Sunday, August 2, 2015

Bourbon versus Single Malt. What's the difference ?

 Whisky is a catagory of spirit. It's a very popular drink.But also a historical spirit, which, roughly said has developed in 4 countries. Ireland, USA, Canada and Scotland. Each of these countries have developed their own style of whisky and their own traditions of distilling and producing whisky. Today whisky is made in a majority of the countries of the planet earth. Together with the 4 mentioned countries above, Japan is also a major producer of whisky.

 Whisky is shortly spoken a spirit distilled from beer. Or more precise. It has to be made from grains. Grains is a specific type of plant. Barley, wheat, corn, rice, rye. oats. Google it if you want to know more.

 Any country or region that produces a popular high quality product will eventually protect it. This happens for a couple of reasons. A region usually wants to make sure there is some sort of elevated standards of it's product. You also want to make sure noone else copies your product and label it as your product. This is why champagne has to be made in Champagne, cognac in Cognac, and this is why we can't label the feta cheese we produce in Denmark as "feta" but use "salad cheese".
 This is also why Champagne has to made in a certain way. It's all the same with cognac, bourbon and scotch single malt. These are regulated and protected products. You can't make it everywhere, and if you make it you have to make it a certain way. There is a desire to make sure that champagne tastes like champagne and bourbon tastes like bourbon

 In this blog post I will look at the difference between bourbon and single malt whisky, and more precise, the difference between single malt whisky from Scotland and bourbon from Kentucky

Both are a subcatagory of whisky. Both are regulated by local authrities. Bourbon is an american spirit. You can't make bourbon outside USA. Actually you can, but you can't label it bourbon. It's a protected label.
 Inside USA there is regulated subcatagories of Bourbon. Straight Bourbon, Kentucky Bourbon, Tennessee Whisky just to mention three

Malt whisky is made in many countries. But for it to be labeled "scotch", it has to be made in Scotland

For those interested, here are the main regulations for bourbon and scotch whisky

If you can't be bored to read the content of these links I will emphasize the more important parts below.

And. There is more to this than just these regukations, but those link will gives us a pretty good picture of what allows one whisky to be labeled as a bourbon and another whisky to be labeled as a Scotch Single Malt.

But as said, there is more to the differences than just regulations. Climate, enviroment and traditions are just as important.

Most of the regulations is actually traditions made rules. Just to make sure that bourbon tastes like bourn. And scotch single malt tastes like scotch single malt

Bourbon and scotch single malt tastes different. Quite a lot actually. Here is some of the major production differences between bourbon and scotch single malt and I hope it will give you an idea why they are two very different kinds of whisky

1. Ingredients


All malt whisky is made from the same ingredient. Malted barley. There is not much difference from one distillery to another. Over the years, the variety of barley can change, that's about it. Grain varieties change as new better yielding varities is developed. It can be better yield for the farmer and better yield in the brewing/distilling process. Some varities can be disease resistant, but as diseases mutates this ability can be lost. At any given time, the distilleries in Scotland uses the same few varities of barley with a very few rare exceptions, as when Bruichladdich made a malt whisky from bere barley

But for this discussion you can say that all malt whisky is made from the same basic ingredient. Malted barley. With a very few exceptions, I guess roasted barley can be included here.

The one major difference in the barley used for single malt is the phenol content. Barley has to be dried after malting and if you use peat as fuel the peat smoke will induce the barley with a smoky flavor. The more peat you use, the smokier the whisky you will get in the end. By mixing barley that has been peat smoked and barley that hasn't you can customize the peat level of your basic ingredient.


Bourbon is made from a mix of grains. The composition of grains is called the mash bill. At least 51% in a bourbon mash bill has to be corn, the rest is usually rye and barley or wheat and barley.Everything written here about bourbon, could be said about rye whisky as well, rye is made from a mash bill of at least 51% rye.

The importance here, is that two different mashbill will give you two different whiskies. Corn will add sweetness, rye spicyness and wheat a soft toffee creaminess.

