The Single-Malt Scotch

Few things scream WASP like a glass of good single-malt scotch.

In the pantheon of WASP culture, few treasures are as coveted and revered as a bottle of good Single Malt Scotch Whiskey.   Scotch has always enjoyed a certain amount of mystique.  It’s the drink that everyone knows, few dare to try, and fewer still know anything about.  It’s also possibly the strongest (both literally and figuratively) “statement” drink out there today, in that scotch has the ability to project that WASP’y image like no other.  Don’t believe me?  Order a glass of next time you’re out to dinner with friends and see what happens for yourself.

But wait, not so fast!  There are a few things you should know before hitting the bar.  Like most things WASP’y, scotch can be a somewhat complicated and confusing subject.  It’s also important to concede right off the bat that scotch does has a few things going against it.

First, scotch is definitely an acquired taste.  This is probably the single largest barrier for the average scotch virgin.  They get a glass, smell it, have a sip, grimace, and immediately go back to their boring old vodka cocktail.  However, I believe the common mistake most first timers (myself included) make is that they try cheap scotch.  This makes sense as the vast majority of scotch out there is the cheap, comes in a plastic bottle, variety.  Bluntly put, it tastes like crap.  When you’re ready to give scotch a serious try, spend a little extra money, you’ll be glad you did.  Even good quality scotch  is still an acquired taste, but you’ll find it’s much easier to acquire than the cheap stuff.  Which brings us to the second issue…

This bottle of Macallan 60 year old scotch costs as much as a midsize family sedan.

It’s expensive – or rather, it can be expensive.  In reality scotch prices run the gamut from less than $10 to more than $10,000 a bottle and, like most things in life, you get what you pay for.   In other words, you’ll want to avoid the really cheap stuff.  A typical “good” bottle of Scotch will usually range anywhere from $30 – $100 depending on the age and producer.  While that’s not inexpensive, it’s not outrageous either considering the amount of time and effort that went into creating it and that contents won’t go bad after opening (like wine).  What makes a good scotch? Well, keep reading and find out!

A Primer on Scotch Whiskey:

No one knows for sure when the Scots first started making whiskey, but it is known that the ancient Celts produced distilled spirits, which eventually evolved into the scotch whiskey we know today.  The first recorded example of distillation in Scotland is attributed to Christian monks during the 11th Century A.D.  However, scotch whiskey didn’t hit the big time until the 19th Century.  It was then that reductions in whiskey taxes, the advent of new distillation technology, and the outbreak of the phylloxera epidemic (which destroyed European wine production)  combined to push scotch to the forefront of the British drinking scene.  It’s remained a favorite and a classic ever since.

Many modern day distilleries have been operating since the 19th Century.

Scotch whiskey is essentially like every other whiskey in the world, in that it’s a spirit distilled from cereal grains, and subsequently mellowed through aging in wood casks.  What makes scotch unique is the type of grain used (barley), the manufacturing process, and of course the fact that it can only be made only in Scotland.

Today scotch falls into one of two major categories:  Blended and Single Malt.

Blended Scotch Whiskey: The vast majority (more than 90%) of scotch available in the US today falls into this category.  Essentially blended scotch is exactly what it sounds like, a product that’s created by blending various other whiskeys (sometimes as many as 50 or more) together.  The idea is to create a softer style of whiskey that appeals to a wide audience.  Similar to the great Champagne houses of France, each blended scotch producer of  has a certain “house style” that they’re known for.

One of the primary differences between a single malt scotch and a blended scotch in terms of quality (and cost) is that in addition to pure malt whiskey, the latter may incorporate cheaper grain whiskey (mass produced from corn) into the blend.  In fact the typical ratio for blended scotch consists of 60% grain to only 40% malt.   The higher the proportion of malt whiskey in the blend, the higher quality (and more expensive) a given scotch will be.

Johnnie Walker is one of the most famous brands of blended scotch. The Black Label version is aged 12 years and comparable to a quality single malt.

