Records and Cocktails: An Introduction to Scotch Whisky
We realize the frivolity of writing about booze at a time when hospitals are overwhelmed with COVID-19 cases, people are under shelter in place orders, thousands of businesses are shuttered and millions of their employees are wondering from where their next check will come. We write anyway in the hopes that people can use a distraction. And some restaurants and bars (where permitted) are keeping the lights by selling take-out cocktails or, in the case of Jack Rose in DC, their entire liquor inventory. And even in locations where shelter-in-place orders are in effect, liquor stores are still considered “essential businesses.” So if you have the means and can maintain proper social distance, please try this at home...
Scotch is one of the things that helps us get through the Winter. Rich and warming, it doesn’t much appeal in the heat and humidity, but it is perfect for cold weather.
Some people find Scotch intimidating. Or pretentious. It shouldn't be either. We'll share our thoughts why.
If you already know Scotch, none of this will be news to you. But if you haven't dabbled much, here is a brief introductory guide.
WHY DO I NEED SCOTCH IN MY LIFE?
Well, you don't, but it's still pretty nice. Scotch is a spirit that is both mellow and flavorful enough that you don't need mixers to enjoy it. With apologies to Rye, and a few standout Bourbons, we'd argue Scotch is the best sipping whisky. It’s sweetness is subtle, and it has flavors (salt, smoke, oil, caramel, and others, all depending on the expression) that you don't find in other whiskeys. To crib from Lagavulin's marketing, Scotch "takes out the fire, but leaves in the warmth."
OK, SO WHAT IS SCOTCH EXACTLY? AND WHY ARE YOU SPELLING IT WEIRD?
Simple answer is whisky made in Scotland. And, yes, in Scotland (and England, Wales, Canada and Japan) whisky spelled without an 'e'. In Ireland and the US, it is spelled ‘whiskey.’ Sometimes it seems like distillers are confusing on purpose.
When most people (including us) think of Scotch, they think of malt whisky. Malt whisky is just whisky made from malt. Malt is barley that has been left standing in warm water to germinate, then dried out before being ground into flour. Then it gets added to water, and yeast is added to that mix to brew a crude beer. The beer is distilled into whisky.
There is 'grain' whisky, which is made with the same process, but skips the malting. But we can't tell you the last time we saw a single grain scotch whisky at a U.S. retailer.
We were once told that the “four sweetest words in the English language are: Single. Malt. Scotch. Whisky." This wisdom came from John Galt, our tour guide at the Edradour distillery in the Highlands of Scotland. It may have been hyperbole, but we were ready to believe anything Galt said. We bought $200 worth of merchandise from him, and arrived in Edinburgh four hours later than we planned.
Single Malt means that the whisky was made exclusively at one distillery. A "blended" Scotch, by contrast, could be blended from whiskys made anywhere in Scotland. You can get some good blends (Johnnie Walker and Dewars are examples). Single malts are prized because they are more distinctive. They are more expensive because there is less material to source from. Blends can source liquid from any distillery that happens to have some on hand.
Does that make Single Malts 'better'? Not always, but often. Especially because the established blended brands tend to be more bland by design.
WHY DOES THIS THIS DRINK SMELL LIKE A CAMPFIRE?
You may have heard that Scotch tastes smokey. Some Scotches are ‘peated,’ which does indeed make them smokey (or ‘phenolic’ if you want to sound fancy). Peat is semi-decayed vegetation found in peat bogs that is flammable when dried. Peating a whisky just means drying the malted grains over a peat fire, which is where the smokey flavor comes from.
Some of the most notable Scotches are peated, as are some of our favorites. But most Scotch isn’t peated. So if you think smoke belongs in a chimney and not in your drink, you still have a lot of Scotch to choose from.
WHAT ABOUT THESE REGIONS?
Regions matter, and they don’t. Scotland has five official whisky regions: Highland, Lowland, Speyside, Islay (pronounced EYE-la), and Campbeltown. Each region has a reputation for certain flavors. Highlands are bold. Lowlands are mild. Speysides are sweet. Islays and Campbeltowns are smokey and oily. But there is a lot of variation within each region. You can find peated and unpeated varieties in Islay, for instance. And regional distinctions are blurring somewhat as distillers experiment with new expressions. So knowing which region a Scotch came from isn’t always a reliable way of knowing which flavors to expect.
WHY IS SCOTCH SO EXPENSIVE?
Price is definitely a downside of enjoying Scotch. There are a few reasons Scotch tends to cost more than other spirits. First is that it needs to be aged. By law, a whisky needs to sit in oak barrels for at least three years before it can be sold as “Scotch.” So, where a gin or vodka distiller can transform grain to grain into saleable product within a few weeks, whisky producers have to wait a few years. And where rye and bourbon whiskey is typically aged two to four years, single malt scotches are often aged eight to sixteen years. Scotch distillers ask for a premium price as compensation for waiting so long to get paid.
