As of this year, I decided to do something different. Drink. Everyday. That’s right. I have a limit. I do not drink to get buzzed. I do not drink to get drunk. My two motivations are: a moderate amount of alcohol each day is heart healthy, which is how I determined my daily limit; and the other is flavor. I like the taste of certain types of alcohol. The pursuit of flavor has taken me from vodka, where I learned to become accustomed to ethanol; to rum; and finally to whiskey/scotch, and brandy.
With the assistance of a local fan of whiskey and generous purchasing of mini-bottles, I narrowed my preferences and saved a ton of money in the process. I know what I like, and why. I have a rather decent, but not overly large, collection of scotches and other whiskies (bourbon and corn) at home. I also have had the pleasure to sample others at various taverns around town.
There are right now certain scotches that are promoted by the scotch community as “beginner” type scotches. Ones that have appealed to the palates of drinkers in the past are easily found, represent a good value, etc. I believe the palate of Americans today demands a sweeter profile. It calls into question the selection process. I am determining for myself a selection of various distillers and expressions that will appeal even to a modern drinker.
There are, in general, certain geographical regions which can loosely define whisky in Scotland. Islands, Islay (pronounced EYE-luh), Highlands, Speyside, Lowlands, and Campbeltown. Always expect each distillery and region to produce a variety and blur the lines a bit.
The sweetest and fruitiest examples are likely to be found in Speyside, but can be found just about anywhere. The smokiest or peatiest are found in Islay but can be found elsewhere on
the west coast of Scotland since access to peat is essential to the process. Lowlands are home to some light whisky that might be compared to white wine vs red, but these too can be found elsewhere.
Major distillers whose names pop up again and again on forums are (in no particular order): Ardbeg, Lagavulin, Laphroaig, Highland Park, Glenfiddich, GlenDronach, Glenlivet, Macallan, Bowmore, Talisker, Oban, Glenkinchie, Aberfeldy, Aberlour, Glenfarclas, Springbank, and if you add in Japanese single malts the list grows quickly.
Whisky is typically matured in barrels once used to age bourbon in America and elsewhere. Since bourbon must be aged in new barrels they have no need for them once they have been used. Every distiller in Scotland has access to these former bourbon barrels. Once matured, the whisky may be finished in other types of barrels including sherry casks and vats, port casks and vats, rum barrels, new oak quarter casks, and others to introduce various flavors not found normally in whisky as part of the base distillation and maturation process.
Adding to the complexity are the stills themselves. No distiller uses the same configuration as any other. Even if a distiller was known to use a given configuration, no other distiller would copy it anyway. Even then, when determining what part of the whisky produced goes into the barrel is different again. Peaty whisky tends to have more of the feints or tails added to capture more smoke flavor but introduces more of the heavier compounds rejected by other distillers. This makes for some rather unique scents and flavors. These heavier compounds are what turn many away from scotch if they aren’t prepared for it.
If one is accustomed to the caramel sweet, candy bar flavor of bourbon (I am, by the way), the taste of some scotch can be a real shock. It doesn’t have to be, but given the very limited selection of scotches available at bars, finding one you will enjoy can be a real challenge. Also given that some whiskies are matured for 12, 15, 18, 25, and 30 years or more, price becomes a huge factor very quickly if you plan on buying a bottle for yourself or as a gift. Even a decent baseline expression of 10 or 12 years can cost anywhere from 40 to 100 dollars for a 750 ml bottle. If you don’t have a friend who will let you sample some of these you may never find one you like before you give up in disgust.
I hope to be able to guide people to one they will enjoy. One does not have to collect dozens of bottles to enjoy single malts. Many really good ones are available with a bit of searching and you just enjoy your favorite(s). None of these are shooters. Hardly anyone pops the cork and finishes a bottle in one night unless you have a lot of friends helping you. Indeed, I carefully measure out each ounce and that one drink may last an hour. Many consume scotch this way. While others rack up a huge tab buying shots at the bar during happy hour, I can spend a very frugal sum on a few drinks over several hours and leave for home very happy, and very much under the legal limit, I might add.
I don’t claim to be an expert yet, but I can say I have quite a bit of experience under my belt already. If anyone is interested, ask away. I can, at least, get you pointed in the right direction. If you know a scotch fan and are secretly buying a bottle as a gift I can really help.