Another determination of quality is the age of the blend.  Normally most whiskeys used in the blend are aged about 5 years.   However, some higher quality blended scotches will use whiskeys that have been aged longer, sometimes much longer.  For example, if you see a bottle of blended scotch labeled as 12 year, that tells you that every whiskey in the blend (both grain and malt) has been aged for at least 12 years.

One common misconception when it comes to blended Scotch is that they’re inferior to single malts.  While that’s often true, remember that a high quality blended scotch can actually be much better than a cheap single malt.

Single Malt Scotch Whiskey:  Now we’re getting into the real WASP territory.  No other drink conjures images of the WASP lifestyle like a glass of fine single malt scotch.  But what’s all the fuss about?  Well, lets find out!

As we just learned, blended scotch typically only contains about 40% actual malt whiskey, with the remainder of the blend being cheaper, mass produced grain whiskey.  Single malt scotch on the other hand is 100% malt whiskey.  In fact to be considered a single malt, a scotch must be:

    • The product of a single distillery
    • Made exclusively from barely malt
    • Made in Scotland

The actual process of making malt whiskey is both expensive and labor intensive.  It begins with the grain (in this case specially selected barely), which is subsequently malted.  Malting means that the barely has been soaked in water to the point of germination, or when it’s just beginning to  sprout.

The malted barely is then dried in kilns fired by peat and coal.  The use of peat during the drying process is one of the unique aspects of Scotch whiskey and it imparts a distinctive smokey flavor and aroma to the finished product.  Next, the dried malted barely is mixed into warm water to create a mash and yeast is added to begin the fermentation process.

Peat is harvested from bogs and was traditionally used as a source of fuel. Today it’s burned in kilns to dry out the malted barley, which helps give scotch whiskey its unique flavor.

After fermentation is complete, the mash is distilled and finally pumped into wooden casks for aging.   After 3 years, you’ve got yourself a single malt scotch whiskey.  In the end each batch of whiskey is a unique product of its maker and environment, with a distinct style all its own.  No two distilleries will ever produce the same single malt and that’s part of the mystique and allure of the spirit.   

Like their blended cousins, higher quality single malts are often aged longer than the 3 year required by law.  As the whiskey ages in the barrel, its tastes and aromas evolve.  The whiskey also becomes more mellow and smoother with time.  Usually you’ll see scotch sold as 10, 12, 16, or 18 year old, with the price increasing accordingly.  It’s also possible to find even older examples such as 20, 30, or even 60 year old single malt, although they’ll cost as much as a car payment, or sometimes even the entire car!

Enjoying a Nip:

OK, now that you know what makes a single malt scotch special, it’s time to head out and try some for yourself.  Once you’re at the liquor store, you’ll probably be bombarded with a number of options.  As we learned, each distillery makes its own unique style of scotch and unless you’re familiar with that brand, you’ll never know exactly what to expect.  There are however some general geographic guidelines that can help.  scotch production is divided into three major areas, with each focusing on a general style of whiskey.  They are:

    • The Highlands:  Basically all of northern Scotland, this is the largest production region.  Most of the distilleries are located in a sub-region called Speyside (for its proximity to the Spey river).  General characteristics of highland single malts are rich flavors, smokiness, and a touch of sweetness.  Think of them as medium body whiskeys.
    • The Lowlands:  Mainly known for the grain whiskey distilleries used in blended scotch, but there are a few single malt distilleries here as well.  They’re known for a much lighter style scotch, both in terms of flavor and color.  They sometimes have a sweet scent and fruity characteristics.  Think of them as light bodied whiskeys.
    • Islay: The smallest of all Scotch regions, Islay is an island off the western coast of Scotland.  It’s known for its heavily, full bodied style whiskeys.  They often have an intense peaty flavor and seaweed or brine-like aromas.
Map of Scotland showing the three primary whiskey regions.

Once you’ve decided on a style and got a bottle picked out, it’s time to drink.  This may seem like the easy part, but be warned that some people take their scotch very seriously and drinking it the wrong way can be a major faux pas.

