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Bourbon, Scotch, and Tasmanian Whisky: At the end of the world just before the end of the world

Here are some thoughts on Tasmanian Whisky, Scotch, and Bourbon… but not in that order.

Bourbon

In the Beginning, there is Bourbon. My friends offer to take me on the Bourbon Trail when I am passing through Kentucky for the first time. Though I have never really been a fan of whiskey and know nothing about bourbon, it is too unique to pass up.

They bring their kids, and therefore we make it to only two distilleries – Woodford Reserve and Maker’s Mark. These two are distinctive enough that they become the model distilleries to look up to henceforth. 

Woodford Reserve is bottled Old South money and all other money distilleries around the world somehow fall short of the buttoned up, “porch rocker matches the drapes” kinda vibe that Woodford Reserve has. 

There’s men in sports jackets without ties and a giant xmas tree with shiny, empty presents underneath. It’s the first time I am ever asked “What church do you go to?”. I respond diplomatically that I do not live in the area.

Maker’s Mark, well, it’s the Disneyland of distilleries. Even the kids enjoy this one. It’s at Woodford Reserve that they lose energy and start complaining. At Maker’s Mark the advertising and branding is so powerful that it entrances everyone. 

Dripping red wax seal.

The red and black sensual branding is reflected across everything in the distillery. The guide is entertaining and there is a portion of the tour dedicated to the marketing and branding. 

The liquor though? Ugh.

I do have a good moment there at Maker’s Mark where I get to try their White Dog, which is the bourbon before it’s put in a barrel. I know this is closer to the White Lightning, drunk upon which the pioneers forged their violent repatterning into the United States of America.

With this ends my interest in bourbon, though. I do not like the sweet, corn taste that is the signature and the very thing that makes bourbon what it is. Corn is America. Corn is bourbon. Bourbon used to be about Kentucky, but now it is not. Now one can make bourbon anywhere in the US or Puerto Rico, as long as it is:

  • Made from a grain mixture that is at least 51% corn
  • Aged in new, charred oak containers
  • Distilled to no more than 160 (U.S.) proof (80% alcohol by volume)
  • Entered into the container for aging at no more than 125 proof (62.5% alcohol by volume)
  • Bottled (like other whiskeys) at 80 proof or more (40% alcohol by volume)

Corn to me is USAmerica’s worst product. It’s a symbol for complete environmental devastation and the destruction of the food system. Not a fan of bourbon. Not happy that almost all aged alcohol is aged in bourbon barrels. At Maker’s Mark I learn they used to give their used barrels away for free, until they realized they can sweat 5 gallons of bourbon out of one. Thereby anything aged in a bourbon barrel has the taste of bourbon, which wrinkles my nose. Even distilled, it tastes of sugar and imperialism.

The story of the United States is told by hooch. The rate at which the plundering pioneers were able to distill alcohol determined the rate at which the frontier expanded. Drunkenness was par for the course. Judges had bottles of whiskey on their stands. 

Applejack and White Lightning.

Bourbon seems like a way of dressing it all up in fancier digs, but to me, still, it’s the dirty hooch at the bottom of the cowboy’s goatskin canteen. 

Scotch

It’s a week before I’m scheduled to visit Scotland for the first time and I decide to take a class on Scotch at a pop-up university. It ends up taught brilliantly by a drunk Scotsman who takes me through the entire history of distilling, etymology of whisky, the differences between whiskey, whisky, rye, bourbon, and more, the science, the legend, the lore, and the actual tasting of Scotch Whisky

My association with Scotch wasn’t great before this. There was a certain drunken Dogfucker that drank cheap Scotch as his drink of choice. Probably a choice worn trying to grow up into the big glass of his alcoholic father. He would come home reeking of it, and to me – the distinction between this and any other alcohol he might have binged upon was that his breath smelled of

“Dead Grandmother”

And so somehow, that’s the label I put on Scotch for twenty years, up until this class, at the end of which – I try a Bowmore 18 – and I *like* it.

Peat. 

I love smoky things of all kinds, and heavily peated Scotch whisky turns out to be one of my new favorite things. I’m actually really grateful to my alcoholic ex-boyfriend for keeping me away from it for so long, because discovering a new favorite thing in one’s forties is lovely.

