Scotch

I’m on my way Up North to Scottishland today and don’t have time to post something current. By pure coincidence, however, a Longtime Reader asked me to rerun my old treatise on Scotch whiskies, which seems appropriate; so here it is, from March 2006, and as you may imagine, not much has changed since then:

I drink Scotch in three ways:

1. Single malts (sipping). Neat, no ice, with a glass of water consumed on alternate sips. This has less to do with style than it does with my frigging gout. I refuse to dilute the lovely stuff in my mouth, but I don’t mind diluting it in the stomach. My favorite single malts are typically from the Speyside region, and I’ll drink pretty much any single malt from those distilleries, but my absolute favorite is The Macallan 25-year-old, with Glenmorangie 10-yr-old as my “everyday” choice. For a “change”, I’ll drink The Dalmore 15-yr-old, which like Glenmorangie is a Highland malt.

Also in the cabinet right now are all the aforementioned, plus Glenfiddich 18-yr-old and Talisker 10-yr-old, for those with different tastes to mine. When Mr. FM comes to visit, I usually lay in a few bottles of Laphroiag, his favorite.

2. Blended (thirst quenching, or at parties). J&B, ice and water — and only J&B. Forget even offering me anything else. No J&B, and Kim drinks something else altogether, like gin. I actually dilute my J&B quite substantially — that gout thing again — and this also allows me to drink for longer periods of time before intoxication sets in.

3. As an after-dinner liqueur. Here I prefer the smoky, peatier singles like Laphroiag or Talisker, because I’m only going to drink one, and I can take my time in the drinking of it.

I’m not a Scotch snob, by the way, even though the above may make me sound like one. My tastes and favorites have come after some fairly extensive errrr trial and experimentation, and like in many areas of my life, I see no reason to change something with which I’m comfortable, and which has come about after considerable experience. I’ve tried most of the major single malts available internationally, and a couple available only in Scotland, but I’ve come to settle on the above because, well, I love their taste.

The wonderful thing about Scotch in general, and single malts in particular, is that it doesn’t matter how you drink it: that distinctive taste will always shine through. (However, I pretty much draw the line at drinking single malt with, say, Diet Coke, because that’s just barbaric — and once you mix any Scotch with Coke, the subtle differences between brands and types pretty much disappear, making the choice of a single malt under those circumstances just pretentious. But hey, if that’s how you want to drink that 40-yr-old Talisker…)

Just be aware that adding water to a single malt doesn’t just dilute the taste, it may change it completely. I find that this is especially true of some Highland malts. Some people happen upon such a taste, and thereafter prefer to drink their favorite single that way. Your call.

Still on the subject of taste, some say that coastal distilleries’ malts are different from those made by inland distilleries because of the salty sea air. I can’t taste it, myself, but I’m not a seasoned Scotch drinker, really.

Finally, it’s a common mistake to assume that the older the malt, the better the whisky. Some malts taste better in their “rawer” state — the malt becomes more bland as it ages — whereas others need the time to “mature” into smoothness. It’s all about your taste and preferences.

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Afterthought: It occurred to me that not everyone might be familiar with the Scotch thing, incredible as that may seem. So, for the benefit of anyone who might be interested in pursuing Scotch as a career (as so many have), here are a few pointers.

Single malts are the exclusive product of one distillery, made from barley. They will be bottled and sold as such, or else sold to other distillers to be blended with other malt- and grain whiskies (in closely-guarded secret and “proprietary” recipes) to produce “blended” Scotches such as J&B, Haig, White Horse, Bell’s, Cutty Sark and so on.

Blended malts are malts from different distilleries, sometimes called “vatted” malt. (The wonderfully-named “Sheep Dip” is a blended malt. Also, if the brand contains the words “Pride of”, or “Poit”, chances are it’s a blended malt.)

Proprietary (blended) Scotches are also broken into blended grain (grains from other distilleries) and blended Scotch (malts and grains from different distilleries). The actual number of distilleries used can be large. J&B, for example, uses the product from forty distilleries (and almost none from Islay, which is why it’s one of the smoothest Scotches on the market). Johnny Walker Red contains malts from 35 distilleries, and grains from 5 others.

As a rule of thumb, the higher the malt proportion (30%+) in the blend, the more expensive the Scotch. The most expensive (sometimes called premium) blends are at least 40% malt (eg. Johnny Walker Black, Chivas Regal). The “premium” can also be a factor not of the malt/grain mix, but of the number of malts used — the lower the number of malts in a brand, the more expensive it will be.

