What’s better: Scotch or bourbon?

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IN THE drinking man’s world, there are certain decisions we must all make:

Draft vs. bottle.

Straight up vs. on the rocks.

Tastes great vs. less filling.

Your place vs. mine.

Difficult choices, surely. But there is one decision that transcends our existence on the bar stool. It is a choice of biblical proportions that will torment mankind into eternity, like good vs. evil.

I refer, of course, to scotch vs. bourbon.

Think about it: How many times have you heard normal people argue over whiskey? Usually, it’s an argument featuring Jack Daniels and tattoos, but in saner circles it boils down to this:

Either you drink scotch or you drink bourbon – but very few people drink both.

It’s like Ford vs. Chevy or PC vs. Mac. If you’re a bourbon drinker, you drink it for life. If you prefer scotch, you never step foot in Kentucky.

Joe Sixpack normally avoids these kinds of choices. To me, hard liquor is a jolting, tempting prelude to a more refreshing chaser – namely beer.

But deep down I know, sooner or later, I’ll have to answer to some greater power:

Are you a bourbon man or are you a scotch drinker?

It is a question that spurred the so-called Great Whiskey Debate, a gentlemanly set-to featuring two grand adversaries: Frederick Booker Noe, the great-grandson of Jim Beam, and Richard Paterson, master blender of The Dalmore single-malt Scotch whiskey.

(Actually, the Great Whiskey Debate is a marketing ploy to get drinkers to sample the distilleries’ products. But what the hell, as ploys go, this one was damn tasty. And, as the moderator said, if you don’t like this one, there’s always the Bud Light vs. Zima debate across town.)

Bourbon and scotch are basically the same thing. You start with beer – fermented malted barley – and distill the alcohol. Bourbon contains more corn, and it’s aged in charred oak barrels that are used just once. Scotch is aged far longer, usually in barrels that were previously used for sherry.

That’s about the only difference – and, yet, it’s the rare man who’ll drink both.

“Actually,” Noe said, “it’s not true that Kentuckians don’t drink bourbon. We had a guy who drank scotch back in 1965 . . . The National Guard escorted him to the state line.”

Paterson replied, “I have nothing against bourbon. Nothing. Or even the barefoot hillbillies that make it!

” . . . Scotland has been making scotch since 1494. Bourbon came 300 years later. We just regard bourbon as rather a fad drink.”

Fad or not, the main difference to me is in the throat. Scotch slides down like Allen Iverson going in for an uncontested finger-roll. Bourbon is more like A.I. scoring after slamming into Shaq.

The sensation is largely a product of aging. Bourbon is usually aged around eight years. Some of Scotland’s best only get going after 12 years in the barrel, and even then you only start to recognize the complex flavors of orange and honey. At least one of Dalmore’s bottles, known as Stillman’s Dram, is aged for 30 years.

Noe laughs at the eons spent in the barrel: “Our customers don’t wanna wait 30 years for a bottle!”

Noe and Paterson agree, though, that American drinkers are increasingly open to different tastes. Just as mainstream Bud drinkers will occasionally give a craft-brewed ale a chance, single malt scotch sippers are sampling the growing variety of small-batch bourbons.

As you might imagine, though, the Great Whiskey Debate fails to settle the burning question: Which is better?

“It’s a matter of personal preference,” Noe said.

And that’s what makes the world go round. Or, as Paterson observed, “They say that love makes the world go ’round. That’s absolute rubbish.

“Whiskey makes the world go round, but twice as fast!”

 Beer radar

Now pouring on local spigots: Yards Pynk, a raspberry-flavored Belgian-style ale . . . Double Bastard Ale, the latest three-liter bomber from California’s Stone Brewing, is headed our way next week . . . . In honor of Arnold’s election in California, Gen. Lafayette Inn & Brewery (646 Germantown Pike, Lafayette Hill) is serving up I’ll Be Bock.

It’s only Halloween, but Christmas beers are already showing up on area shelves. Early revelers include Sierra Nevada Celebration and a newbie from Bethlehem Brew Works (bottled at Weyberbacher) called Rudolph’s Reserve . . . Other cold-weather stuff: Troegs Winter Oatmeal Stout, Rogue Chocolate Stout and Stoudt’s Scotch Ale.

Fans of Straub’s, the all-natural beer from St. Mary’s, Pa., know how their favorite beer tastes straight from the bottle. But how ’bout Straub’s fajitas or cheesecake? Look for those and 95 other beer recipes in the “Straub Beer Cookbook” by John E. Schlimm Jr., the great-great grandson of the German immigrants who founded the brewery in the 1870s. It’s available from the brewery (814-834-2875) or online at www.jes2starstruck.com . . .

 Calendar

Tonight – Halloween costume party at Manayunk Brewery & Restaurant (4120 Main St., Manayunk.) Fresh beer, ghouls and prizes. Info: 215-482-8220.

Tuesday – Beer dinner featuring beers from Seattle’s Elysian Brewing Co., the Great American Beer Festival’s 2003 large brewpub of the year, at Monk’s Cafe (264 S. 16th St., Center City). Starts: 7 p.m.. Tix: $50. Info: 215-545-7005.

Nov. 7 – Oktoberfest, with the G.T.V. Almraush Schuhplattlers Bavarian dancers, at Cannstatter Volksfest (9130 Academy Road, Northeast). Oompah and German beer. Starts: 7 p.m. Info: www.cvvphilly.com or 215-672-9866. Tix: $7-$8.

Nov. 7 – Incubus Friday at Sly Fox Brewhouse and Eatery (Pikeland Village Square, Phoenixville). The award-winning brewpub releases its latest version of Incubus, the Trappist-style tripel, along with a bar-load of other Flanders faves. Info: 610-935-4540. Taps open: 5 p.m.

 Joe Sixpack, by Staff Writer Don Russell, was written this week with a bottle of Odell Cutthroat Porter.

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