved after spending the three month voyage from Kentucky to New Orleans stored in used barrels.

What do aroma, taste, and finish mean? 

Aroma, taste, and finish are three steps in whiskey tasting to understand the flavor attributes of a particular Scotch or Bourbon. To unleash the aroma, swirl the whiskey in your glass. These aromas – leather, wood, cake, dried fruits, grass – are often linked to nostalgia and memories of holidays and seasons.

Tasting is the next step. You want to pay attention to the feel of the whiskey in your mouth.  Is it soft and rolling, or hot and immediate?  Is it drying, or refreshing?  You should also pick up any sweetness or lack thereof when you taste.

After swallowing, you’re left with the finish.  A high quality whiskey will stay with you for several seconds after swallowing.  Look for a smooth, long-lasting finish.

What are some of the common flavor attributes for each when it comes to Scotch and Bourbon? 

Scotch flavors are commonly described as earthy, smoky, and sharp. Different regions of Scotland produce different tasting Scotch whiskies. The Highlands typically produce more full-bodied whiskies with deeper notes of peat and smoke, while Lowland Scotches are typically the lightest bodied. Islay Scotches are typically the smokiest and boast the strongest flavor. Cambeltown Scotches are typically a little peaty and salty.

Bourbons are sweet yet bold. They typically have vanilla, oak, and caramel tones due to the majority of bourbons being made from corn, rye, and malted barley, and aged in new, charred white oak barrels.

How do certain elements change the taste of each whiskey? 

For Scotch, the type of peat used and the quality of water heavily influences taste. The charred oak barrel gives Bourbon 100% of its color and 50% of its taste, so it is a very important element. Since Scotch is aged in used barrels, influence on the flavor ranges depending on the barrel.

How will taking a drink neat, on ice, or with a few drops of water change the tasting experience?

We all have our preferences, and ultimately, there is no wrong way to enjoy it. The beauty of whiskey is that each way brings out different flavors. Ice is preferred in America and especially in the South where we love our ice; however, it can create some inconsistencies as the ice melts.

If you add a touch of filtered, room temperature water after tasting neat, it will often open up the whiskey and release even more flavors. Adding water is like walking outside in the spring after a fresh rainfall – the water interacts with the whiskey and brings forth flavors and aromas that are hard to get when tasting it neat.

You Also Might Like

[related_post post_id=""]
CityScope Celebrating 30 Years Logo

Get access to the next issue before it hits the stands!