(Side note: If the label doesn’t tell you how many years a Scotch has been aged, it is a “no age statement” whisky which is typically a blend from casks of different ages. They are often cheaper than age statement single malts, and not always as good. We think Oban’s “Little Bay” expression is perfectly drinkable, but despise Laphroaig’s “Triple Wood.”)
Another factor making the Scotch so expensive is a relative boom in demand for Scotch, and whisk(e)ys of all kinds, that began a decade or so ago. Single Malt Scotch exports rose 159% between 2004 and 2014, which left distillers with less stock than they needed to satisfy demand. They raised their prices as a result. So that bottle of Aberlour we used to buy for $30 in 2011 now costs close to $50.
To add insult to injury for American drinkers, the U.S. imposed a 25% tariff on single malt Scotch whiskies (though not on blended or grain Scotches). Why? It’s a long story, mostly about airplanes. The upshot is that U.S. retail prices for single malt scotch are likely to increase, though some distillers and retailers are cutting prices or getting creative to blunt the impact on consumers.
I HEARD SOMETHING ABOUT A ‘RIGHT WAY’ TO DRINK SCOTCH?
Sophisticates will tell you to drink your Scotch neat, at room temperature, with a few drops of water. A glencairn glass is preferable. Ice is punishable by death.
Well, sophisticates be damned…, actually, we tend to agree with them here. A good Scotch will stand on its own. And if you don’t like how it is standing, ditch it for something else. There’s no point in spending an extra $30 on a bottle that you’ll end up mixing with ginger ale.
With that said, there are some excellent cocktails like a penicilin or blood and sand that benefit the smokiness of a peaty single malt. And a Scotch and soda and Scotch and water are perfectly fine drinks, though we’d suggest trading down to a workhorse blended Scotch like Dewar’s for those.
OK, WHAT SHOULD I TRY?
We say taste the rainbow. You may find there is one profile or a few brands you prefer. If you are like us, you will find you have many favorites. Here are ours from a few rough flavor groupings:
Bright, vanilla and fruit: Glenmorangie 10, Edradour 10, Balvenie Doublewood. Being honest, we’re not sophisticated enough to connect the flavors we taste in Scotch to the bananas, raisins, and orange peels that show up as descriptors in a lot of Scotch reviews, but these are words you will see in various tasting notes for all three of our recommendations here. We think of these as bright and substantive, but not as heavy as some of the other items we recommend.
Sweet and Salty: Cragganmore 12, Glenrothes 12, Aberlour 10. Explaining how Scotch can acquire a salty taste is complicated, and whiskies that are traditionally described as salty are usually distilled and stored on the coast. Cragganmore, Glenrothes, and Aberlour are many miles inland, yet their whiskies taste plenty salty to us. And they are delightful.
Smokey and Salty: Talisker 10, Highland Park 10. These are maybe the two best ambassadors for Scotch, because they feature so many of the flavors you can find in a single malt: smoke, salt, and sweetness. These quintessential Scotches somehow come from two lonely islands off and way off, respectively, the coast of Scotland.
Heavy Smoke and Oil: Lagavulin 16, Laphroaig. These are your full campfire whiskies. Smoke is a dominant flavor. Lagavulin also has a thick and oily texture that makes it especially enjoyable. If it sounds like we’re describing industrial runoff, we’d still urge you to try these Scotches a few times. Lagavulin 16 is still the best Scotch we know of that you can find regularly and for less than $100 in the states.
WHERE DO I GO TO LEARN MORE?
If you can spare the time and expense, go to Scotland. It is beautiful, charming, and full of hundreds of distilleries. Go to The Scotch Whisky Experience in Edinburgh. Follow with distillery visits and tours. We can personally recommend Oban, Dalwhinnie, and Edradour, but there are literally hundreds more to choose from.
Online, we listen to the Whiskycast podcast. It’s not exclusively about Scotch. Bourbon, rye, and other whiskeys are covered as well, but Scotch gets its due here. Host/Producer Mark Gillespie sounds like your dad, if your dad happened to be a respected journalist. There are great interviews, features, and lots of dad jokes.
Local liquor stores, we find, are hit and miss. We’ve gotten a lot of bad advice from sales reps over the years, even at stores that we otherwise like and respect. If you can strike up a rapport with the staff, though, a good liquor store is a great resource. Schneiders’s in Washington DC is one example.
One thing is for certain, you’re not going to enjoy whisky just sitting home and reading about it. So get out there and try it! And if you end up with some bottles that need a place to live, might we also recommend some of our lovely Floating U Shelves.
What about you? Do you crave the smoke? More interested in the salty? Think this whole single malt thing is “a bit much”? Let us know in the comments. We can take it.
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