Smoky Scots spirits eclipse down-home drink at fest

Food Editor

A sellout crowd of more than 2,000 thirsty whiskey lovers, liquor-trade personnel, media people and distillery representatives from all over the world -- about 95 percent male -- jammed a ballroom at the Hyatt Regency last week for the fifth annual WhiskyFest sponsored by Malt Advocate magazine. A supernaturally stalwart and speedy drinker could have tasted over 250 whiskies that evening -- single malt and blended Scotch, Irish, bourbon, rye, Tennessee, Japanese and Canadian -- and listen to more than a dozen speakers.

The vast majority of the brown goods were Scottish. After all, the tiny island of Scotland holds more than 90 distilleries. This country has only 10 whiskey distilleries. Much of the attendees' interest seemed concentrated on scotches, too, though not all.

"I like coming Chicago because some people at least like to drink American whiskeys here," said Greg Leonard, who was pouring samples of George Dickel, a Tennessee whiskey from a historic distillery that reopened just two years ago. "WhiskyFest New York is all scotch."

Bourbon, by law, can be made only in the United States. Some 98 percent of it comes from a 60-mile radius of Bardstown, Ky., near Louisville ("I don't know where the other 2 percent comes from," quipped Jim Beam's Fred Noe, "but I wouldn't drink it.") Tennessee whisky, like bourbon, is made mainly from corn and aged in new, charred oak barrels, but it's also charcoal filtered. Bourbon, by law, can't be filtered with charcoal or anything that might affect flavor or color. Smoky tasting scotch, by contrast, is made largely from malted barley, dried over open peat fires, and aged in used barrels.

American whiskey has changed considerably over the years. For comparison, David Pickerell, master distiller of Maker's Mark, poured a rough-edged Rocket Club bourbon distilled in 1935 -- a time, he said, when bourbon was "a hard drink for men who wanted to get drunk quick." Today's bourbons are much smoother.

Until the 1980s, said Noe, bourbon was thought of as "an old man's drink." In 1980, the introduction of the silkier Maker's Mark, which caught on with connoisseurs in the Kentucky horseracing industry, and then in 1988, the creation of small-batch bourbons such as Booker Noe's, introduced by Noe's father, helped to bring bourbon forward as a sophisticate's drink. Today, there are bourbons that sell for over $50 a bottle.

Leonard pointed out, though, that Dickel No. 12, a 90-proof Tennessee whiskey full of caramel and vanilla notes, is just $15, "an unbelievable value."

Scotch, too, commands high prices, especially for single malts.

"I've got nothing against bourbon," said a kilt-clad Richard Paterson, master scotch blender for The Dalmore, during a tongue-in-cheek debate with Noe, great-grandson of famed bourbon distiller Jim Beam. "It's a little bit of a new drink." He pointed out that whiskey making didn't start in America till 300 years after it was established in Scotland. "So it's a bit of a fad drink."

Not only did the Scots get started earlier, but they never had Prohibition to impede their progress.

Scotches tend to be aged considerably longer than bourbons, but that's not an indication of higher quality, but more like the figuring dog years. Drawled Noe, "We don't want to make our customers wait 12 years to have a drink."

Several things actually play a role. First, climate: Based on an experimental barrel exchange with the Glenmorangie distillery in Scotland, Pickerell said they determined that one year in a Kentucky aging warehouse was equivalent to four to five years in cooler Scotland. Further, the fresher wood of bourbon's new barrels yields up its flavoring components faster.

"With those newly charred barrels, said Leonard, "bourbon says, 'come and get it!' This is what whiskey is supposed to be about."

In an effort compete with the white spirits that currently dominate the market, many of the brands were passing out drink-recipe brochures filled with various whiskey-based "martinis" and other concoctions, but at the sampling tables no one seemed to be mixing the whiskey with anything but water. Both the Scots and the Americans recommend cutting their products with water, which makes their flavors open up.

"My mom, she mixes her bourbon with ginger ale to this day," confided Noe, "and I never saw my dad slap her once."

After an elaborate scotch-tasting demonstration by Paterson, though, Noe said that to drink bourbon, "All you need is a mouth, a glass and a bottle of bourbon." He paused. "I don't even need no glass," he said, and took a swig from the bottle.

"Bourbon's down-home, it's sweet and rich," said Noe. "It's part of our culture, our history. It's your patriotic duty to drink bourbon!"