I truly love and appreciate all styles of whiskey these days but that wasn’t always the case. For a long time, I was solely a single malt scotch drinker. It took a few years for me to branch out and appreciate bourbon, rye, Irish whiskey, and so many other great world whiskies out there. In the United States, it’s fairly common for whiskey drinkers to start with the easy drinking, sweet flavor profile of bourbon. Because of the accessibility of flavors that come from bourbon, many fans of America’s native spirit find it challenging to branch out to other styles that feature more unusual flavor profiles.
This guide is intended to be a companion piece to the episode I recorded for the Bourbon Pursuit podcast. If you’d like to listen to that episode, you can find it here:
|Listen to Bourbon Pursuit Episode 279
|Bourbon Pursuit Website
Scotch vs Bourbon? What’s the difference?
On the surface, all whisk(e)y is essentially made the same way. Take one or more grains, ferment them, distill the resulting beer-like concoction, then age that new distillate in oak barrels for a while before bottling. While this all sounds simple enough, it’s the details of this seemingly straightforward process that make for very different styles of whiskey.
By law, the mashbill of bourbon needs to be made from at least 51% corn. The remaining 49% of the mash can be made up a variety of other grains, from additional corn to rye to wheat to barley to a score of other specialty grains. Scotch, and more specifically, single malt scotch must be made from a mash of 100% malted barley. If any other grain is introduced into the end product, the whisky becomes a blended scotch whisky. There are other categories of scotch whisky such as “blended malt” and “single grain” but for the purposes of this guide, we’ll focus entirely on the single malt category.
If the flavor of bourbon can be altered by the grains that are used during fermentation and Scotch has no such flexibility, how can the flavor of scotch vary so wildly from distillery to distillery? A bit of variance comes from the barley varietals used but the two main factors that cause flavors to vary are the stills themselves and the barrels used to age the whisky.
Most bourbon is made using continuous distillation methods with the use of a column still. As the fermented mash is heated up, the components of the mash vaporize and re-condense throughout the distillation run based on their boiling points with the “lighter” components of the mash vaporizing before the “heavier” components. While this is a gross oversimplification of the process, the takeaway is that column stills allow the whiskey to essentially be created in a single run and can be configured to make different products based on the modular design. By contrast, single malts are made in a much more traditional fashion using copper pot stills. Most single malts are made using a double distillation method with only a handful of distilleries opting to distill a third time. The first distillation run is done on a “wash” still and turns the fermented barley into a 25-30% ABV liquid called “low wines.” These low wines are then distilled a second time in a “spirit” still which results in the final new-make spirit. Because different components of the fermented mash vaporize at different points (temperatures) during the run, the shape of the still gives distilleries some say in how and when certain components re-condense, affecting the flavors that make it to the condenser. Short, squat stills produce a very different set of flavors than tall, skinny stills and in Scotland, you’ll find stills of all shapes and sizes for this exact reason.
Later in the whisk(e)y-making process, one of the most important limiting factors in the bourbon world is where the Scots have plenty of options to choose from. Bourbon, by law, needs to be aged in brand new, charred oak barrels. There are no substitutes to this requirement. That means when a large bourbon producer like Jim Beam uses thousands and thousands of barrels to produce their white label bourbon, those barrels cannot be used again despite only being in production for a few short years. Luckily, there’s an industry that relies heavily on these gently used barrels.
In Scotland, single malt whisky needs to be aged in oak but there are very few other restrictions. Almost all the barrels used to age single malt whisky once held another liquid. The most popular and by far the most plentiful of these barrels are ex-bourbon barrels. Scotch whisky is also sometimes aged in barrels that once held fortified wines such as sherry or port. Many releases these days start in ex-bourbon barrels before a finishing period in an ex-sherry or ex-port cask. Without the same restrictions that bourbon has, scotch can move from one barrel to another and be made up of multiple types of barrels with no major legal or regulatory barriers.
The downside of aging in these used barrels is that less flavor is imparted with a used barrel compared to new oak. Sometimes, a distillery in Scotland will use a fresh ex-bourbon barrel (known as a first fill barrel), age their whisky, dump it, and use that barrel again (now called a refill barrel). The barrel imparts less flavor with each reuse and if you couple this with a cooler aging climate with fewer temperature swings, it’s easy to understand why Scotch needs to be aged much longer than bourbon. The aging climate for Scotch is akin to a “low and slow” approach in a slow cooker while most bourbon ages more quickly and aggressively like a deep fryer or a grill. That’s why most single malts on the shelf start at the 12 year old mark while most bourbon rarely even reaches 12 years of age. The aging climate truly matters.
