There’s only two kinds of people in the world - Beatles people and Elvis people. Now Beatles people can like Elvis and Elvis people can like Beatles, but nobody likes them both equally. Somewhere, you have to make a choice, and that choice tells you who you are.So, are you barley or are you corn? Oh sure, there is that rye fellow, but sticking with our metaphor above, rye is more akin to the Ramones - a dedicated and strong, but smaller following. My whiskey journey started with Scotch, but that relationship got off to a rocky start and to tell that tale, we have to rewind the clock back to my teenage years.
Save the final six or so years of his life, my father drank Scotch, specifically blended Scotch, throughout the entirety of his adult life. He, like many from his generation, drank for the physiological effect of the spirit rather than the intricacy, nuance, and enjoyment of the spirit. As such, his number one priority when shopping for Scotch was price - he often procured the most obscure brand that came in the largest plastic jug possible. Think Clan MacScotchy's Ancestral Jug O'Malt. Growing up, he occasionally let me take a small sip from his ice-laden tumbler and I was often left wondering why in the world anyone would consume such a foul tasting concoction. To be fair, much like my childhood disdain of sauerkraut, I am sure part of my bafflement was due to an inexperienced palate rather than the blend's provenance, but a seed that would sprout decades later was sown back then.
When I came of legal drinking age, Scotch, and for that matter the entirety of whiskey, never registered on my radar. Back then the precursor to today's craft beer - Pete's Wicked and Sam Adams - reigned supreme. Distilled spirits were consumed in mostly schnapps and liqueur form, think Goldschläger, Kahlúa, and of course the cornerstone of post-adolescent debauchery, Jägermeister. The first crack in the wall of mediocrity that surrounded my hooch shelf came from one of my true loves in this life - cooking shows. Now I am not talking about today's iteration of cooking shows, the ones hosted by former sitcom stars or social media influencers that have never stepped foot in a professional kitchen. No no, I am talking about PBS old school, actually teach you technique and theory type of shows - Julia Child and Jacques Pépin, Martin Yan, Graham Kerr, Jeff Smith, Justin Wilson, and the point of this rant, my beloved Rick Bayless.
Back in the early 2000s, Rick Bayless created and hosted a show - Mexico: One Plate at a Time - where he toured and taught the audience all the marvelous culinary offerings from the various regions in his adopted home of Mexico. One episode took Mr. Bayless to Tequila Herradura - the distillery in Mexico, owned by Brown-Foreman, that produces Herradura tequila. Now at this point in my life, my then-girlfriend (but future bride) and I thought we knew all there was to know about margaritas - Cuervo Gold and that large jug of fluorescent-green Margaritaville margarita mixer - one part to three, shaken with and served on ice. This assured confidence in maragarita mastery was rocked to its core as I watched this particular episode and Rick Bayless, standing next to the distillery's fermenters, proclaimed '...but they're making the good stuff here.'
Good stuff.... just what did he mean by that?! Rick proceeded to explain how tequila is made, how the hearts of blue agave plants are cooked, preferably in fired kilns vs steam-heated kilns, then pressed and the resulting juice is used as the basis of fermentation which in turn is distilled. He highlighted how not all tequilas are created equal, that there are bottles legally labeled as tequila yet only contain 51% blue agave distillate and 49% who-knows-what (typically sugar and water added during distillation). He concluded the episode with a plea - regardless of what brand you choose, when shopping for a tequila, scour the label for those magical words - 100% de Agave - to ensure you are buying a true, pure tequila containing only distillate from the agave plant.
