Over the years I’ve become quite a beer aficionado. My palate has become much more sophisticated as I’ve sampled the great mico-brews in this region and fantastic imports available at the liquor store. In every city I go to I have to try the local beer. I feel it rounds out my education in the local culture. The food, the beer and the people.
At this point I feel comfortable ordering the right beer for any occasion and with any meal. But there are times when a beer just won’t do. Take for example the holiday party that all the big-wigs in the company will be attending. You have the “promote this man to senior vice-president” suit picked out. Your hair has been cut and teeth whitened. You know exactly how you’re going to drop your success on the Penske file into the conversation with your boss’s boss. But what will you have in your hand when you walk over? You could have a nice imported beer , but does that fit the look of the high rising executive? Not really. Neither does the sugary fruit drink with the umbrella hanging out of it. Nor is going to the bartender and asking for an Amaretto Sour or a Singapore Sling.
My friends we are now entering our Scotch Years.
No. No. Don’t panic… don’t be afraid, this is a good thing. It’s graduation day and I’m here to help. We’ll learn together.
Scotch is the essence of Scotland distilled in a spirit. A combination of Scottish barley, smoke from a peat-fired flame and clear, cold water forming the distinctive bold flavor. Scotch can only come from Scotland, in the same way that Tequila can only come from Mexico or Champagne from France.
To make Scotch you first start with the barley. Whisky is “malted”, which means that wet barley was spread in a room at a temperature where the barley starts to sprout. During this process many distilleries use peat, like a charcoal to smoke the malt, giving it a smoky flavor. The grain is ground to a powder and thrown into a tank of water, along with yeast. The alcohol is boiled off a few times and then placed in casks that have spent the first half of their lives holding sherry, bourbon or rye.
In Scotland there is a gradual aging process compared to the North American whisky. A double-barreled Scotch will even spend time in two different barrels during its life, absorbing the character of each. Side note – unlike wine, once a Scotch is bottled it doesn’t improve with age.
So we’ve gone from grain to bottle in the process. It’s time to pick out the right Scotch to begin our journey with. So you may ask – what is the difference between single malt and blended Scotch? Blended Scotch is just that, a combination of up to 50 grain and single malts from various producers. There are severe laws that dictate the age on the label. It can not, for example, be less than three years old and the age on the label is for the youngest whisky in the blend.
The single malt refers to one single producer or distillery. Therefore, what’s in the bottle is the result of one production process and not a blend of many. This is where they separate the men from the boys. For those who really want to know about Scotch this is where it gets interesting.
The single malts from the five main regions of Scotland – Campbeltown, Highland, Islay, Speyside and Lowland – each have their own flavor and feel.
Campbelton is known for its delicate , briny Scotches and it only has a handful of working distilleries.
Highland Scotches vary as a result of the large number of distilleries and geographic variables. They are in general less sweet and peaty in flavor.
Islay Scotches have more powerful smoke and peat flavor.
Speyside Scotches have a more subtle, complex flavor.
Lowland Scotches are famous for their delicate flavor resulting from triple distillation.
Now… it’s time to taste it. Regardless of what Scotch you are drinking there is a best way to taste. I myself prefer a Scotch glass, however, I am admittedly a novice Scotch drinker. Some say the proper glass to use is a sherry copita, which resembles a tulip. This glass allows you to breathe non-booze air while you sniff and take a long pull of the Scotch. See what flavors you can smell.
Adding water opens up the flavor and cuts the alcohol burn and even a little ice will help you taste the different phases as the ice melts.
So you’re ready. Drink. Relax. Enjoy.
It took years to become a beer aficionado. It will take years to truly learn the ins and outs of Scotch. For me I’ve begun the journey with Johnnie Walker Black. It’s blended and smooth. A good start for a novice I think but I’ll need to taste my way through this bottle before I can say definitively. Wish me luck.