The difference

In Scotland they work with the peat level when designing the whisky. In Kentucky it's the mashbill

2. Yeast


In Scotland industrial yeast is used, with a few different plants supplying all distilleries


Most, if not every distillery, have their own propriatery yeast which they guard and cultivate as the soul of the whisky and the distillery. One distillery even have five specific strains of yeast. That's Four Roses, With 2 mashbills and 5 yeasts Four Roses makes 10 different bourbons, each with their own flavour profile. Some distilleries secure they yeast strains in several places and on several continents just to make sure it's not lost.

The difference

In Scotland the yeast is something you add to make whisky. In Kentucky, the specific yeast used in the distillery is an essential part of the distillery's identity

3. The stills


In Scotland, single malt whisky is distilled in pot stills, usually in a set of two stills. The shape of the stills from one distillery to another varies a lot and has impact on the flavour. The shape of the stills affects the reflux in the distilling. Taller stills give you more reflux, but there are several different kind of other designs on the stills that can increase reflux. The more reflux, the lighter a spirit


Most bourbons are produced on a column still followed by a doubler. The shape of these are not a big factor of the final taste of your bourbon. If any factor at all. Woodford reserve do have pot stills that looks like the one you see in Scotland, but I wonder how much of the Woodford Reserve you see in the bottle have actual been through one of these?

The difference

Still design plays are more important rule in the production of single malt whisky than with bourbon

4. The casks and barrels


All kinds of casks are used. Fresh virgin oak, ex-bourbon, ex-rum, ex-sherry, ex-wine, ex-port, ex-madeira, ex-marsala, ex-beer. And then used again, and again and again. Some whisky are matured on one type of casks and then transfered to another type for a short or maybe even longer period. As most of the flavour of a whisky comes from the cask, all these different casks types will result in very different whiskies.


All bourbon must be matured on fresh oak. When it comes to barrels and casks, bourbon producers have a lot less strings to pull compared to other kinds of whisky. So basically all kinds of bourbon has been matured on the same kind of casks. I know this is a simplified view as the barrels can be differed by oak type, char level and you can even find bourbon finished in ex-sherry or ex-port casks. But the variation from cask type is no way on the same level as you see with other kind of whiskies

The difference

Single Malt is using a lot of different casks types, bourbon, just one

5. Climate and the warehouse location

Scotland and Kentucky

The climate of Scotland and the climate in Kentucky is different. Kentucky is hot in summer, and cold in the winter. The temperature differences is less in Scotland. Scotland is also very wet and humid, so water tends to stay in the casks better than in Kentucky, where barrels can loose more water than alcohol. This results is the alcohol strength going up in some barrels in Kentucky as the whisky matures

The microclimate inside the warehouses are also a lot more important in Kentucky than in Scotland. Both in Scotland and in Kentucky they see whisky maturing different from warehouse to warehouse and especially in Kentucky, from the specific location within the warehouse. It's not unusual that some brands of bourbon are drawn from specific warehouse locations

Warehouse location and designs plays a lot bigger role for bourbons than for single malt. Both in Kentcuky and in Scotland there is different designs of warehouses, all affecting the whiskies maturing inside. Especially the giant warehouses that a lot of Kentucky distilleries do use have an important microclimate where one barrel location differs a lot from another

So what makes a Bourbon different from other bourbons? Mashbill, yeast and warehouse location are three important factors

And what makes a Single Malt different than other single malts? Peat level, pot still design and cask type are the major factors here

Beside this, all distilleries, both Kentucky and Scotland have a number of other factors they can work with. Fermentaion time, toast/char level of casks, and the number of years a whisky is matured, just to mention a few

The water from Kentucky is different than scottish water. Kentucky water is hard limestone water. In Scotland you see both soft water, which is most common, but also hard water. So within Scotland itself there is differences between the water from one distillery to another. I have heard many different opinions about the importance of the water source over the years. Or how not important the water source is. I will leave this discussion to others