“I am a bourbon drinker and I’m interested in scotch. What should I try?” This is one of the more common inquiries I receive. These people are experienced with American whiskey and are ready to expand their horizons. But, they are like a child who just entered Disney World: There are so many options that they just don’t know where to go. There are certainly better options than just trying whatever is at the local pub or is cheap at the liquor store. Today I have some suggestions, and cautions, about this journey. But, along the way, I may destroy some of your preconceived ideas about getting into scotch.
I must start by saying, simply, scotch is different from bourbon. I know this seems obvious, but I don’t think it is for many people. I often hear, “what scotch is most like bourbon?” The true answer is: None of them. Other than being a spirit distilled from grain, there is little that is the same between bourbon and scotch. Scotch varies wildly in taste and, in any case, isn’t going to be very similar to a bourbon flavor profile. That isn’t a bad thing. But, it does mean you need to approach scotch as a totally new experience. Any expectation that it will be like bourbon will cause shock upon the first sip. I once got some disc shaped chicken nuggets off of a buffet. But they looked like fried squash. When I took the first bite, it was the most horrible taste imaginable. Why? Because I expected to taste squash. I like chicken. But, that’s not what my brain was expecting. Once I knew they were chicken nuggets, they tasted just fine. So, let us start with a clean slate, expecting something completely new.
What are some specific things that make bourbon and scotch so different? Let’s explore that. First, bourbon is made of at least 51% corn, usually with some combination of rye, wheat, and/or barley mixed in. Single malt scotch is made entirely from malted barley. While some blended scotch contains a percentage of grain whisky, which can be made from any number of grains, including unmalted barley, wheat, and rye, it is the malt whisky that is the dominate player in what we think of as scotch. Secondly, bourbon is always aged in new, charred, American oak casks. Scotch can be, and is, aged in any kind of oak cask, including ex-bourbon and wine casks. The casks can be new or used. They can be American oak, French oak, or Spanish oak. Or any kind of oak. The options are endless. Third, whisky can be called bourbon after only moments in the cask, but scotch is required, by law, to be aged a minimum of three years. Only Straight Bourbon or bottled-in-bond bourbon have minimum age requirements, although most bourbons are at least aged for a year. Lastly, the climate in Scotland lends itself to longer, slower aging, which is perfect for the used casks. Due to climate and the new charred casks, very old bourbon is rare, as evaporation happens quicker and the cask affects the spirit at a more rapid pace, and many bourbon drinkers will find old bourbons too oaky.
One mistake I often see is people tasting several kinds of cheap scotch, hating them, and then swearing off scotch forever. The worst part of this is that they also discourage all their friends from trying it, too. Not all inexpensive scotch is bad. However, the starting price for good scotch is a bit higher than for bourbon in the United States, and you need to get used to that. It is better to try one quality scotch than to try several cheap ones. Why? If you taste three different $20 scotches, and hate them all, you may feel like you wasted your money and never drink scotch again. But, what if you spent that same $60 on one nice bottle and liked it? Afterwards, if you tasted a cheap scotch and didn’t like it, you would know that it wasn’t representative of scotch as a whole.
Although scotch is a different animal than bourbon, it is possible to find scotch that has tastes that are familiar to bourbon drinkers. Ex-bourbon barrels are often used to mature scotch, so some of the same flavors of vanilla, spice, caramel, and cherry can be found in some scotch. For some drinkers, this could be the way to go to ease into scotch. Highland and Lowland scotch aged in ex-bourbon barrels or blended scotch that contains some grain whisky may be a good starting point for those who want some familiar flavors. Some examples of scotch that offer familiar flavors are Auchentoshan American Oak, Deanston Virgin Oak, Compass Box Hedonism, Balvenie 14 Caribbean Cask, or Oban 14.
Another route to approach scotch is to go cask strength, keeping with the tendency of many bourbon drinkers to consume high proof bourbon. There are cask strength offerings of scotch in every taste profile. Glenlivet makes Nadurra, a cask strength scotch is available in both a bourbon cask aged and an oloroso sherry cask aged version. Macallan offers Classic Cut at a high proof, which has a lot of ginger flavor. Tamdhu, Aberlour, and Benriach offer cask strength whisky from the Speyside region, known for rich and fruity whisky. For the more adventurous, Lagavulin 12 year and Laphroaig 10 cask strength provide a bold entry into the world of peat. We will discuss peat further in a bit. So, why would the cask strength route be attractive for some? Well, many experienced bourbon drinkers heavily favor cask strength bourbon for its impressive depth of flavor and richness. They find lower proofs to be thin or watery. Maintaining a similar proof in scotch ensures a continuation of those rich flavors. Be aware, however, that a cask strength, sherry finished scotch can be quite strong in flavor, so this approach will not suit everyone.
Still another avenue is to depart completely from any resemblance to bourbon and seek out a completely new and separate experience. I personally favor this approach. When doing this, one could look for flavor profiles that highlight plums, raisins, chocolate, cinnamon, apricots, hazelnuts, almonds, or even sea salt. The possibilities are nearly endless. Some of my recommendations along this road of exploration are Glendronach 12 or 18, Tomatin 14 or 18, Hazelburn 13 Oloroso, Talisker 10, Auchentoshan Three Wood, Highland Park Magnus, and Glengoyne 15. Of course, there are many more. But, these are a good start. Every one of these bottles has something different to offer. No one can know which will appeal most without trying each.
Finally, there is the boldest, and riskiest, option: Peat. Many scotch enthusiasts are careful to ease new scotch drinkers into peated whisky slowly. However, I disagree with this approach. Often, a person will either love or hate peat from the first taste. That was the case for me. I only had a passing interest in scotch until my first taste of Laphroaig 10. One sip of it and I was instantly a scotch lover. I know of many others who have had the same experience. In addition, there is nothing in the whisky world less like bourbon than heavily peated scotch, so there is no burden of trying to compare the two. Peated scotch offers flavors ranging from tar, campfire smoke, and iodine, to vegetation, damp earth, and smoked meat. There are peated whiskies produced all over Scotland, but the Islay region is the heartbeat of peated scotch. Distilleries such as Laphroaig, Ardbeg, Lagavulin, Caol Ila, and Kilchoman proudly bottle heavily peated scotch, while fully acknowledging the fact that some people will hate it. Here is a good place to offer a word of caution. There is no doubt that peated scotch is not for everyone. You may love it. You may hate it. You may grow to like it, over time. But, that is part of the mystique of Islay. If you do like it, you are part of an elite club among whisky drinkers. Islay is an adventure all in its own.
In conclusion, there are many ways to approach scotch as a bourbon drinker. There is really no wrong way, as long as you have an open mind and expect a very un-bourbon-like experience. The journey of each person will be unique, and once you embark on it what a glorious adventure it is. So, if you are a bourbon drinker who has always wondered about scotch but didn’t know where to start, perhaps reading this will supply guidance and make it seem a bit less daunting. Good luck on your journey, wherever it may take you.