Bourbon vs. Scotch

By Richard Thomas

Scotch vs. Bourbon

Scotch vs. Bourbon

Bourbon and scotch are arguably the two most famous styles of whiskey. Irish whiskey has its niche, of course, as do non-bourbon American whiskeys like rye. Yet the two big contenders are whiskey’s Kentucky gentleman and its Scotland laird, and that simple fact leads to inevitable comparisons. The ill-informed unfortunately come away with the idea that scotch is intrinsically superior to bourbon, based upon a poor understanding of how scotch (and whiskey in general) is made.

I grew up on straight bourbon whiskey, but now I live in Europe, where small batch and single barrel bourbon is scarce and scandalously overpriced. Necessity and my whiskey-loving nature drove me into the welcoming arms of scotch. The two styles have their own distinctive features, and while I have my preferences, the matter isn’t as simple as one being better than the other.

The two whiskeys use very different grain recipes, and that speaks to the core differences between them. The American term “mashbill” is irrelevant to single malt scotch, since it uses only malted barley. Even the smoky character of the two whiskeys are different. Bourbon draws its smoke from the charred surface of the barrel, whereas the smoke in scotch is drawn largely from the peat burned in the barley malting process. These two different, yet similar flavors underline the relationship between the two whiskey styles (and keep in mind that not all scotches have a peaty flavor in the first place!). I think of it as comparing apples to pears – similar, but not similar enough that one can be declared objectively better than the other.

Aging
The single largest misconception in comparing bourbon to scotch is that scotch is somehow superior because generation-long aging periods are a fixture of the scotch industry. A quick glance at virtually any liquor store shelves reveals many scotch labels aged 12, 15, 18 or even 25 years, while bourbon is usually in the six to nine year range.

This misunderstands a critical element in the aging process, namely the relative climates of Kentucky and Scotland. If you are in Glasgow, summer temperatures average a modest 66 F (19 C), but on the other side of the globe in steamy Kentucky that average daily high is 86 F (30 C). The hotter weather accelerates the aging process to some extent, but  it is too simple to say that whiskey ages more quickly in Kentucky than in Scotland. As any true student of whiskey knows, simply moving the barrels around the warehouse during the aging process can have a significant effect on the final product, and the substantial differences in climate between the two regions greatly alter the very character of their respective aging processes.

Kentucky’s hotter climate also means more of the whiskey evaporates away as “the angel’s share” than is the case in Caledonia, so aging a barrel of whiskey in Kentucky for 25 years produces far less whiskey than would be the case in Scotland, and therefore a more rarefied product.

Another aging aspect the comparison misunderstands is what kind of barrels are used to age Scottish and American whiskey. All bourbon is aged in new oak, whereas almost all scotch is aged in used oak. The only time bourbon-making ever makes use of an old barrel is for finishing, a practice borrowed from scotch-making.  New oak contributes a lot to the color and flavor of a whiskey, but the longer you leave whiskey in new oak, the more likely it is to develop an undesirable astringency. This is less of a problem for the used barrels put to work in scotch-making, since some of those chemical interactions were spent during the barrel’s first run.

Barrel Variety
By law, all bourbon whiskey must be aged in new charred oak barrels. Scotch must be aged in oak barrels, but any sort of oak barrel can be used. This variety is part of a tradition of creative experimentation in using sherry casks, beer barrels and even old bourbon barrels to age scotch. It has also give rise to the practice of finishing scotch in secondary barrels, a step that has only recently caught on with bourbon-makers.

This ability to choose among aging vessels contributes to scotch as a whole having a wider variety of flavors, whereas bourbon tends to operate within a set group of characteristics. The variability of how scotch is aged makes for a more interesting storyline, but whether it is an advantage depends entirely on whether how you feel the finished product.

Whiskey vs. Whisky
The Whiskey Reviewer has already tackled this semantic issue, and spelling has no real bearing on the character of either spirit.

Why Compare?
Bourbon and scotch each come with their own distinctive identities, and those identities are what have made these two separate spirits the world’s leading styles of whiskey-making. One might prefer scotch over bourbon (or visa versa) because of those characteristics, but that is a matter of personal preference rather than absolute superiority.