Armed with my newfound knowledge, I immediately bolted to the liquor store, searched out a reposado Herradura and returned home to mix two separate margaritas - identical in every regard save the tequila - Cuervo Gold in one, the Good Stuff in the other. I presented each to my better half, she sipped one then the other and instantly pointed to the one containing the Herradura: 'this one, not even close '. Intrigued, I tasted and came to the same conclusion, it was astonishing how the quality of the Herradura was instantly perceptible even when mixed with the faux neon-green mixer. This of course led to a second trip out - if a premium spirit could so noticeably lift a garbage mixer, imagine what would happen if we paired it with a homemade mixer made from fresh limes and scratch-made simple syrup, and sure, why not a splash of Grand Marnier. The result was ... illuminating. Like that chap in Plato's cave, my reality expanded that day as I was freed from the shackles of ingredient ignorance.
Many years after my tequila awaking, I began to think more and more about my father's drink of choice. What if a similar knowledge-based phenomenon could be found in the whiskey aisle as had been found in the tequila aisle. The answer, as you probably could have predicted, was a resounding yes, which brings me back to the start of this post - barley or corn. While I am only a little over a decade into my whiskey exploration, no matter where or how far I stray, I always find myself returning to barley. Barley whiskey is capable of an elegance, oftentimes delivering a transcendental experience that corn whiskey has yet to replicate for me.
When I think barley whiskey, I typically mean Scotch, but that is not an exclusive delimiter - Ireland, Japan, and the United States have all produced barley whiskeys that caused my toes to curl and my eyes to relax into that contemplative stare into nothingness; nuance, intricacy, progression of aroma and taste - barley whiskey when done 'right' can be a symphony for the senses. None of this is to say that aged corn whiskey, which by and large for me is a bourbon whiskey, is not capable of delivering an enjoyably memorable experience. It's just that bourbon delivers an entirely different experience for me, but I personally feel this is wholly by design.
Due to the legal requirement of exclusive maturation in a new charred oak container, bourbon never fails to deliver a sledgehammer of flavor that can linger for some time. The side effect of this legal requirement is that bourbon tends to deliver a common sensory experience - vanilla, caramel, brown sugar, oak, baking spices. Bourbon producers do have some leeway - yeast selection, proportion of grains, distillation and barreling variation, barrel char levels, where and how those barrels are stored for maturation, also how those barrels are blended before bottling are but just a few legally allowed variances afforded. These variances can introduce fruit, peanut, savory and/or sweet herbs, but the power of a brand new charred oak barrel cannot be understated; it's influence on the distillate is profound. Scotch producers on the other hand are only legally required to use oak containers with no stipulation on whether they are new or not. As a result, Scotch producers have tremendous leeway, using and reusing barrels that once contained not just whiskey, but other spirits such as rum or brandy or even non-distilled alcohols like wine and beer for the maturation of their whiskeys. This huge diversity of legally allowed barrels for maturation empowers a Scotch producer to layer a near-infinite variety of flavor subtlety when producing their final product.
This should not be construed as a criticism of bourbon however. Bourbon's heavily regulated definition limits what producers can do to change up the experience and this is, in my opinion, a good thing - it defines the genre to such a degree that consumers have a legitimate indication of what the bottle they are considering purchasing will in fact deliver. With Scotch, there is a bit of a leap of faith as the consumer generally doesn't know the specific proportion of barrels used during maturation nor how 'fresh' or 'tired' those barrels are.
Rest assured, just like a lot of Beatles fans, I adore Elvis; there are many bourbons that bring genuine joy and amazement into my life. In fact, it was a bottle of Wild Turkey 101 that was my sole spirit companion during the electricity-free eight days that followed Hurricane Irma after she scooted past our homestead. Bourbon also tends to be what I reach for on a weekend afternoon as I prepare the coming week's dinners and lunches. Many a lazy late afternoon has been spent sitting on the pool deck or in our tiki room contemplating life as I gently twirl a pour of bourbon. Bourbon will always be represented on my whiskey shelf, but for those sublime moments in life - completion of a great meal, an engaging conversation, unwinding after a challenging day, or that rainy afternoon where you catch up on your neglected reading list - those tend to be the province of Scotch for me.
|My emotional support Turkey during Irma's aftermath, taken a few days beforehand|