As an aspiring writer, I felt almost obligated to at least experiment with the proper Scotch whisky during writing sessions. Standing in the whisky section of my local liquor store one afternoon, I felt a bit overwhelmed as I tried to decipher between blends and single malts, fancy labels and ones that were a bit more plain. The only thing I really noticed was that quite a few of them started with the word “Glen,” and I figured that might be a good place to start. Right then the store attendant approached me. “Big fan of Scotch?” He asked. I nodded shyly. “I’ve got the perfect thing for you.” He told me. Then he disappeared for a minute, and returned with a plastic shot glass and a bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue Label. “Care for a sample?” He asked. I’ve never turned down a sample, especially not on a premium spirit. I was completely surprised at how this particular brand went down like water and left a plethora of pleasant after tastes on my palate that would follow me around for the rest of the day . I was about to reach out and snatch the bottle from his hand. “It’s on sale today for just $150.00.” He said. That’s when I realized I was a bit out of my league and that I better start doing my research if I wanted to find something that I could afford and still had a decent taste.
To be called Scotch whisky the spirit must conform to the standards of the Scotch whisky Order of 1990 (UK), which clarified the Scotch Whisky Act 1988, and mandates that the spirit:
Must be distilled at a Scottish distillery from water and malted barley, to which only other whole grains may be added, have been processed at that distillery into a mash, converted to a fermentable substrate only by endogenous enzyme systems, and fermented only by the addition of yeast. Must be distilled to an alcoholic strength of less than 94.8% by volume so that it retains the flavour of the raw materials used in its production. Must be matured in Scotland in oak casks for no less than three years and a day. Must not contain any added substance other than water and caramel colouring, and may not be bottled at less than 40% alcohol by volume.
The Country of Scotland is split into 5 distinct Scotch producing regions.
Speyside: Home to the most distilleries. Runs alongside the River Spey.
Highlands: The largest of the regions.
Islay: Houses eight distilleries. They consist of Scotch with heavy, smokier varieties.
Lowlands: Home to more mild, mellow and delicate flavors.
Campbelltown: The smallest region. Currently has only three distilleries.
Knowing the region the distillery is in can give you a general idea of what type of Scotch they produce and what you can expect.
If you want the best Scotch experience, it’s important to find the right type of Scotch .
Single Malt. A single malt is a Scotch that is distilled at a single distillery from only water and malted barley. It can also be blended with whisky from other casks as long as those casks are from the same distillery.
Single Grain. This is goes through the same process. However, in addition to malted barely, it can be made with whole grains and malted and unmalted barely.
Blended grain Scotch whisky: Is a blend of two or more single grain Scotch whiskies aged in different distilleries.
Blended Scotch whisky: Is a blend of one or more single malt Scotch whiskies with one or more single grain Scotch whiskies.
There is also single barrel or cask Scotch but since the flavor is dependent on length of maturation, humidity and the type of oak the cask is made from, it is very difficult to match the flavor on a consistent basis. This makes this type of Scotch very rare.
The benefit of single cask bottlings is that when you get a good one it is usually exceptional and has a flavor that can’t be compared. However, when you get a poor one, it doesn’t have the other flavors to mask it and its flaws can stick out like a sore thumb. For that reason, most distilleries will blend different barrels made in the same place to find the exact flavor that their customers have grown to love and crave.
Obviously the type of cask that’s used is very important as well. Consider for instance a Scotch that’s finished in a cask that was originally used to house a Caribbean rum.
One of the factors that most strongly affects flavors and cost though, is age. As a matter of fact, a Scotch is identified by the number directly following its name. For instance, Dewar’s Special Reserve 12 Year Old Blended Scotch Whisky, is going to be a decent Scotch but it won’t be nearly as tasty or expensive as a 50 year old blend.
As a novice though, it’s actually a good idea to start out relatively small. Obviously, I would have thoroughly enjoyed the Blue Label but in reality, how often would I be able to dish out the nearly two hundred dollars necessary to enjoy it.
No matter what you decide though please make sure to drink it “neat.” Most beginners will ask for it on the rocks unaware that the ice will just freeze the flavors and take away from the amazing aroma and taste. Adding water will help some but your best bet is to get a separate glass of chilled water and alternate sips. As the water hits your tongue, you will start to discover hidden explosions of caramel, cinnamon, orange, even chocolate and sometimes a very pleasant smoky flavor.
Either way make sure to kick back, relax and enjoy the full experience as your mind carries you of to a Scottish form of paradise.