Single-grain Scotch whisky is rare (Black Barrel and Loch Lomond being the most famous).

(For all the info on Scotch whisky brands you’re ever likely to need, go here.)

The age of a single malt is denoted by the time it spent maturing in its cask: once bottled, it ceases to age altogether. If you see “single cask” on a single malt’s label, it means it came from one cask exclusively and was not mixed with whisky from other casks within the same distillery. Usually, this variant is hideously expensive, for not much more flavor — we’re well up the curve of diminishing returns, here.

Now for some pointers on the distilleries and their brands. The list is by no means complete (there are dozens of distilleries in Scotland — here’s a map), but I have actually tried all the ones I’ve listed.

The malts differ by region (sometimes by even smaller geographic differences) because of the different waters used, and in the distilling processes. I’ve made a few generalizations, however, just to give people an idea.

One last note: when you see a “The” before a single malt’s name, it’s not generally an affectation. Sometimes, the name is an area, not just an actual distillery (eg. Glenlivet), and “The” is usually added to denote either that it’s a single malt, or that it comes from the distillery of that name.

Speyside whiskies have a smoother taste, lighter flavor and softer aroma than most other Scotches. They are distilled, as the name suggests, in distilleries which are found along the River Spey on the northeast side of Scotland. Some of those distilleries (there are at least twenty major ones) are: Knockando, Glenlivet, Aberlour, Balvenie, Glenfarclas and Macallan.

Island/Islay whiskies come from the islands on the west- and north coasts of Scotland. Typically, they are much heavier, more aromatic, peatier-flavored whiskies, and some of the distilleries are very well-known: Laphroiag (la-froy-yag, from Islay), Talisker (Skye), Ardbeg (Islay), Highland Park (Orkney) and Bowmore (Islay).

Highland whiskies come from the north of Scotland (sometimes split into northern and southern Highlands). They tend to be darker than the Speyside malts, but not as peaty as the Island ones. Brands include such names as Dalwhinnie, Glen Ord, Dalmore, and Glenmorangie.

Lowland whiskies come from points around the Edinburgh – Glasgow axis, and there are really only two major ones: Rosebank and Glenkinchie (which is the main ingredient of Dimple Haig). I’ve tried Rosebank and didn’t really like it that much, but others (not put off by the “Lowland” appellation) swear by it.

Some factoids:

  • Glenmorangie is the #1-selling single malt in Scotland.
  • Glenlivet is the #1-selling single malt in the world.
  • Glenfarclas is the strongest “production” single malt sold.
  • The Famous Grouse is the most popular Scotch in Scotland (it’s blended, not a single).
  • Johnny Walker Red (also a blend) is the most popular Scotch in the world.
  • Johnny Walker Black (also a blend) is the most popular “premium” Scotch in the world.
  • Chivas Regal (also a premium blend) is the most overrated Scotch in the world (okay, that’s just my opinion — OMD).

Feel free to add your comments and opinions in the regular place. Remember that taste in anything is highly personal, so no flame wars, please.

Now: on to Edinburgh.

13 comments

  1. I discovered Glenmorangie a couple years ago and it’s my go-to scotch. I’m frugal (OK, cheap) so I generally get the 10 year old even though I don’t drink that much of it (four or five bottles a YEAR maybe). I like Maccallan but it’s gotten expensive ever since James Bond decided to start drinking it, now every wannabe HAS to have it and of course what they sell today is what they decided they COULD sell twelve years ago, supply and demand are a thing.

    Back when I first discovered scotch I tried Ardberg, and thought it tasted like someone soaked cigar butts in turpentine. A few months ago I was on a cruise and went for a whiskey tasting, and Ardberg was one of them, my opinion hasn’t changed (I thought it might have, having more experience with scotch). I really TRIED to like it, and tried to find some way to make it drinkable, even mixed it with Coke, but I still found it foul. I think I can confidently say it’s not to my tastes. Yeah, it’s an acquired taste, not sure why anyone would want to acquire it.

  2. Despite the stuff being the national alcoholic drink – Irn Bru being the non-alcoholic one – I can’t stand the stuff. My loss, of course. If you’re going to visit Speyside, feel free to drop by.

  3. I wouldn’t say I’m a Scotch snob either, I just like certain kinds that tend to be hilariously expensive, so folk tend to assume so. If I’m drinking Scotch, it should matter. If all I care about is the end result, pass the SoCo and Vodka. (Ideally not at the same time) Besides, a bottle of fine scotch tends to last me a good long while.