In this case the “wrong” way refers not to the physical act of drinking, but rather to how the drink is prepared.   When it comes to scotch, there are really only a few acceptable preparations:

    • With a cocktail mixer – Such as cola
    • With Water – Still or Soda, as preferred
    • On the Rocks – Served over ice
    • Neat – Nothing but the Scotch, served at room temperature

The general rule is that the better (more expensive) the scotch, the less acceptable it is to alter the flavor with additional ingredients.  So, for example, while it’s perfectly OK to add a splash of Coke to a cheap blended scotch, you might get punched in the face for doing the same to a fine 30 year old single malt.  For some, the only acceptable preparation for really good scotch is neat, but you can generally get away with “on the rocks” in most situations.  Save the water and other mixers for blended whiskeys.

Neat typically means at room temp. But for those who want a little chill without diluting their whiskey, scotch rocks are available. Cool them in your freezer and use in place of ice.

Some people take their tasting very seriously, but for the beginner there are just a few characteristics you should be looking for.  First is whether there are any obvious fruity or citrus characteristics which are products of the malted barely.  A lot of the flavor will come from the barrel aging, which can contribute flavors such as vanilla, coffee, toffee, spice, or caramel.  There will also probably be a peaty or smokey flavor from the kiln drying process.  Finally, some aged scotches can take on tropical flavors such as coconut or banana.

Armed with the above knowledge you’ve got everything you need to buy, drink, and hopefully appreciate scotch like a pro.  And to that last point, one final word of warning; Scotch is definitely NOT something you want drink to get drunk.  Don’t be mistaken, it’ll do the job and then some, but you’ll likely experience one of the worst hangovers of your life.  Just remember that Scotch, like all things WASP’y, is best when kept classy.  Enjoy!

Next Steps:

  • Head out and try some scotch for yourself.  Be sure to spend a little extra and buy something worth trying, or you’ll surely be disappointed.  A 12 year old single malt from a major distiller (Glenfiddich, Glenlivet, Macallen) is a good compromise between quality and price.
  • Remember that scotch is an acquired taste that might take some getting used to.  One way to ease yourself into it is by mixing in some water to dilute the taste.  If you’re drinking a single malt, pour it over the rocks.  For blended whiskey, I enjoy a splash of soda water thrown in as well.
  • You may think of scotch as the quintessential man’s drink, and it is (Remember it was Bill Brasky’s spirit of choice)!  However, most men will admit there’s something undeniably appealing about a girl who can appreciate a glass of good single malt.  For ladies, knowing the basics of scotch can help make a powerful and lasting impression among the right company.
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Wine Tasting

Wine.  So simple, yet so complicated, but it’s an undeniable truth that if you want to learn to eat and drink like a WASP, you need to know wine.  Few drinks speak to WASP culture as well as a First Growth Bordeaux, a Grand Cru Burgundy, or a bottle of vintage Champagne.  Unfortunately, while most people are fully capable of drinking wine, surprisingly few know how to properly taste and appreciate it.

Wine. Learn it. Love it.

“Why should I bother with all that fancy tasting stuff when I can simply drink what’s in front of me and enjoy it”, you may be asking?  Well, there are a couple reasons.

First, it’s only a matter of time before you’re at a dinner somewhere and someone offers you the tasting on a fresh bottle of wine.  At that point you will have two options 1) Embarrass yourself by admitting that you don’t know what to do, or 2) Really embarrass yourself by accepting the offer and then screwing it up.  Secondly, nothing will offend your average WASP oenophile more than watching someone throw down a glass of their 1982 Chateau Lafite Rothschild like a shot of cheap tequila.  And finally you might actually find you enjoy your wine more by taking the time to evaluate it.

Excellent, so we both agree that tasting wine is something you need to learn how to do.  Fortunately it really isn’t that difficult.  Lets start with the dinner example from above.

