Don’t you just hate wine snobs? You know who I mean, the people that sit around discussing everything about about the wine except the grape. “Oh, you can really taste the shady porch these grapes were grown under with just a touch of the vinter’s old Volvo station wagon…” It’s ridiculous, they’re pompous blowhards, and I have never tasted hints of ladybugs and daffodils in a glass of red wine.
I need that preface before I start talking about Scotch, because there are Scotch snobs as well. I’m not really one of them but for some reason I find myself more willing to hob-nob with ’em. I can tell the difference between Scotches, but I’ve never thought one tasted like apples and cinnamon while another one had light notes of vanilla. This is a much more blue collar look at Scotch whisky, and why I prefer it to American bourbon. (Although after years of mocking different shapes and sizes of wine glasses, I did buckle for my love of a good single malt and got a set of Glencairn glass. More here.)
My last post detailed my awful experience with Jim Beam that led me to avoid liquor for over a decade and become a microbrew snob (where, incidentally, you can taste hints of orange and honey, etc.), and the eventual conquering of my fears. During that decade, I feared and avoided whiskey above all else. Just the smell of a whiskey made me ill. Little did I know that not all whiskey is whisky…
I find it hilarious that we mock the Brits for extra letters in their words like colour, honour, or shoppe but when it comes to whiskey, America has added an “e”. Since we’re talking about Scotch, but may refer back to American stuff, I’ll be using the spellings interchangeably depending on the spirit’s region of origin.
Bourbon comes form the United States, Scotch comes from Scotland, and they’re both whisk(e)ys. The big differences are in how they’re made. You can read up on their respective histories and methods in more detail with the provided links, and there are lots of good sites that talk about it more detail, so I’m just going to make some broad generalizations here for the basics. Bourbon is made from 51% or greater corn mash and aged in new charred oak barrels. Scotch malts are pure barley, typically smoked with a peat fire, and aged in used barrels from sherry or bourbon production. I can only guess the root grain used to create the mash makes a significant difference in the flavor, and the barrels certainly do. The longer a whisky is aged in the casks, the darker and more flavorful it becomes as it extracts flavor from the wood. It also mellows as some of the alcohol evaporates off. Longer aging drives up the price significantly as it’s longer the distiller has to sit on the product and the 1.5-2% of volume lost each year to evaporation or the “angels’ share” means there’s simply less to go around. Supply and demand at work. Single malts come from a single distillery, where blended malts can come from several.
One of my favorite things about single malt Scotch? The cap has a cork. You get that fun little pop! every time you open it, and it just feels more substantial and classy than a twist cap like the American whiskeys have. Where Maker’s Mark (not even 60 years old at the time of this writing) wax dips their bottles in an ostentatious attempt at class, your average Scotch is far more understated and simply is classy. Nice.
A quick note on etiquette- There are all kinds of opinions on how to drink Scotch, what’s acceptable and not, etc. I prefer a really old single malt, neat. However, I see nothing wrong with an ice cube or two in a 12-year served in a lowball or Old Fashioned glass if that’s how you like it. Some people like a splash of water to dilute it, and kind of “spread out” the flavors and make them easier to taste or discern. The ice cube or two will have the same effect, but also chill the whisky and inhibit the flavor; so I’d be wary of ice in an 18-year and avoid it entirely in anything older. Splash of water and glassware is up to you. Just please don’t use a single malt as a mixer- that’s what Jack and Jim Beam are for.
- The Glenlivet– The biggest selling single malt in the U.S., and second largest worldwide. It’s a Speyside (meaning it’s water is from the River Spey), and the oldest legal distillery in the business. I began my venture into single malt Scotch with their 12-year, over ice. It’s easy to see why this is the number one seller in the States, as I think it mostly closely straddles the line between being distinctively Scotch but tasting somewhat of the American bourbon whose casks it ages in. I find it a little boring now that I’ve tried so many others, but it sells in such volume for a reason. Fairly light in color, I understand why people call it “fruity”. I never thought about the bottle being tinted green until I sampled more and realized it works to hide how light in color the 12 year is. While this is definitely a beginner’s Scotch, there’s nothing wrong with that. Think of it as Levi’s in a world now populated in jeans ranging from Wal-Mart to high end designers. The 18 year was predictably darker and more flavorful, but simply a more intense sampling of the 12.