With these differences in mind, here are some Scotch whiskies that I recommend for the bourbon drinker looking to dip their toes into the single malt Scotch waters. You’ll notice that I don’t mention peated whiskies in these recommendations. Scotch whisky made with peat (essentially decayed vegetal matter) results in a smokey and often medicinal final product. If you haven’t experienced peat before, try to imagine the smell and taste of throwing a box of bandaids into a campfire. If you aren’t ready for peat and try it too early, it could turn you off to Scotch completely. With that disclaimer out of the way, enjoy a whole new world of flavor that can only come from Scotland.
Ex-bourbon cask classics
While malted barley produces a very different flavor set than that of a corn-based whiskey, ex-bourbon barrels impart many familiar flavors to a bourbon drinker. There are plenty of distilleries producing whisky aged solely in ex-bourbon barrels. Deanston 12 Year Old is aged for at least 12 years in ex-bourbon barrels, is non-chill filtered, and is bottled at 46.3%. This whisky features notes of vanilla, orange citrus, light spice, sugary sweetness, and a touch of oak.
For a single barrel experience, The Balvenie 12 Year Old Single Barrel contains whisky from a single first fill ex-Bourbon cask. Bottled at 47.8% and also non-chill filtered, this whisky is heavy on tropical fruit notes alongside intense honey, floral notes, and a bit of fresh mint. As is always the case with single barrel releases, every cask is different so your results may vary slightly. Glenmorangie Astar was released once in 2009 and again in 2017 and is aged entirely in slow-growth oak from the Ozarks for 10 years before being bottled at cask strength. For whiskies aged mostly in ex-bourbon casks with a small amount of sherry cask influence, give Bunnahabhain 12 Year and Glen Garioch 12 Year a try.
Outside of drinking bourbon itself, new/virgin oak gives Scotch whisky a very bourbonesque profile. Glen Scotia Victoriana is a higher strength whisky from the Campbeltown region of Scotland that is first matured in ex-bourbon casks before being split into two different finishing casks. 30% of the whisky moves to ex-Pedro Ximenez sherry casks while the other 70% moves to American oak with a heavy char. Victoriana is non-chill filtered and bottled at 51.5% ABV and aside from a coastal sweet-and-salty profile, this whisky also features just a bit of a dunnage warehouse note affectionately referred to by enthusiasts as “Cambeltown funk” that just might appeal to a dusty Wild Turkey drinker. Glen Garioch Virgin Oak and Auchentoshan Virgin Oak are two other great Scotch whiskies that use new oak to add that heavy blast of vanilla and caramel sweetness.
I don’t always completely convert my bourbon loving friends and family over to the single malt Scotch world but one style that always seems to appease my bourbon drinking friends is whisky entirely matured in ex-sherry casks. These whiskies are often referred to as “Sherrybombs” and with good reason. These ex-sherry casks are often made of European oak which imparts spicier, more tannic flavors and the sweeter sherry styles like Oloroso and Pedro Ximenez add a ton of dessert wine sweetness, dried berries, and nuttiness to a whisky. The Balvenie 15 Year Single Barrel is a favorite of mine as sherry cask maturation does wonders for Balvenie’s honeyed citrus house style by adding notes of dried cherries, baking spice, and raisins. For a bigger and bolder profile, Aberlour A’Bunadh is a small batch cask strength release that is a classic of the single malt world and offers notes of dark chocolate, toffee, mixed berry pie filling, and baking spice. At a slightly higher price tag, Glendronach 18 Year Allardice is heavier, bolder whisky that’s matured entirely in ex-Oloroso sherry casks and sipping it immediately reminds me of dark dried fruits like prunes, dates, and figs.
We’ve only just scratched the surface of the single malt world in this guide. While there are plenty of Scotch brands out there that deserve some attention, this list is a good starting point. If you get through these flavors and are interested in branching out even further, whiskies from Islay and the islands (Skye, Arran, Orkney) introduce those smokey and often peaty notes that we touched on earlier. If you want to remain clear of those harsher flavors, there are plenty of other really great whiskies aged in other cask types as well as brands that range from light and floral to more full-bodied. There is also an entire independent bottler market that releases single cask releases from many distilleries. As you can see, the options are almost endless but the path you take from here is completely up to you. Get out there and start exploring!