Like pugilists before a bout, they enter the forum. First comes Frederick Booker Noe III, the great-grandson of Jim Beam himself. Then thereís Simon Brooking, a rowdy Scotsman who traces his lineage back to the Robertson Clan (13th century).
At "The Great Whisk(e)y Debate" last month at the Hyatt Regency Boston, Simon (master ambassador for the Dalmore Distillery) and Fred (bourbon ambassador for Beamís Small Batch Bourbon Collection) duked it out on the dais, making the case for the merits and virtues of their particular brown liquor. The goal was to settle once and for all the "ancient and controversial issue" of which is better: Scotch or bourbon.
All whiskey (from the Gaelic uisge beatha, meaning "water of life") is, in essence, distilled liquor made from grains. But aside from the fact that bourbon whiskey is spelled with an "e" (as are the Canadian and Irish versions) and Scotch whisky is not, there are some notable differences between the two. The grains used in bourbon must be at least 51 percent corn. Itís distilled only once, and itís stored in charred white-oak barrels. Scotch is distilled only from malted barley, and must be aged a minimum of three years. Itís stored in used barrels, some that previously held sherry, some whisky.
Fred comes from Bardstown, Kentucky, where 98 percent of the worldís bourbon is distilled. After a joke about the one man ever to order a Scotch in Bardstown (he was politely escorted to the county line), he walks us through the steps of savoring the flavor of the drink. First, appraise the color, holding it up to the light; the deeper and darker, the more complex the flavor. Next, the nose; stick your schnozz right in there, but always part your lips to avoid getting too many alcoholic overtones and masking the nuanced aromas. Then thereís taste, something for which Fred recommends a savory mastication he calls "the Kentucky chew." Finally, enjoy the warming residual aftertaste. The bourbons he uses to demonstrate are two stand-outs from the Small Batch Bourbon Collection: Knob Creek, aged for nine years and 100 proof, has a copper color and an oaky-smoky, slightly sweet flavor; Bookerís ó straight from the barrel, unfiltered and 126.4 proof, with deep and complex vanilla notes ó is near-perfection.
Simon has nothing against bourbon. In fact, he thinks itís kinda cute. "Itís so ... new. We like to think of it as Ďjust a fad,í" he says, reminding us that "Jim Beam is not the only whisky with a history. Itís just that ours doesnít involve shady black cars from Chicago. Ours ... is an heroic tale." Simon comes from a land with just three million people ó and 95 distilleries. First he has us sample The Dalmore 12, which over its dozen years has developed notes of caramel, vanilla, oak, and a delicate sherry sweetness. Add one or two drops of water (never put ice in single-malt Scotch) and those flavors emerge even more. The Stillmanís Dram, an elixir thatís aged for three full decades, is even more sublime. Simon suggests a novel way of "nosing" it: cupping a hand over the glass, giving a quick but gentle upward thrust, then smelling the faint splash on your palm like an eveningís cologne. Aromas of wood and honey are nice, but the buttery consistency and notes of heather and fruit are even better.
When itís time for closing arguments, Fred is asked what he thinks the chief taste difference is between bourbon and Scotch. "Well, awwwrs toysts bettuuur!" In response, Simon offers up a stirring panegyric to the Scottish national drink. "They can take away our liberty! They can take away our lives! But they cannot take our Dalmore!"
The victor is to be judged by volume of applause, but thereís little detectable difference. Luckily there doesnít need to be.
"This is America, where the popular vote doesnít matter," says the moderator. "Itís a draw."
Knob Creek, Bookerís, The Dalmore 12 Year Old, and The Dalmore Stillmanís Dram are available at most area liquor stores.