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Good summary of what makes Bourbon Bourbon

"Bourbon Whiskey" by Katie Spence on Flickr

David Driscoll, the spirits buyer at K&L Wine Merchants in Redwood City, just posted a good list of “Quick Facts” about Bourbon Whiskey, along with brief profiles of a few distilleries. It’s not a comprehensive overview or introduction – he doesn’t claim it is – but it’s worth bookmarking as a reference.

I’ve conducted several “guest lectures” like the one for which David created these notes. If I were in his shoes, I might augment them as follows.

1. David writes the following:

Jack Daniels and George Dickel are NOT bourbons. ¬†They are technically Tennessee Whiskies because …

And he’s of course correct. But while the people at his tasting should definitely know that there’s a distinction, I would add that the difference is more a geographical curiosity than “flavorfully meaningful”.

Yes, there’s an extra step applied to the making of Tennessee Whiskey, but it probably doesn’t affect the flavor. No less an authority than Chuck Cowdery is skeptical of the difference – he makes the point in a blog post here:

People will sometimes get all high-and-mighty about how Jack Daniel’s isn’t a bourbon, and it isn’t, but as a practical matter the difference is merely technical. For all intents and purposes, Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel are bourbon in all but name. If they taste different, it is because each maker crafts a slightly different flavor. Those differences in flavor have nothing to do with them being a different type.

Insisting on the distinction between Bourbon Whiskey and Tennessee Whiskey can quickly make whiskey seem inaccessible, turning off newcomers. It’s interesting as a footnote, but not important to the flavor of the whiskey.

2. Speaking of which, David does not explicitly touch on a question that always arises at these events: how does bourbon differ from Scotch?

Here are a few ways, in increasing order of importance:

  • Most bourbons spell “whiskey” with an “e” before the “y”, a distinction no one should care about (see: annoying snobbery).
  • Nor should anyone care much about the difference in type of still. Bourbon is made in a column still, while malt Scotch comes a much older-fashioned pot still. The former is also called a “continuous still,” because it never stops running – much more efficient than a pot still, which goes one batch at a time. Some folks think the pot still inherently grants more or different flavor, but I suspect it’s not as much about the still, just how you use it. (The photo in this post shows a barrel stencil at Woodford Reserve, the only bourbon distillery I’m aware of to use pot stills for some of its whiskey.)
  • The barrel, new charred for bourbon vs. a wider variety of reused barrels for Scotch, does have a big impact on flavor.
  • But the biggest difference in flavor comes from the base grain, corn in bourbon vs. barley in malt Scotch.

The best way to learn the difference is just to drink a bunch of different whiskies. Why not start with a bourbon?

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