17 comments

  1. It is exacly like comparing apples to pears. I like both. Really, I like whisk(e)y in general, and thought I like to consider myself a Scotch man, Bourbon wins out 4 out of 5 times for me.

  2. kyle in brooklyn

    Good article! Growing up in Canada I was an occasional single-malt drinker and not really aware of the bourbon world. Having recently moved to the USA I am discovering the pleasure of good bourbon. The variety of brands and the good value compared to Scotch is appealing. I’ve since developed the idea that I prefer bourbon over Scotch although I’ve never done a direct taste comparison. That will be the next step.

  3. I learned to drink on Scotch, and loved it for many years. Recently I was turned on to Bourbon, and I have to say I prefer it to Scotch now. Not to say it is better, but I enjoy the complex flavors without so much of the smokiness I found in many Scotches.

  4. Good post. As a fan of both, I’m going to start strolling through your site for more like it!

  5. Glenfiddich.

    Bourbon tastes like sink water compared to that Scotch.

  6. I drink bourbon and scotch. They are both very good. Bourbon is like smooth maple syrup and leaves a great taste in your mouth. And Evan Williams is fine at $12. Scotch is similar but less sweet and I like Peaty Islays.

  7. One more post. Bourbon is not sink water what a comment. Bourbon is great whiskey with a distinctive profile. However some Bourbons use rye in their mash while others use wheat. Of course all of them use corn at 51% or higher. Usually higher like 75% corn.

  8. Eagle Rare 10 – Wow!

  9. Bourbon rules. Rye dominates. Scotch blows.

  10. What kind of douchebag says “because I drink cider, beer sucks!” But that is what I see the scotch snobs doing all the time.

  11. Bourbon tastes like dishwater with sugar added.

  12. To the idiots that compared bourban to sink water or dishwater with sugar I really hope your some European stick up your ass that only goes by the larger age on the scotch bottle …..if not then that’s just idiotic not to mention unamerican ….go park your dishwater asses in Scotland then. Guess makers mark or the wild turkey 101 just a little to strong for you ladies

  13. Capn Jimbo's Rum Projectc

    What we have here is a degradation of bourbon, by the bending of the rules to allow it to be stored/aged/finished in anything other than the “charred, new oak containers” specified in the Standards of Identity. The moment it is moved to used or non-charred barrels is the moment it is no longer bourbon.

    Both Jim Murray and I have discussed this issue in great detail. The only legal “finishing” which is allowed is the insertion of sherry chips or staves into the original charred new oak cask, and even in this rare case, the label must include the words “Bourbon Whiskey colored and flavored with oak (chips/staves/etc).”

    The industry counts on a compliant TTB to ignore its own standards, and allow this sad and significant alteration of what heretofore had been a pure and worthy spirit. Unless bourbon lovers speak out and reject such misleading labeling, bourbon will follow the destruction of pure rum.

    • Here’s one of the clowns who said Angel’s Envy was “deceptive.” The only deception I see is right here, and I call BS on it. Murray’s opinions on Angel’s Envy are in PRINT. Anyone can pick up his articles or his books and read them, and they are the polar opposite of what you say here.

    • I was looking at the homepage and saw Capt. Jimbo is here too!

      Jimbo is a lying troll, nothing more. He dirties every website he comes into contact with, makes untrue statements, and promotes his own stupid forum. I’m glad to see the site admins here at least struck his weblink from his comment.

      Don’t feed the trolls!

  14. A quick comment to everyone. I was a beer drinker (Stout or anything real dark). I have just entered your world of whisky. It’s all great! The complex flavors, the vast differences in flavors. It’s a fun world. To bounce back and forth between Scotch and bourbon is nice. The different flavors then really jump out at you for a great drinking experience. So far i really enjoy Scotch more, but still really like sipping on some bourbon.

    • Agreed. I as well bounce back and forth between both bourbon and scotch. I have my preferences, but mostly on what type I am in the mood for. Both go nice beside any fireplace night.
      Cheers

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