If you’re like most folks, you either a) prefer scotch or, b) prefer bourbon. Yeah, sure there are other types of whiskeys (or whiskys if you fall into that “a” category), but unless you’re Canadian or Irish, you’re really only interested in bourbon or scotch. Most are attracted to scotch right away. They’ve heard it’s a noble drink, one for the gentleman, one that “the most interesting man in the world” probably drinks. Well considering his beer of choice is Dos Equis, I’m not trusting this guy with my drink of choice! Well, in case you haven’t gathered the tone of this opening statement, I’m about to tell you why bourbon kicks scotch’s ass. In addition Bourbon pairs well with your favorite cigar.
Scattered across the balmy wetlands of the Kentucky marsh, encased somewhere inside a stretch of black, moss-laden vegetation, lay rickety old shacks; all housing thousands of barrels of bourbon, aging to perfection. The sweltering hot air of the humid climate has no hiding places, making its way into the heart of the oak barrels and pulling at the whiskey within. Expanding and contracting in unison with the weather, the bourbon burrows into the charred oak. It is here that bourbon takes on a dark, caramel brown tone, and draws warm, sweet and oaky nuances from the charred wood. It’s not smooth, it’s bold, it doesn’t go down easy, it comes up like a fire, it makes no apologies, it’s born and raised in the USA, it’s Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey.
There’s something grand about bourbon, a prideful feeling that you’re somehow a part of its gritty, rough-and-tumble past. When I sip at a glass of barrel proof bourbon, thoughts of Wild West saloons, old time bar fights, and backwoods moonshinin’ outlaws fill my head. It’s a distinctly American drink, with a bold, in-your-face character, and yet sweet, like your grandma’s oatmeal cookies. One thing I find so interesting about straight bourbon is the rigorous regulation it adheres to. If you’re unfamiliar with the bourbon “routine”, allow me to show you the ropes.
Bourbon must be 100% made in the USA. Purists may even tell you it needs to be Kentucky-bred, but made anywhere in the United States will technically pass as bourbon. Bourbon must also be made from a recipe of no less than 51% corn (if it wasn’t already American enough). Here’s where it gets really interesting: all bourbon MUST be aged in new, charred oak barrels. Use a barrel once and it is toast, never to be touched by the sweet, golden liquid again (well, at least on American soil…). “Why is this last step so important?” you ask. “Because the freshly charred oak barrels contain bold, untapped flavors!” I answer. This is why a 15 year old bottle of bourbon is typically about 5 shades darker than a scotch of the same age. It’s also one of the reasons bourbon is bold and scotch is weak… I mean smooth, excuse me. But I don’t mean to speak out of turn, we must first pay our respects to the granddaddy of whiskies.
Contrast all this Wild West whiskey talk to a very similar spirit being distilled over 3,000 miles “across the pond”. Bourbon’s (not so) distant relative, it’s the original, it has the history, and a strict set of guidelines to insure its legendary quality – let’s take a quick peak at our friend, scotch.
This is an old beverage, no doubt, with its beginnings over 500 years back! King James IV preferred the drink, as did George IV and Queen Victoria; which added to ol’ scotch’s “street cred”, and is now well-known as the (unofficial) drink of sophistication. “It’s a smooth drink”, you’ll hear enthusiasts boast of the finer, more matured single malt offerings. You see, scotch fans take pride in 3 factors that make up their beloved drink (as far as I can assess). History: scotch is older therefore it’s better (I think there’s more to it than that). Drinkability: the idea here is that the longer a whisky ages, the smoother it becomes (how elegant). Exclusivity: it’s expensive, it’s dry, and you’re probably not going to like it right away, in other words – it’s an acquired taste (what a bunch of hipsters…).
Like bourbon, scotch too has a precise standard to which all must be held accountable. Scotch must be made in Scotland, good for the Scots! It needs to be at least 80 proof and made from malted barley. It may contain no added substances, other than water and plain caramel coloring. Wait, what was that last part? Caramel coloring? You’d think scotch would have a more “manly” hue to it if they’re going to the trouble of manipulating the color… Now then, all scotch must be aged in oak casks for a minimum of 3 years. Notice I didn’t say “new” oak casks, that’s because scotch can be aged in any barrel, so long as it’s oak. Remember when I mentioned bourbon barrels are only used once? What I meant was they are only used once by bourbon manufacturers, they are then transported to other distilleries all over the world, including (you guessed it) Scotland. So when you’re sipping at your aged glass of scotch and you notice a subtle, sweet note, that’s just a little slice of bourbon DNA – you’re welcome.
In addition Bourbon and cigars is a match made in heaven. Being primarily a cigar enthusiast (and owner of the social cigar app Cigar Dojo), I continuously find myself in the midst of the ever-popular “what is the best drink to pair with your cigar” debate. Coffee, wine, craft beer, even sodas are thrown around as favorites; but 9 out of 10 times the discussion comes down to the big guns: bourbon and scotch. The thing that amazes me is how instantly biased people are in favor of scotch over bourbon. It’s as if there is no contest, it’s the cigar smoker’s default choice. Maybe it’s all they’ve ever known, maybe it just sounds like the right thing to do, and maybe (most definitely) it’s because these cigar fanatics have never experienced a “real” pour of true, Kentucky straight bourbon.
To me the choice is obvious, the two go hand in hand. Allow me to explain if I may. I’m sure most will recall the great cigar boom of the ’90s. There was so much demand for hand rolled cigars that manufacturers started rolling up darn-near anything they could get their hands on! But not all manufacturers subjected themselves to these shoddy practices; it was out of this era that we were given the infamous Fuente Opus X and Padron 1964 cigars, something the cigar world won’t soon forget. Some might say we’re now in the midst of a “second wave” cigar boom. Perhaps not as strong as the first, but this time manufacturers have the resources to combat the craze. Cigar fanatics are going crazy for that oily, tobacco goodness. Everything is bigger, bolder, and stronger – it’s all about the in-your-face flavor bomb cigar. Limited editions and rarities are being traded around like gold on the black market. Sure, not all these “newfangled” cigars have the lasting power, but that’s what’s fun about the cigar hobby; it’s the thrill of the chase, and putting those taste buds to work!
This is where bourbon comes back into the picture – if you’re searching for a flavor workout, look no further than small batch Kentucky straight bourbon. You see, the bourbon world is sort of going through its own “boom”. It was in the early 1990’s that the world was introduced to Booker’s, a small batch bourbon that was uncut, unfiltered, and bottled straight from the barrel. What this all means is that this bourbon will punch you in the face with flavor! Soon Booker’s was joined by fellow distilleries looking to reprise age-old recipes in their purest form. Small batch, single barrel, barrels aged at sea, tornado bourbon… these are just some of the crazy concoctions being spun-out by Kentucky distilleries today. Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery produces a product so rare and delicious, that on its annual release each fall, you can expect to find lines of grown men winding around liquor stores across the country! This is the kind of fired-up attitude cigar smokers can appreciate. We crave the bold, the rare, and the unique – and that is exactly what bourbon has to offer.
Do yourself a favor, next time you reach for that smoky, peat-infused scotch, pair it next to a barrel proof bourbon and let their subtle complexities and differences vie for the title of your palate. You may just find yourself a wee bit surprised.