- Glenfiddich– Another Speyside, and my personal favorite, the name is Gaelic for “Valley of the Deer”. Best selling single malt worldwide, I’d like to believe it’s for the flavor, but more likely for the aggressive marketing in duty-free shops. Regardless, I enjoy this more than Glenlivet and tend to find bottles of equivalent vintage to be darker and more flavorful. The 12 year is still fairly basic, but with how fast prices jump for more aged bottles I think an 18 year bottle is where I would stop spending for something I plan to keep in inventory. It’s not a bargain, but I figure the price/quality is acceptable for the occasional dram. But my very favorite that has never been topped is the 30 year. At $200 a bottle, it’s not an everyday sampler. But the flavor and complete lack of burn make it divine- like nectar of the gods. Dark, mellow, and I want to get all hoity-toity and declare it’s smoky undertones. I loved it.
- The Macallan– I’m just going to say it: I find this one to be grossly overpriced. It’s the Prada of whiskys: high end because they say it is. The Macallan declares it’s “original and spiritual home” to be Speyside… Except that it’s a Highland, when pressed by the 2009 Scotch Whisky Regulations. I don’t know or care, really, other than it furthers my belief that Macallan is more claim than actuality. The third largest selling single malt, they’ve issued some claims to make me question who’s the biggest and if claims are by volume or profit. In the end, it doesn’t matter, and this is the third of the Big 3, in whatever order they should appear. I’d have liked to have tried the original Sherry Oak line from which they built their reputation, as the Fine Oak series is fairly new (introduced in 2004), but the newer triple casked variety isn’t bad by any means. The 10 year is actually very nice. Elegant, if I can get away with saying so. Honestly, it’s a very good whisky and I’d take this before the Glens Livet and Fiddich 12 year bottles. The Fine Oak 25 Year is highway robbery, though. At over $500 a bottle it was very smooth, but not nearly as flavorful as a Glenfiddich 30 and more than twice the cost. I’ll skip the Cinderella satin box lining that says this is for royals and stick with the less pretentious, less costly, and far tastier ‘fiddich 30. It’s woodsier/smokier, manlier, and they want you to be pioneer with their Explorer something-or-other that’s also manly sounding. Anything manly enough to take over the end of this paragraph wins.
- Johnny Walker– In contrast to the single malts I generally prefer, this brand is a blended Scotch whisky. I was going to link to their site directly, but Wikipedia has such a great write up of their history and labels I opted to give you that instead. The blended nature of their whisky produces a very consistent flavor from bottle to bottle and year to year. They maintain that blending allows them to achieve the flavor they’re after. True enough, but I can’t help but feel like it leads to being… boring. Just like any other national chain or brand from Budweiser to Applebee’s- it will always be the same, and therefore it will never be special. Not bad, mind you, just… well… A glass of Black label with a few ice cubes is an uninteresting but dependable drink. I tried a glass of Blue label, but it doesn’t live up to it’s price: I found it to be very smooth but far too plain and flavorless. Verdict– Stick with the Black label in the absence of anything more interesting.
- The Balvenie- Another Speyside, their DoubleWood 12 Year is one of the best deals I think I’ve ever had in single malt Scotch. It’s only a 12-year, but it has great flavor, is very smooth, and was bargain priced. I would take this over a Glenlivet or Glenfiddich 18 year any day of the week. I loved this one. Two thumbs up regardless of price, but when the price is such that it can be an “everyday” dram, how can I not recommend it?
- Grangestone- This one caught me totally off-guard. It’s a 12 year single malt sold 50% off retail at Total Wine. Not to sound like a snob, but a $20 bottle of Scotch just makes me nervous and sounds like mixer-only territory. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Flavorful and comparatively smooth, this Highland is better and darker than an utterly forgettable 18 year bottle gathering dust on my counter and I feel like I stole it for the price/quality. If I were to make an introductory recommendation to Scotch, this and the Balvenie would be my choices both for flavor and low cost of admittance.
- anCnoc- I had their 12 year and absolutely hated it. Some say it’s a Speyside, but they don’t even have a website to tell their own story or confirm. It’s definitely a Highland region, and supposedly the water is from a Knock Hill spring. Bland and burning, the only way I could tolerate it was with generous ice in the glass to dull the regret swirling between the cubes. I won’t link to it, I won’t recommend it, and I won’t serve it somebody I dislike. Others love it though, so this is strictly my opinion and worth as much as you paid to read it.
- Grants- Another blended whisky, I don’t know what I had but it was… Well, I won’t be studying up on or sampling any more Grants. Let’s leave it at that.
I’m sure I’ve missed a few, but this is getting to be a really lengthy post. The long and short of it is that I hate Jim Beam, tolerate Jack & Ginger on the rocks (with a squeeze of lemon, no lime), and would encourage anyone who hasn’t tried a good single malt to give it a whirl. While you can get bombed with it if that’s the intent, I find it a very easy drink to enjoy in moderation, the company of friends and good conversation. I hope you’ll do the same.