    Anywho. My house scotch is Highland Park 12. I’ve used it to introduce many, many people to the Scotch Thing, and it’s a pretty easy sell given how honey-sweet and smooth it is.

    Talisker 10 is what I give to people who I don’t like very much. If you’re an experienced scotch drinker, it’s no problem. If not, the results tend to be pretty comical.

    MacAllen 18 is my go-to “this is mine, you can’t have any unless you’re single, female, and I’m already half in the bag” scotch.

    Balvenie Portwood (21) is my cold night in front of the fire scotch.

    And MacAllen Rare Cask happens when it’s been a good month. Glenlivet 45 happens when it’s been a good year.

  4. A very excellent synopsis. About 5 years ago, I wanted to know more about the different single malts, so I spent 2 years trying almost all of them….fun times. I try to keep the cost between $50 and $80, so that rules out some single malts (Talisker, Lagavulin). It got to the point where the description on the box matched what I tasted (i.e. port vs. oak casks, peaty vs. light, etc.).

    Most of my friends like Ardbeg and Laphroiag. They are in my top 4, along with Glenmorangie. While I enjoy them all my go to scotch is Caol Ila.

  5. It all depends on what you mean by ‘dilute’, Kim.

    No, ya don’t throw ice or water in with a fine single malt. But some makes – they really shine when you add about a half a spoon of water. There’s some fat old whisky drunk on YouTube that put me onto that trick and I was astounded to find that he was correct. (At least to my tastes – but then again I will drink whatever’s in the jerry can).

    One can’t afford to be snobbish with scotch, contrary to the noble class. If you have a new dram that you aren’t enjoying – try the spoon of water trick and see what it does for you. Be a good sport, Kim, and bring back a half dozen bottles of cask strength for your fans, Kim! I’m sure a man of your wealth and means could afford it… 🙂

  6. For Scotch noobs, you want a good sized glass with lots of room to be able to breath in and smell the malt. The heavenly aroma is a good part of the experience.
    One really good Scotch is not really a Scotch at all- it comes from Japan. That’s the Yamazaki Whisky, which is extraordinarily smooth with a subtle sweet apple tone. Very similar to Oban, at least to me.

  7. As a G.I. back in the Cold War, making $95/mo., Scotch was an expensive habit.
    But, as a fan of F-1 racing, I drank Walker Red. When I could spend more I moved on to Chivas, after trying White Label, Cutty, J&B, and Black & White.
    Becoming bored with Chivas, Walker Black was the “hearty” blended 12-yr usually mixed with a little water. For straight, or rocks, I loved Haig Pinch (Dimple), and those two are still my preferences though I probably don’t have more than a half-dozen shots a year anymore.
    Never felt the need to display any pretensions and “do the single”; and besides, like Mark D, I’m careful with my pennies.

  8. Don’t know why except it might be my ancestors came to the US from Scotland in the 1710’s but I like Famous Grouse which lots of Scots drink today. A decent blend for a reasonable price. And along that line, the Glorious Twelfth is coming up and I hope you are in the field with a gun on opening day shooting grouse.

  9. Follow the A9 out of Inverness, until you hit the land of the 16 men of Tain. Glenmorangie distillery is worth the drive, if you’ve got an afternoon free to kill.

    Glenmorangie is my favorite Scotch too. If they still offer it, (can’t recall the name just now, and my bottle is long gone) try the 15 yr Sauternes cask stuff. Exquisite.

  10. Whilst dining with the extended family in the low toolies of sw okieland a while back I ordered a double single malt (Glennfiddich iirc, standard bar stock round these parts), asked how I wanted it I replied: ‘splash of water, no ice’. Scandalized the family it did, being lunch time. Not my problem. I was served the drink by the manager, personally. She said after handing it over: ‘Finally, someone who knows how to drink scotch!’ and comped me the drink. I was suitably appreciative, natch.

  11. Perhaps it’s a little late to comment, but I had to share this. Wife and I are in Boston for a retirement party and last night, after some sight seeing, a cold beer was an idea whose time had come. Went to the hotel bar and ordered a local craft IPA and just for gits and shiggles looked at the scotch list. My everyday scotch, Glenmorangie 10 yr was $15 a.serving, ok pricey but not bad. MacCallan 25 was$118 a serving, and Glenrothes 1978 was $190. Sorry, if you’re paying over $100 for a single drink you either have an expense account or are showing off (or both).

    This is why I generally only drink scotch at home.

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