Therefore, when I visit Scotland I hear about the Scotch Malt Whisky Society from my very odd Couchsurfing host. (He voyeurs on yoga, seems to want a cuddle party, and goes out of town and has me mind his roadkill stew by boiling it and returning it to the fridge.)

Needless to say, I spend a lot of time Scotch drunk in Edinburgh and not in his weird place.

But I don’t use my Scotch Malt Whisky Society membership in Edinburgh, I’m too busy being a newbie Scotch lover and figuring out where the peat at to get interested in single cask runs.

(Turns out that Octomore is where the peat at.)

Octomore

When I get to London I use my membership to visit the tasting room dozens of times over the next few years. 

The Scotch Malt Whisky Society produces collector’s item bottles. That they have their own labeling system that overlays that of any distillery. You aren’t supposed to know what distillery the casks come from. They are single casks, released monthly, and by joining the SMWS you are joining a club that lets you collect these, and/or go to the tasting rooms and partner bars dotted around the world.

Sort of a mixture of a private club and a bottle-of-the-month club. I enjoy it, and use the tasting room in London to look at Tinder, and, eventually, take Tinder dates. It’s a perfect place to take a date as it’s quiet and private and comfortable and always impressive to have to have a membership to enjoy something. The Scotch Malt Whisky Society is a more effective tool for dating than Tinder itself.

I get to know the bartenders, who know exactly what distilleries all the bottles come from and aren’t too shy to tell me. 

I am happy that Scotch has held on to its denomination of origin better than Bourbon. 

  • Is produced at a distillery in Scotland from water and malted barley (to which only whole grains of other cereals may be added) all of which have been:
    • Processed at that distillery into a mash
    • Converted at that distillery to a fermentable substrate only by endogenous enzyme systems
    • Fermented at that distillery only by adding yeast
    • Distilled at an alcoholic strength by volume of less than 94.8% (190 US proof)
  • Is wholly matured in an excise warehouse in Scotland in oak casks of a capacity not exceeding 700 litres (185 US gal; 154 imp gal) for at least three years
  • Retains the colour, aroma, and taste of the raw materials used in, and the method of, its production and maturation
  • Contains no added substances, other than water and plain (E150A) caramel colouring
  • Comprises a minimum alcoholic strength by volume of 40% (80 US proof)

And, well, talk about influence. Considering the size of Scotland, it’s amazing that tartans and golf and Single Malt have spread so far and so wide.

Heavily peated Single Malt Scotch is proof of higher consciousness.

Tasmanian Whisky

Tasmanian Whisky is my last little discovery of a treat in a pocket of the world I thought wouldn’t bring me anything new to taste.

We’ve all heard of the Coronavirus by now. I happen to be in one of the least visited corners of the world as it begins to take its toll. My South Pacific journeys are cut short by it, but not by much. In Australia, right now, it’s just a news story. Within a month, the borders of this country will shut tight and at time of this posting they still haven’t opened. But now…

Now I am in a Hobart whisky bar raising a glass of heavily peated Tasmanian whisky, with peat imported from Scotland and aged in American bourbon oak. It might as well be Scotch, but it’s got its own, rugged yet simplistic, Tasmanian quality to it. Citrus, smoke, and pepper.

It my first taste of Tassie Whisky….. Or so I think, until someone mentions Tasmanian sheep dung whiskey and I realize I have had that before. Hasn’t everyone?

Australian Whisky in general fascinates me. It fell much closer to the Scottish tree. It is, for all intents and purposes, Scotch. But it isn’t quite as refined. The tastes are more separate and blocky, not quite as smooth and full of transition. Amazingly, Australia did not allow craft distilling until 1990, and so the boutique whisky scene is very, very young.

There’s one distillery that used to be a dairy farm, and has repurposed all of the milk vats for whisky. Stainless steel, and much larger than usual, these odd, scrappy Australian innovations in technology add up to a taste that critics love to hate. 

But I don’t. I think it’s fantastic, and that currently – Tasmania is the cutting edge of global whisky production. I am no big fan of Australia, but have to give credit where credit is due. *raises glass*

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