There’s a common, albeit understandable misconception that Bourbon is in some way inferior to Scotch Whisky. The truth is that Bourbons are by many accounts some of the finest Whiskies in the world, in fact Jim Murray’s 2015 Whisky Bible places the 18 year old Sazerac Rye and the William Larue Weller Bourbon as the second and third finest Whiskies in the world respectively.
Whisky Vs Whiskey
The distinction in spelling traditionally differentiates Scottish from Irish Whiskies with the latter adding an e. Despite claims of quality distinction by some their seems to be little evidence of this distinction, more likely this is a linguistic divide of the same kind as uisge beatha and uisce beatha. Around the world Ireland and America are the only countries to add an E, you can learn more about the distinction between naming conventions on our Whiskey Vs. Whisky guide.
Bourbon and the Law
The snobbish attitude towards Bourbon is in part due to popularity of mash Whiskey such as Jack Daniels and Jim Beam, a mindset akin to judging Scottish Whisky on the basis of Grants. However the perception of Bourbon as an inferior product does, arguably have some basis in fact, as can be seen from the decision to legislate its production but that’s far from current. To prevent the adulteration of American Whisky (be it rye, corn or barley) the Bottle in Bond Act of 1897 requires that:
- The Whiskey must be the product of a single distillation season at a single distillery
- It must be bottled at 50% ABV (100 proof)
- The bottled label must specify its distillery of origin (and if different where it was bottled)
In addition to the 1897 Bond act Bourbon must also:
- Produced in the United States
- Produced using at least 51% corn
- Aged in unused, charred oak barrels
- Distilled at less that 80% ABV (160 proof)
- Bottled at least 40% ABV (180 proof)
Unlike Scotch which must be aged a minimum of three years there is no minimum ageing period for a spirit to be labelled bourbon (though the term Straight Bourbon signifies it is at least two years). Nonetheless these strict requirements do fundamentally change Bourbon making from other types of whisky making it considerably more uniform. While most whiskies, even those produced virtually next door, vary widely bourbon is typically amber to dark and is comparatively very sweet.
Using a minimum of 51% (though this is often as high as 70%) corn in the mash makes for a very sweet whiskey, in contrast Single Malt, by far the most common type of Scotch, is made with 100% barley. In Scotland and elsewhere around the world whisky, or whiskey in the case of Ireland, is generally aged in barrels which have previously been used for the production of wines and other spirits, this results in a more varied and complex range of flavour palettes as the barrels impart their own varied notes.
American Whiskey & Bourbon
The perception of American bourbon as somehow inferior is snobbery and an arbitrary limit, there’s nothing wrong with preferring Scotch of course, I generally find bourbon a little sweet and favour peaty whiskies but that’s a personal preference. American whiskey is fundamentally different, both in ingredients and legislation but that hardly stands against it, a few years ago the idea of a Japanese whisky taking the coveted position of best whisky in the world would have seemed implausible, an the Americans have already taken position two and three.