Say that your WASP’y friends have invited you out to eat at their favorite Michelin 3 star restaurant and have selected a nice bottle of wine to go with dinner.  The bottle arrives and the offer is extended “I say, would you care to do the tasting, old chap?”  With confidence you say “I’d love to!”  And then proceed with this easy 10 step process:

When inspecting a bottle, verify the producer (Caymus), the vintage (2004), and the variety (Cabernet Sauvignon).

1) The waiter (or Sommelier) will bring the bottle and present it for inspection.  Basically your job is to verify that it’s the same thing that was ordered.  Give it a brief once over paying particular attention to the producer and the vintage (year).  If something is wrong, make sure to say something (Unless of course you know enough to spot when the mistake has been make in your favor…)   If everything checks out, you may proceed.

2) At this point you may also want to feel the bottle of wine for temperature.  Generally you’ll want your red wines served between 60-65 degrees, whites between 55-60, and sparkling wines between 45-50.  As an easy frame of reference, keep in mind that your fridge keeps liquid at around 50 degrees.  If a bottle is too warm, it’s acceptable to ask for a bucket of ice to chill the wine before it’s served to the table.

3) The bottle is opened table side and you’ll be given the cork for inspection.  Pick it up and make sure it feels like normal cork, not dried out or excessively moist.   Visually inspect it for things that don’t look right.  Mildew (a little on the top is OK) or other odd discoloration are bad signs.  You may smell it as well if you like, but that’s not really necessary.

4) Once the bottle and cork have passed muster, it’s time to get down to business.  The waiter will pour a small amount of wine into your glass and then it’s showtime.

5) Pick up the glass and inspect the color of the wine, preferably against a light background, like a tablecloth.  At this point you may think that wine simply comes in red or white, but try to get beyond that and look more closely.  If it’s red is a really deep, almost purpley, red or is it a lighter ruby, or even brownish?  If it’s a white is it pale or a deep golden color, is it slightly greenish?  Don’t spend a long time here, maybe just a few seconds, but make sure you do it!

6) Next up is the swirl.  Take you glass and rotate it in small circles to get the wine up and swirling around the side of the glass.  Make sure to keep it under control because if the wine leaves the mouth of the glass, it’s game over. 5-10 good rotations are ideal for most wines.  Sparkling wines only need 1 or 2.

Get your nose right in there and concentrate. Don't cut corners here, it's the most important step!

7) Stop swirling and quickly stick your nose into the glass.  Again, use common sense here and keep your nose out of the wine…  Inhale slowly through your nose and think about what you’re smelling.  Is it light and barely perceptible or is the aroma (“nose” in wine-speak) strong and intense?  Pull your nose back, take in a fresh breath, and repeat at least one or two more times.  Make sure to take your time as this is the most important step in tasting wine!  

8) In a restaurant it’s acceptable to to simply give the wine a pass/fail rating.  However in a more formal tasting situation, you make be required to describe what you smell.  No fear, just check the tasking cheat sheet below for some helpful hints.  If the wine is a “fail”, you’ll know it immediately.  It will smell like mildew, sulfur, or something else you don’t want to put in your mouth.  If that’s the case, stop here and send it back immediately.

9) Assuming the wine passes the smell test, it’s finally time to taste.  Ideally tasting is done in three steps:  First take a small sip and immediately swallow to acclimate your mouth to the wine.  Next take a full sip and hold the wine in your mouth.  If you can, draw in a little air through your lips to help release aromas.  Move the wine around in your mouth letting it coat your tongue, cheeks, teeth, etc… and swallow.  Take one more sip and repeat.  What you’re looking for is sweetness (or lack thereof) in the wine, acidity (how tart the wine is), tannins (that dry, cotton-mouth feel, similar to when you drink tea), and the level of alcohol.  Ideally these tastes (the wine’s “pallet” ) will all be in balance without any one dominating over the others.

