Why not scotch? Now I know what you’re thinking, scotch is what fat old men drink while discussing the war, the Truman administration or something equally archaic. However, thanks to increased American interest, and more distilleries handling their own bottling, single malt scotch whisky has become one of the most interesting and accessible liquors. One of the world’s most exciting features of scotch whisky is that even though Scotland is a relatively small country, the regional differences are drastic, making no two distilleries’ offerings alike.
But before we delve into these differences, let’s first brush up on our terminology:
What is whisky? Whisky is any liquor made from grain (usually barley or corn) that is allowed to partially germinate in water. Germination releases sugars that are converted to alcohol during fermentation. The alcohol is then concentrated during distillation.
What makes it scotch? Any whisky made in Scotland is, by definition, scotch whisky, or just “scotch.” Just as any whiskey that was made in Bourbon County, Kentucky, was called bourbon (they don’t make bourbon in Bourbon County amymore). Bourbon, however, is usually distilled from corn, while scotch from barley.
Then what’s a single malt? Ah, here’s the good part: most scotch whiskies you see in stores and restaurants are blends, meaning that the bottler blended several different scotches together to obtain a unique product. Some blends may contain as many as 40 different scotches mixed together. Some of the ingredients aren’t even scotch, but rather grain alcohol. Single malts, on the other hand, are the product of one particular distillery and are bottled straight from the aging barrel with nothing else added. The result is a unique beverage that’s 100 percent whisky.
Now that we know what scotch is and where it comes from, let’s talk about some regional differences. Scotch, more than any other beverage, changes dramatically according to the region in which it’s produced. Most wine connoisseurs can tell the difference between a Red Bordeaux and a Napa Valley cabernet. But two scotch distilleries just across a river from each other can have completely different results. Generally, we can divide Scotland into three different whisky producing regions: the Lowlands (the low areas of southern Scotland), the Highlands (higher elevation areas of northern and central Scotland) and the Islands (the many islands along Scotland’s west and north coasts, including Islay, Skye, Orkneys, Mull, etc.). Keeping in mind that there are exceptions to every rule, Lowland whiskies tend to be light and dry, ones from the Highlands tend to be more rounded and complex, while whiskies from the Islands tend to be heavy and smoky. Personally I like a light, dry Lowland before dinner as an apéritif, such as a Bladnoch, Auchentoshan or Glenkinchie. Sitting around swapping stories with friends might call for a medium-bodied, complex Highland, like a Macallan, Cragganmore or Glenmorangie. After dinner with a cigar is the perfect time to enjoy a big, smoky, peaty Island malt like a Lagavulin, Laphroaig or Ardbeg.
The best way to learn about different scotches is to try them for yourself, or if possible, attend an organized tasting. Single malts are intended to be consumed at room temperature, without ice. (Ice numbs the tongue, distorting the true flavors.) Doing something ghastly, such as mixing a single malt with seltzer or soda, is a major faux pas, as the true characteristics will become hidden in the bubbles and syrupy sugar. Stick to the blends for that stuff. If the whisky is too strong for you, dilute it with some non-carbonated spring water. This will help unlock aromas and flavors that weren’t obvious before. Some whiskies are bottled at cask strength (sometimes more than 60 percent alcohol), so you may wish to add a little spring water to these as well.
Remember, this is supposed to be fun, so keep it that way. Taste with friends, compare different scotches side by side, see if you can guess what region a specific one is from. There are no rules, so enjoy! Just remember that as in tasting wine, or any other liquor, do it in moderation so you can live to enjoy it again!
The following are some popular single malts and their regions. If you don’t see one of these at your local bar or liquor store, ask them to carry it! You’ll be surprised at how willing proprietors are to accommodating you.