From Corn to Barley: How a Bourbon Drinker Learned to Love Scotch, Part 1
Although I wouldn't have called myself an aficionado until the last few years, bourbon has long been my go-to spirit of choice. Its warm sweetness is both comforting and relatively easy on the senses. In recent years, I've become more interested in discerning flavors among bourbons, sampling any number of boutique, small-batch and single-barrel bourbons, and other peculiar or unique whiskeys, in an attempt to develop my palate. While many drinkers will have their whiskey on the rocks or with a bit of water, by this time I'd decided I would taste everything neat, so as to get the maximum experience of each spirit's flavor.
Photo by Paul Joseph
I'd always preferred bourbon to Scotch, although I'd never had much in the way of serious Scotch (I don't think a brief period of Chivas-and-water as a go-to drink in my early twenties counts). That continued as I tried to seriously study bourbon, preferring its smoothness and sweetness, not to mention having the recent explosion in craft distilleries to give me a number of new bourbons to try. It wasn't until I covered the Houston Whiskey Festival that I started to seriously reconsider Scotch. That's thanks to two tastings I attended.
The first wasn't a Scotch at all, but it quickly became my favorite American whiskey. Balcones Distillery's Baby Blue blue corn whiskey is exactly what it says on the bottle-- 100 percent blue corn, unlike most bourbons which use a mix of (almost always yellow dent) corn and either rye or wheat-- and the blue corn gives it a complexity of flavor I didn't realize corn whiskeys could have. Having since sampled some with a few different people, one of the most common impressions they have of it is that it "smells like tequila, finishes like Scotch." Blue corn has an earthiness of flavor that yellow corn doesn't, and the result is a whiskey that starts sweet but finishes with bitter, smoky notes, black coffee in particular. Experiencing this opened my mind to the possibilities of what whiskey could be, and primed me to start valuing a complex finish over a smooth one.
Not much later in the night, I sat in on one of the whiskey seminars. This one happened to be given by Macallan, who explained the differences between their Fine Oak and Sherry Oak lines, and offered samples of the 10- and 12-year Fine Oak Scotches for everyone in the room.
I was surprised to find they tasted unlike the Scotch I had remembered. They weren't smoky in the same way at all; I almost feel, for lack of a better description, that they tasted "cleaner" than other whiskies, much in the same way the Reinheitsgebot gives German beer a "cleaner" taste than most. The Fine Oak series is aged in both bourbon and sherry casks, and thus it comes without the full sweetness from the sherry, or the heavy smokiness from the peat present in some Scotches. I felt like this allowed the most basic flavor of the malted barley to come through. And I quite liked it.
I decided to follow up on this experience with a little more Scotch sampling over the next few weeks, which is how I discovered I quite liked The Macallan 12 in Sherry Oak casks (the traditional Macallan, by far the more commonly found one), and even now it is a staple of my liquor cabinet.
The only thing I knew about the regions where Scotch is produced was that those from Islay tended to be the heaviest on peat smoke-- I recognized names like Laphroaig and Lagavulin even before I started tasting Scotch. Though The Macallan was recently reclassified as a Highland Scotch when Scotland redefined regional borders in 2009, it is still traditionally considered a Speyside by Scotch drinkers. With that in mind, the next couple of times I went out, I sampled a few other major-brand Speyside single malts, but they didn't leave me satisfied. Most bars that only carry a few single malts tend to have these, so I decided to go whole hog on this new fascination and plan a Scotch tasting somewhere I knew we could find variety.
I went with my friend Marc, a fellow whiskey enthusiast and frequent partner in drinking adventures, to Reserve 101, to watch a basketball game and sample their wide range of Scotches. Here, I thought, we would learn more about the variety Scotch had to offer, and hopefully drink some selections off the beaten path.
This story continues on the next page.