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Bourbon vs. Single Malt

General chat and talk about whisky.

Bourbon vs. Single Malt

Postby Jon Barleycorn » Sun Mar 18, 2007 4:18 pm

I've been a whisky fan for a couple years now, mostly drinking bourbons and single malt Scotches. Though I enjoy both, I have to conclude that I detect less difference in flavor among bourbons than among single malts. Though each bourbon I've tried has some individual characteristics - some are sweeter/mintier/oakier than others - I'd have to say that the overall flavor profile doesn't vary that much for me, whereas every single malt I've sampled seems like a new experience. Perhaps this is because I have been to several Scotch tastings where I was able to try several malts in one session, whereas I've never had that opportunity with bourbons. I should also mention that I've pretty much been sticking to solid mid-level brands such as Knob Creek, Elijah Craig and Buffalo Trace, and have never shelled out the money for the high-end stuff. Anyway, I wonder if it's just me, or if other whisky drinkers feel the same in comparing the two genres. With each bourbon made from different proportions of corn, barley, rye and/or wheat, you'd think they would show markedly more individuality than single malts which are only made from malted barley. Of course, with Scotch you have the whole peated/non-peated issue to influence the flavor. So I guess it comes down to - how does your nose and palate experience and distinguish between whiskies of these two styles?
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Postby Deactivated Member » Sun Mar 18, 2007 5:46 pm

Well, my moniker pretty much tips my hand, but I also know when I'm overmatched, so I won't get into a qualitative discussion here. Besides, the Scotch denizens here, I think, by now know that I won't denigrate 'whisky', despite my preference for 'whiskey'. I have open and enjoy many single malt and other Scotches.
I would point to two intrinsic differences between American whiskey (bourbon/rye) and Scotch whisky that make them such different creatures: one obvious and the other perhaps less so. Scotch is made exclusively from barley, while American whiskeys are combinations of much-sweeter corn, rye, wheat and/or malted barley (and the barley content is the least, used only to initiate fermentation). Also much affecting the tastes of each is the barrel-aging. In the U.S., 'straight' whiskeys MUST be aged in NEW barrels, which impart many barrel flavors to the whiskey. The flavor of long-aged bourbon, for example, can be derived as much as 80%, according to Elmer T. Lee, from the barrel itself. The flavor of Scotch, which is generally aged in used (sometimes, multiply-used, barrels) is much more grain-centric. Additionally, the use of 'finishes' -- final aging in a non-whiskey cask/barrel to impart flavors -- is not allowed by U.S. law, nor is the addition of any other flavors or colors.
Others here can speak more knowledgeably about these and other matters, such as why geography affects the flavors of Scotches. But, along those lines, I'd note that all American whiskey today (outside of craft distilling) is done in the contiguous region of Kentucky/Tennessee/Virginia, which would minimize any geographic differences that might emulate Scotch otherwise.
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Postby pmullin » Sun Mar 18, 2007 6:00 pm

I agree that the strict requirements regarding the aging of Bourbon in new oak barrels eliminates one of the variables (ie. "wood management") in Scotch aging, that can in turn produce more variable flavour profiles.

Another factor is the degree to which the malt has been smoked/peated. This single factor is the source of of one of the biggest differentiators between styles of scotch.
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Postby Scotchio » Sun Mar 18, 2007 6:41 pm

In my limited experience of bourbons they seem to offer slight variations on a fairly ubiquitous theme. Whereas scotch has a number of stylistic themes with each distillery and age offering it's own distinctive take on that style/ theme. Bourbon also seems to offer stronger distinctive flavours whereas many scotches are lighter and more subtle(not bland) in their complexity.
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Postby TheLiquorBaron » Mon Mar 19, 2007 12:46 am

Something else which would offer a fairly viable difference to flavour differences would be...
- Stills...basicly most Bourbon is distilled in a column still of which each still is almost identical in design.
Last edited by TheLiquorBaron on Mon Mar 19, 2007 11:46 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Postby bamber » Mon Mar 19, 2007 11:07 am

I consider myself a fan of American and Scotch equally, but I think there certainly is more variation in Scotch than bourbon.
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Postby Drrich1965 » Mon Mar 19, 2007 12:11 pm

I have been working on Bourbon, but at this point I much prefer SMS. It is the sweet malt verses the corn, that I seem to prefer. But, I am working on it, as I blame myself and my own lack of understnading for my lack of total appreciation. Now Rye, on the other hand, is a different story. I really love the Saz 18, the baby Saz, and actaully the Wild Turkey Rye...Looking foward to trying someothers....Something about the spicy bite of rye that works for me...
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Postby Jon Barleycorn » Mon Mar 19, 2007 4:33 pm

