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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
- 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.