PK Interview: Mark Charan Newton (Part 3)
The Week that Was

Bourbon vs Whiskey

Back in the dawn of time, before Pornokitsch, Anne & I used to run a blog called The Carnivore Project. It was based on the supposition that the British were in desperate need of American advice on how to consume vast quantities of creature. Twas a good time. 

One of the highlights of the experience was a bourbon tasting with Chris Morris, the Master Distiller for Woodford Reserve. This particular post first appeared in September 2006.

Woodford Reserve As if to encourage (unnecessarily) appreciation of a cold drink, it was the hottest day of the year. By the time Anne and I poured ourselves out of the tube, we were damp, disgusting and absolutely dying for a tall, cool drink. 

Fortunately, Chris Morris, Man of Bourbon, was there to tell us exactly what we needed. Chris is a passionate speaker - and he really likes his bourbon. His bias towards Woodford Reserve was on display, but he very rarely sounded like a sales pitch. He was keen to point out the virtues of all the tipples to hand and clearly saw himself as an ambassador of the drink, rather than just one brand.

The main interest of the the crowd - predominantly British food journalists - was the difference between bourbon and whiskey.

Fortunately, Mr. Morris was equally keen to expound in the paricular area. The first point he made was that all types of whiskeys - and by that he meant bourbon, Scotch and Irish - share a few points of commonality. They’re made from grain, they’re distilled below 190 proof, they age in oak containers and they’re generally bottled at 40% or higher ABV (alcohol by volume).

However, bourbon then differentiates itself from "Scotch" and "Irish" whiskeys in several ways:

  • In bourbons, the primary grain (51%+) is corn.
  • Bourbon is always double-distilled ("triple for Woodford Reserve", Morris added), and generally around 160 proof - giving it more flavour than other types of whiskey.
  • Bourbon also ages in charred barrels - this makes it sweeter, thanks to the sugar from the charred oak. 
  • Whilst in the barrel, bourbon goes up in alcoholic content - unlike Scotch, which goes down. This is purely because of the climate - Kentucky = hot. Scotland = cold. Neat.
  • There's also a regional difference in the water - bourbon country (Kentucky) has a high amount of limestone in the water, which also makes a difference in the flavour.

So far, I've shied away from entering the sticky arena of comparing their respective virtues.

With genuine respect to both parties, and with apologies for adding another convoluted metaphor into the mix, it's really a bit like comparing apples and oranges, or even Marvel and DC.

Bourbon is Marvel's Spider-man - perky, straightforward and sometimes a bit sweet. To use a Spidey-like pun, they're both a bit corny (51%) and have excellent, if slightly over-used, team-up potentials.

Whiskey, on the other hand, is DC's darker, more mutable Batman. While Spider-man shows consistency, Batman is more mutable - he varies wildly depending on the writer. He’s also older and and more of an acquired taste. There’s no immediate satisfaction with the Batman mythos, but those that make the effort to follow it find it infinitely rewarding.

So, to be completely clear: bourbon's straightforward, whiskey's complex and I'm a big geek.

Now, after boring you senseless with lengthy amounts of useless (except for pub quizzes in backwoods Kentucky) background, we get to the controversial bit - bourbon brands.

All of the brands I'm about to get into are really mid-range bourbons. None, I'm happy to say, would ever show up as a “house” or a “well” bourbon (like Jim Beam) - but nor do they have ridiculous flowered crests on top or £50 price tag. You could order them at the Savoy or mix them with Diet Coke.

Wild Turkey fared very poorly in the taste test. This is a bourbon you're proud to order and happy to show off to your friends, but hard to swallow with a straight face. Although it's got a great bouquet - and, frankly, one hell of a brand legacy - the flavor was appalling. The nose was terrific - you get a lot of vanilla and caramel in there - it it belied the flavor, which was both spicy.

Chris Morris pointed out that this is a bourbon that 'pops on your palate'. Which is an exceedingly friendly way of saying that it plays ping-pong with your tonsils. It's sharp and you can feel the fact that it's slightly over-proof. Not so fun.

Buffalo Trace did better, but not by much. Whereas I actively disliked Wild Turkey, Buffalo Trace just tasted cheap. It's got an unusually high amount of corn in it, which makes it a bit smoother, but that also seems to sap out the distinctiveness. Buffalo Trace has almost no smell at all, and equally little flavor. My companion, with her sensitive palate, was able to pick up something, but said it 'tasted like the smell of wet earth'. Not a selling point - no one wants a drink that tastes like badger musk.

Maker's Mark I've always been partial to Maker's Mark. I see that they're currently running an advertising campaign based on the random fact that they dip their bottles in wax (god bless focus groups). They'd fare better selling it as dipped in sugar. Especially in the company it was keeping during the taste test, Maker's tasted like candy.

There’s really nothing subtle about it. It 'smells like sugar, tastes like sugar' (quoth my companion on the eve). Chris told us this stems partially from the lack of rye in the underlying mash. But also from adding loads of sugar.

Possibly the single best thing I discovered on the night - Maker's Mark and crispy bacon. Honestly. Sip the Maker's and then crunch some bacon over the aftertaste. It's like when you sprinkled brown sugar on frying bacon as a kid (or as a student... or... now).

Finally, Woodford Reserve. Honestly, since they sponsored the evening, there's absolutely no way to feign journalistic integrity. But, then again I'm not a journalist. We've been ordering it for a while, as the 'poshest of the readily-available' bourbons, and it's nice to see that that our shamelessly middle-class impulse was justified. It's neither the smoothest nor the sweetest - I think if I were drinking for a whole night out, Maker's would win - but Woodford Reserve has a very unusual dry taste that all of the others lacked. You can tell you're drinking something complex, but unlike some whiskeys, it doesn't go sailing over your head. There's a bit of orange in there, and, even at the higher proof, it doesn't burn like some of the others we sampled.

Six years later? We're still drinking it. So clearly something worked.