This is a battle of whisky heavyweights. I know there are Canadian, Japanese, even craft and Welsh whiskies, etc. But bourbon and scotch is like the bluecoats vs. the redcoats. I want to be clear: let every man (or woman) have his own preference. But my preference is bourbon. When I first got into whisky, I was a scotch man. I loved the cool bottles with hard to pronounce names, learning the regional differences, and the feeling that I was classy (or something like that). I found I was drawn to the heavily flavored island scotches, peaty, salty, smoky, but also enjoyed the delicate honey of say, Balvenie. The problem with scotch on a social worker's salary is price. Don't get me wrong, I've had my fair share of journeys on the Cutty Sark, but blended scotch is just not the same as a fine single malt. Early in my whiskey experience, I knew little of bourbon, and pictured it as a harsh, fiery spirit that I didn't think I would enjoy. But the price point of bourbon had a heavy pull on me. The first decent bourbon I really had was Bulleit. Looking back, it's nothing special, but the great bottle design and smooth yet spicy qualities was very impressive to me at the time.
Bourbon is much more a specific thing than scotch. Scotch can be single malted or blended, finished in a wine, sherry, bourbon, rum cask, using tons of peated malt or none at all, aged any amount of time. Bourbon has strict guidelines, e.g. 51 percent corn, aging guidelines, and requires brand new, charred oak barrels. In one sense, it's an unfair fight, because the master distiller's creativity is quite limited with bourbon. That's starting to change a bit, as distiller's like Buffalo Trace are coming out with experimental lines, e.g., they finish bourbon in chardonnay casks. It's no longer bourbon, legally, but adds a new dimension to American whisky.
Even granting the limitations of bourbon's range, and even if you put price aside, I still prefer it to scotch. The price got me in, and I still appreciate that super rare high end bourbon is generally still less than $100 a bottle, and plenty of great stuff is under $30. But the taste is what hooked me. I really think it's the influence of the first fill oak barrel. When you drink a scotch, you are getting wood, yes, but also whatever was in the wood first (sherry, bourbon, etc.). That adds a level of complextity to scotch, but for me I love the taste of the wood (that's what she said). The way that corn, rye or wheat, and barley melds with the barrel creates
a fantastic flavor profile. I love the spicy cinnamon from the rye and the wood, but especially the vanilla flavors that you get from the pure wood. It may not have the range of scotch but bourbon can be fiery or mellow, sweet or spicy, juicy and big or subtle and sippable. I was recently ask what my "desert island" bourbon would be, one that would never disappoint. A hard question to name just one. My favorite bourbon may be Pappy Van Winkle 15, and I like a bunch of others, as well. But Woodford Reserve, despite being a touch on the "corny" side, is mellow yet flavorful, simple yet sophisticated. That type of balance could sustain you for a long time.
I have had several conversations with the whisky expert at my favorite local liquor store. His family has been in the whisky business his whole life, as his father operated a still in Philadelphia. He's met Booker and Fred Noe from Jim Beam, and taken several trips to Scotland. He's even peed in the Glenlivet (he says the 1999 bottlings may be a bit salty). He appreciates bourbons and ryes but whenever he points to the scotch section he says, "the real whiskies." He says at his age and with his palate bourbons just can't offer the complexity of say, Aberlour A'bundh, Laphroaig, or Auchentoshan Three Wood. Maybe my taste, or the needs of my own palate, will change. But I don't see that happening anytime soon. Set me up with a glass of Evan Williams Single barrel and I'm good to go. For me, bourbon IS the real whisky.