10) The end of the process is the final pass/fail test.  If the wine tastes OK (no vinegar or other nasty tastes) then signal your approval and the waiter will begin to pour the wine into each guests glass, or a decanter if appropriate.  At that point you’re done!  Unless…

10.1) If any aspect of the wine seems “iffy” there’s no shame in asking someone else at the table for their opinion.  People will always interpret the aroma and taste of wine differently and sometimes a second opinion is warranted.  If the wine is bad, then make sure you send it back.  While it can be awkward to refuse a bottle of wine, it’s not nearly awkward as giving your approval and then being responsible for everyone at the table getting stuck with bad wine. 

That’s all these is to it!  That procedure will serve you well no matter what WASP’y wine situation you may find yourself in, be it a fancy restaurant, a dinner party, or attending a wine tasting.  

Ah yes, wine tasting.  What is that about?  Why it’s a perennial WASP favorite where people gather and do nothing but drink and discuss wine.  Sounds like fun, yes, but remember that this is a situation where you’ll required to go beyond the simple pass/fail test and actually describe what you’re tasting.  How to go about doing that?  Well that’s where things can get more difficult. Fortunately we’re here to help!

Wine Tasting Cheat Sheet:

When it comes to wine, most of the “flavors” you detect are actually scents and identifying those scents are the bread and butter (both actual wine descriptors) of any wine tasting. 

If you’ve ever attended a wine tasting, or even read the description on the back of a bottle, you might be a little put off by the depth of aroma/flavor analysis.  After all, how the heck can a grape product smell like pencil shavings, root beer, or tar?  Well, we’ll get to that, but first we need to recognize that the vast majority of the scents in a glass of wine come from two sources: The fruit from which the wine was made and the wooden barrel it was fermented and/or aged in.

The Fruit: The aromas generated here typically smell like… wait for it… fruit!  What kind of fruit depends largely on the grape variety used.  Instead of trying to pick out individual flavors, try to classify the smell in broader group.  Below are some of the most common.  The first two apply mainly to reds, the latter three to whites.

Black Currant (AKA Cassis) is a little known berry in the US but is a common descriptor for dark red wines, such as Cabernet Sauvignon.
    • Black Fruit (blackberry, blueberry, plum, currant/cassis)
    • Red Fruit (cherry, strawberry, raspberry)
    • Tree Fruit (apple, pear, peach)
    • Citrus Fruit (orange, grapefruit, lemon)
    • Tropical Fruit (pineapple, coconut, lychee)

Once you’ve identified the group, then you can start to name individual flavors.  The good news here is that no one can challenge your assessment of specific flavors since everyone experiences wine differently, so be bold!  As long as you can identify the broad group, you’ve got the freedom to say whatever you want.

Note that it’s possible for the grapes to produce other scents as well.  Examples include a grassy aroma, vegetables, flowers, or earthy flavors such as mushrooms or truffles.

The Wood: Most red wines and a few white wines (primarily Chardonnay) are fermented and/or aged in oak barrels.  There are all sorts of variables when it comes to barrels.  American Oak, French Oak, Hungarian Oak…  Different levels of “toast” describing how much the inside of the barrel was charred during its production.  Age of the barrels used.  All these factors affect the flavors of the wine.   For now just know that oak can add the following aromas:

    • Oakiness – The flavor/aroma of the wood itself
    • Smokiness
    • Spicy – Cloves, Cinnamon, Pepper
    • Vanilla
    • Chocolate
    • Coffee
    • Tobacco – Think the dried leaves, not a pack of Camel Lights
    • Earth – That damp woodsy/soil smell
Wine aging in French Oak barrels. The wood contributes tannin and a range of new flavors and aromas to the wine.

Note that if a wine wasn’t aged in wood, as in the case with most whites, non of these flavors will likely be present and you can simply focus on the fruit as described earlier.  How do you know whether a wine was aged in wood or not?  Simple, just ask!  Quite the opposite of sounding ignorant, any good wine-geek will appreciate your interest in the vinification (winemaking) techniques behind the glass you’re about to sample.  

