Monday, March 29, 2010

Bourbon Versus Scotch.

Although I prefer American whiskey I have nothing against scotch, despite my occasional pokes at some of its more pretentious enthusiasts. My real quarrel is with the ones who denigrate and dismiss as pretenders all whiskeys that are not single malt scotch. Their prejudices, like most, are generally based in ignorance.

One of their false beliefs is that spirit distilled in pot stills is inherently superior to spirit distilled in column stills. Because most American whiskey is initially distilled in a column still, like Scottish grain whiskey, many scotch enthusiasts assume they are more or less the same thing.

They aren't.

First, the stills. A column still can do anything a pot still can do but it can also do things a pot still cannot, like distill to 95% alcohol. It's not the type of still that matters, it's how you use it.

Second, the second distillation. Like Scottish single malts, American whiskeys are distilled twice, the second time in a pot still. Although the Americans don't need that second distillation to raise the proof, they believe it polishes the whiskey by pulling off a few of the more stubborn undesirable congeners.

Third, the end product. In Scotland, column stills are used to make blending whiskey that is distilled just shy of 95% alcohol, meaning just shy of neutrality, i.e., vodka. Pot stills are used to make malt whiskey that is distilled to about 70% alcohol. In an American whiskey distillery, column stills are used to distill to about 70% alcohol, about the same as a Scottish malt distillery. (Lower proof off the still means more flavor in the green spirit.)

The two distillates are different because of different grains, different yeast, and different water, but not because the stills are different.

The Celtic (Scotland plus Ireland and Wales) and American whiskey-making traditions began to diverge more than 200 years ago. They're different, you may even like the product of one better than the other, but to claim that one is objectively better than the other is calumny.

6 comments:

Thomas said...

Chuck,

A comment, then a question.

How do you know that different still designs (pot vs. continuous) make no contribution to the differences between malt scotch and bourbon? Distillers themselves, when adding new stills, often go to great lengths to be sure that the new stills are exactly like the old ones. So the distillers think the stills make a difference. Plus, the bourbons distilled at Woodford Reserve (at least the ones I've tried) are distinctly different from continuous still bourbon. Not better, just different. So I'd say that the differences between pot and continuous stills are a contributing factor to the difference between malt scotch and bourbon.

Now the question - How do the "pot" stills used by most bourbon distillers actually work? Surely, they cannot be single fill affairs, like cognac or malt scotch stills. How would such stills keep up with the volume from the continuous stills? From what I have gathered at bourbon distilleries, the "pot" stills actually operate in a continuous fashion. Am I right?

Chuck Cowdery said...

I never said still designs don't make a difference. No two stills, regardless of type, produce the exact same distillate. However, distillers and still makers have told me that column stills and pot stills do essentially the same thing. The type of still is irrelevant. Most of all, pot stills are not inherently better.

The only whiskey Woodford Reserve has released that is 100% pot still is the Master's Collection. Woodford Reserve Distiller's Select always includes some whiskey made in Brown-Forman's conventional American whiskey distillery in Shively.

The doubler in an American whiskey distillery is a pot still and is equivalent to the spirit still in a scotch distillery.

Thomas said...

Chuck,

Thanks, so I assume that the pot still used in traditional bourbon production does operate in a continuous fashion - fluid in and fluid out, no need to stop and recharge.

As for still type, I suspect you are right in that neither design (pot vs. continuous) is superior to the other as a general rule. But try telling any malt scotch distiller or any cognac distiller that the type of still is irrelevant. You might be accused of calumny! I'll bet the truth is this - some spirits are better distilled in pot stills, others in continuous stills. Bourbon, I imagine, is in the latter category. No pure pot still bourbon I've yet seen out of Woodford Reserve (Masters Collection) is superior to good, continuous still bourbon.

Chuck Cowdery said...

I'm not 100% sure about the doubler, but I believe it is charge, I just don't know the details.

I think we're on the same page. There are many differences between scotch and bourbon, but the notion that SMS is better because it is made in a pot still is false.

Thomas said...

Chuck,

Yes, I think we are in agreement. From what little I know, the use of a pot still, per se, does not guarantee a superior product. But the myth is out there that it does.

Davin de Kergommeaux said...

Chuck, Thomas,
Have either of you tasted Nikka's Coffey malt? You could swear it was made in a pot still.
Matching the new still to the old, dent for dent, is all about maintaining the mystique, not the flavour profile - in other words, marketing.
When Laphroaig installed a new still with similar shape, but double the capacity of the old ones, no one really noticed the difference in the bottle.
Davin