In the course of doing various research for the whiskey book (often taking form of me drinking a dram or two), I’ve worked to not show a preference when it comes to comparing Irish Whiskey, Scotch, Bourbon, and Canadian Whisky. From my perspective, each of these whiskeys have their own stories and each have their own strengths and weaknesses.
I still think this is true, but I’ve finally come to a conclusion about the one area where Scotch excels beyond all other – namely that of variety of flavors and tastes that one can find within the family of Scotches.
The reason Scotches have a wider spectrum of flavors comes down to essentially one variable – that of tradition. How this tradition manifests itself differs from one country to another. For example, here in the States, what defines “Bourbon” legally is based off of a series of legislative agreements that took place in the 1940′s, where different folks agreed upon what “traditionally” made up a Bourbon. They took this definition and then codified it into law:
- Bourbon must be made in the United States.
- Bourbon must be made of a grain mixture that is at least 51% corn.
- Bourbon must be distilled to no more than 160 (U.S.) proof.
- Bourbon must be 100% natural (nothing other than water added to the mixture)
- Bourbon must be aged in new, American, charred oak barrels.
At the time this must have seemed a good idea, and it’s unlikely you’ll here anyone in Kentucky complain about this standard in public. But the big secret in the bourbon industry is just how limiting some of these items are, especially the bit about aging the whiskey in a new, charred oak barrel.
You see, flavor in any whisky comes from several elements. Everything from the mixture of the grain to the copper still itself infuses some measure of flavor. But one of the more important elements is the make up of the cask in which the whisky is aged. Casking requirements for Scotches, on the other hand, only stipulate that they “Must be matured in Scotland in oak casks for no less than three years” The casks can be new or used. If used, there is no stipulation on where the casks came from. Many Scotches are aged in old Bourbon Barrels, but many are aged in used port, sherry, or even wine casks. Some Scotches are aged for a period of time in one type of cask and then finished in another. What this means is that Scotches have a wider range of options available to them when it comes to infusing their whisky with flavors. (I’m sure there are industry-specific verbiage that I’m missing here. If so, feel free to correct me in the comments).
There’s another way that tradition plays into Scotches favor. But to explain it, we have to look at the history of Irish Whiskey. Irish Whiskey used to be more popular than Scotch. This may seem odd now, but back in the 1800′s, it was the Irish and not the Scots who held onto the larger share of the European whiskey market. How they lost their place in the market is a long, convoluted tale involving everything from greedy corporate practices to the quest for Irish independence. The important thing to note is that by 1920, the Irish were no longer a factor in the international whiskey market, and it took them nearly fifty years for them to re-establish themselves.
Now, in the wake of their re-emergence, they are looking to define themselves. Unlike Scotches and Bourbons, there are no codified requirements on what makes up an Irish Whiskey (UPDATE: aside from stating that it’s any whiskey made on the island of Ireland). . There’s sort of an unwritten rule that Irish Whiskey is distilled three times instead of twice (like Bourbon and Scotches), but this is not an industry standard.
Now one might think that this lack of standards would mean a greater variety of whiskey practices, but the opposite is true. This is mostly due to two reasons: Firstly, there are only (I believe at last count) five distilleries in Ireland . Compare this against Scotland which has dozens (The Scotch Whisky Association lists 42 that tourists can visit, and there are likely quite a few beyond that number). More distilleries means a wider array of options available to the consumer.
The second factor is that the two largest players in the Irish Whiskey industry are in fact huge corporations. Diageo owns Bushmills and the Irish Distillers (i.e. Jameson, Powers, Redbreast, and some others) are owned by Pernod Ricard. And as anyone who has worked in the corporate world will tell you, corporations do not take huge risks. and introducing new and different tastes clearly falls under the “risk” umbrella. What this means is that many of the Irish Whiskey companies could expand the catalog of whiskeys, but most don’t. The exception to this is the Cooley distillery, which is indiependantly operated, and are doing the most interesting things Ireland in regard to Whiskey.
(side note: Adding to the confusion.. Bushmills is located in the United Kingdom and must adhere to the laws of the United Kingdom. All other Distilleries on the Emerald Isle fall under Dublin’s jurisdiction. I’m mentioning this only to remind myself that creating a legal definition of what constitutes an Irish Whiskey is fraught with political issues.)
My point to all of this rambling is to say the following: A person may love Bourbons, Irish Whiskey, or Canadian Whisky. But it’s hard not to respect the fact that what the Scotch industry brings to whisky that others cannot is the wide swath of flavors available under the Scotch labels. Whether it’s the smokey and peaty flavor of a Laphroaig to the sherry flavors of The Macallan, there’s likely a Scotch for everyone.
UPDATE: David over at the Irish Whiskey Notes has pointed me to the actual Irish Legislation, called Irish Whiskey Act, 1980. The legislation defines Irish Whiskey primarily as:
(3) The following are the requirements referred to in subsections (1) and (2) of this section regarding spirits;
(a) the spirits shall have been distilled in the State or in Northern Ireland from a mash of cereals which has been—
(i) saccharified by the diastase of malt contained therein, with or without other natural diastases,
(ii) fermented by the action of yeast, and
(iii) distilled at an alcoholic strength of less than 94.8% by volume in such a way that the distillate has an aroma and flavour derived from the materials used,
( b ) the spirits shall have been matured in wooden casks—
(i) in warehouse in the State for a period of not less than three years, or
(ii) in warehouse in Northern Ireland for such a period, or
(iii) in warehouse in the State and in Northern Ireland for periods the aggregate of which is not less than three years.
This is similar to the legal definition of Scotch, and also far less restrictive than the legal definition of Bourbon. It’s even less restrictive that the The Scotch Whisky Order 1990, as it does not specify which malted grain to us, while Scotch has to start with malted barley.