If you can identify the fruit and wood flavors in a glass of wine, you’ve got all the tools you need to conquer any tasting situation.  But wait, now it’s time for the fun part!  Remember all those crazy descriptors on the back of the label?  Well once you’ve proved that you can identify the basic aromas in a glass of wine, you then have license to go crazy and add in your own unique ideas to the mix.  Does it smell like playground mulch?  Maybe Domino’s pizza crust?  Sky’s the limit and again, who’s to say any different?

The Taste: AKA the “Palate” of the wine.  Most of this was covered in Step 9 above, but here are the basics one more time for those with reading comprehension issues.  In terms of actual taste, there are usually only 4 things you’re looking for in a wine:

    • Sweetness:  Perceived up front by the tip of your tongue, sweetness levels in wine speak range from “dry” (not sweet) to “off dry” (kinda sweet) to just regular old “sweet”.
    • Acidity: Basically a fancy word for the tart or sour flavor in a wine.  It’s sometimes described as giving wine a “crisp” flavor.  Remember Sour Patch Kids candy?  Those are highly acidic.  You perceive acidity on the sides of your tongue.
    • Tannins: More of a texture than an actual flavor, tannins are responsible for the cotton-mouth dry feeling the wine creates in your mouth.  Highly tannic wines are described as “astringent” while wines with light tannins are described as “soft”.  Since tannins are largely a product of grape skins and wood aging, they’re typically only a factor in red wines, but not always…
    • Alcohol: The reason most people even bother with wine to begin with.  By this point I’ll assume that you know what alcohol tastes like.  When it comes to wine the key is judging how much is present, which itself is usually a factor of the climate where the grapes were grown (warm and sunny = higher alcohol).
Sweet and fruity is good, but try to appreciate the other aspects of wine as well. You'll be glad you did.

Again, the key idea when it comes to taste is for all these sensations to be in balance with each other and for no one component to stand out too much.  Beyond that it’s really a matter of personal taste.  One word of caution is not to dwell only on the sweetness of a wine.  It’s a sure mark of a novice wine drinker.  Yes, we all like sweet stuff, but when it comes to impressing your WASP friends, you’ll need to look beyond the sweet.

The Body:  I’ve always found this term a little confusing because it’s said to the describe the “weight” of the wine in your mouth.  Well, doesn’t all wine weigh about the same?  Technically yes, but when it comes to wine speak the answer is a resounding no.  What wine snobs are actually describing here (I think) is the concentration of the wine.  The analogy I’ve heard used most often is the difference between types of milk.  Skim is light bodied, whole is medium bodied, and cream is full bodied.  Again its all very subjective, but in general if you describe concentrated/high alcohol wines full bodied and thin/low alcohol wines light bodied, you can’t go wrong.  If you’re in a pinch, you can always hedge your bets and go with medium bodied.

The Finish:  The final aspect of any wine tasting and no, I’m not talking about the part where you say goodbye and hope that you’re cool to drive… The finish of a wine describes how long the flavors and aromas of a wine last after you’ve swallowed it.  In general the longer the finish the better, that is unless the wine has left you with a bad taste in your mouth…  Fortunately the answer there is easy, just try more wine till you find one you like!   

Next Steps:
  • This one is easy, just go out, get a bottle of wine, and start drinking!  Try to find bottles that have in depth descriptions listed on the label.  At first read the descriptions and then try to find those flavors yourself.  Once you’ve gotten a few bottles under your belt, try drinking first and then reading to see how close you can get to the experts analysis.
  • Make sure to sample a variety of wines.  It’s easy to get caught up with a single type or style of wine, but be sure to explore so you know what else is out there.
  • Once you’ve got a little confidence, attend an actual wine tastings, even if it’s just at the local wine shop.  That gives you the opportunity to sample a bunch of different wines side by side without having to pay for four or five complete bottles.
  • If the wine bug gets you, then start reading up.  There are literally thousands of books out there on the subject.  I’ve found the “Wine for Dummies” series to be a good all around guide.