To follow up on TNbourbon's post - I think the use of new barrels might be the key factor in creating bourbon's distinctive flavor profile. Because virgin oak imparts such a strong vanilla note to the whisky, it could be that my inexperienced taste buds have a hard time picking up the other flavor components in bourbon. I can say that I've never tried a bourbon that was lacking in flavor, whereas some single malts are so subtle that they barely register on my taste buds. But I suppose it's the relative subtlety of SM's that allow the slight variations imparted by geography, shape of stills, etc to come through on the palate. Whatever - I'm glad there is more than one kind of whisky to enjoy.
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Postby lbacha » Mon Mar 19, 2007 5:58 pm

I don't think a comparison of bourbon to all Single malt scotches is a fair comparison when you say there isn't as much variability, If you compared bourbon to speyside single malts (and exclude finished malts to be fair)you would find that the variability is about the same. Bourbon is just one type of american whisky, compare a wheat whisky to a rye whisky and then try a bourbon and you will see that their are big differences between them and that would be the same as comparing a lowlander and speysider and a islay malt, all of them are quite different.

I will agree that bourbon has a more uniform taste and my guess is that it has to do with the new barrels, similar stills and the fact that the sweetness of the corn does overpower some of the other flavors. This has all been stated earlier as well.

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Postby Jon Barleycorn » Mon Mar 19, 2007 7:35 pm

Your'e right, Len - It makes more sense to compare apples to oranges rather than to the full spectrum of citrus fruits, which is kind of what I was doing.
For the record, my favorite bourbon so far is the Van Winkle 10 year old - it's especially luscious while still being affordable. I'm open to suggestions of other brands, especially if they're not too hard on the wallet.
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Postby lbacha » Mon Mar 19, 2007 7:44 pm

Evan williams single barrel, Eagle rare 10 yr old single barrel, and Wild turkey Rare breed are all affordable and good Bourbons.

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Postby Deactivated Member » Mon Mar 19, 2007 11:48 pm

Jon Barleycorn wrote:...For the record, my favorite bourbon so far is the Van Winkle 10 year old - it's especially luscious while still being affordable. I'm open to suggestions of other brands, especially if they're not too hard on the wallet.


You might look at this thread:
http://www.whiskymag.com/forum/viewtopi ... 6351#76351

Regarding Van Winkle 10yo (either the 90- or 107-proof), it's an interesting preference because you can't get it anymore, or you soon won't be able to get it as it is, or you'll eventually get it as something else. Confused?
Julian Van Winkle (who does not distill) started the Old Rip Van Winkle brand with purchased barrels of bourbon distilled at the defunct Stitzel-Weller Distillery, which was long owned by his family and famous grandfather, Julian P. "Pappy" Van Winkle. It stopped distilling in 1992. As Julian's youngest S-W whiskey passed first 10 years old, then 12, etc., he replaced it in the younger bottlings in order to let it age for his older Pappy Van Winkle brands (15-, 20- and 23-year-olds), while also joining with Buffalo Trace Distillery in agreement to distill his wheated bourbon for future years.
But, BT did not, at that time, have any 10yo wheated bourbon, so Julian now uses Bernheim-distilled wheat in his 10yo ORVWs and 12yo Special Reserve Lot B. In fact, the most recent Pappy 15yo bottling consists of mostly Stitzel-Weller, but with some Bernheim wheated bourbon blended in.
However, Diageo sold the Bernheim distillery to Heaven Hill in 1999. Although HH does distill wheated bourbon (ironically, they now own the old S-W brand, Old Fitzgerald, which made Pappy famous) and its unique Bernheim Original Wheat Whiskey, they don't distill anything that matches Julian's taste profiles. So, when he runs out of S-W and old Bernheim, he's going to be using Buffalo Trace wheated bourbon -- the third distillery's product in that label.
The good news is, Julian is a wonderful whiskey-picker, so the quality will remain high in any case.
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Postby peergynt323 » Tue Mar 20, 2007 12:26 am

I've been trying to get into it and I have a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle FR 20yo that I drink whenever I'm in the mood. It is very complex with succulent fruit. Powefully sweet and woody.

With Bourbon I often get some spirity fermentation elements that single malts don't have. Perhaps I just need to get used to them.
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Postby hpulley » Tue Mar 20, 2007 12:57 am

I agree completely that scotch offers me more tastes; the fault is likely mine as a taster but I buy many scotches and very few bourbons since I find so much more in scotch whisky for me personally.

I agree with the poster above who pointed out that the fresh wood requirements and lack of peated grains limits the taste profiles. Also, the limited geographical areas limits the range of temperature variation (plus many warehouses are artificially heated).

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