Earlier this month, I attended the Great Whiskey Debate, a private event for whiskey enthusiasts in Houston. I received an invitation to cover the event, which is part of a touring series set up by Beam/Suntory, in part to raise brand awareness but also to highlight the differences between each type of whiskey.
The three-hour event started with an hour of cocktails made using the representative spirits, followed by a "debate" between a representative from each of the four whiskey styles-- mostly scripted remarks, but still a genuine discussion as to which kind of whiskey was "best"-- and concluded by an hour of sampling other whiskeys from each label.
Four styles of whiskey were represented: Canadian whiskey, American bourbon, Irish whiskey, and Scotch whiskey. The brands chosen by Beam/Suntory to represent each style were, respectively, Canadian Club, Knob Creek, Kilbeggan, and Laphroaig. For the second hour of the event-- the debate itself-- each whiskey was represented not only by a high-level representative of the distillery itself, but by a sample of one of the mid-range (quality, but not single-barrel or limited-release) brand offerings: The Canadian Club had the Classic 12-Year on hand, Knob Creek served up its standard label, a nine-year small-batch bourbon, and Laphroaig served its classic 10-year Islay Scotch. For Irish whiskey, Beam/Suntory offered Kilbeggan's standard label. (Unlike with the other styles, later samples of Irish whiskey were offered under different labels.)
It didn't hurt that Beam/Suntory brought out some of its big guns to serve as the personalities representing each whiskey. Fred Noe, master distiller at Jim Beam and the seventh generation of distiller in the Beam family legacy -- he is both the son of Booker Noe, of the Booker's label, and the great grandson of label namesake Jim Beam himself-- was on hand to speak for bourbon and serve Knob Creek. (Jim Beam himself was the fourth generation of family distillers, but he was alive during Prohibition, so he opened the family's first official distillery when it ended in 1933.)
Alongside Noe were Laphroaig's Master Ambassador for Scotch Whiskey, Simon Brooking; Dan Tullio, Master Ambassador for Canadian Whiskey at Canadian Club; and Michael Egan, Irish Whiskey Ambassador for Kilbeggan and Beam/Suntory's other Irish Whiskey Labels. (Among the Irish whiskies later served were 2 Gingers, Tyrconnell, and Connemara.)
Most of the debate itself was scripted, but with the amount of showmanship infused by the personalities involved made it highly entertaining. The other distillers got good mileage out of cracking jokes at Egan's young age compared to themselves (Kilbeggan, ironically, considers itself the oldest licensed distillery in Ireland). The theatrical elements was like a wrestling or boxing match, with an emcee who encouraged the crowd to cheer as each representative made his entrance from the back of the room, working through the crowd to applause and high-fives.
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The whiskeys themselves served as good representatives of each particular style. The Canadian Club was as a 12-year small batch should be, rich and smooth, and I was left with the distinct sense that the whiskey really derived a great deal of flavor from the wood aging. The Knob Creek was a little stronger up front, but it still finished with that sweet, clean note that corn provides. (I don't think it's a coincidence that my favorite bourbons tend to be the ones that, from research, are believed to have the highest percentage of corn in their mash bills.)
One thing I find interesting when discussing single-malt whiskey is how "smokiness" can be defined. It's really two separate flavors: the malted barley itself carries a smoky, earthy flavor, but when most people think of the heavy smokiness of Scotch, they're thinking of the peat smoking process, which can imbue an incredible, even overwhelming, amount of flavor and texture into a whiskey. In lieu of having an unpeated Scotch to try, I felt like the Kilbeggan worked as a good contrast to the Laphroaig in that regard. Laphroaig is famously peaty; the Kilbeggan expressed the barley flavor much more cleanly. And of course, each of them were distinct from their American counterparts, with corn, rye, and wheat being more prominent in those mash bills.
At the end of the night, we had an hour to sample some of the varieties and upscale offerings each label had. I was particularly interested in the Laphroaig 18-year, a better balanced version of its 10-year offering, and the Canadian Club Sherry Cask, as I was fond of sherry-aged Scotch but hadn't seen any North American whiskeys finished in that style. Ultimately, I still preferred the 12-year small-batch (or sherry cask-aged Scotch, for that matter) to the sherry-aged Canadian whiskey.
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We were lucky enough to get some personal demonstrations when some of the representatives had some time. Simon Brooking from Laphroaig brought along some barley to show (and to let us taste; it's edible as is) and a block of peat, which he ignited for us in a (very brief; we were indoors, after all) demonstration of the effects of peat smoke.
And the debate itself? Naturally, it ended in a four-way tie.