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.