Of all the spirits behind the bar, Scotch whisky may be the most intimidating.
The potent brown liquid has an association with old men in private clubs, and the adventurous drinker may be turned off by the flavor profile of the standard label. Although there’s no denying that a dram of this stuff is boozy, there are plenty of varieties—from silky smooth to totally smoky. Once you know a little bit about the spirit, navigating Scotland’s native drink is a lot more enjoyable. Here’s what you must know if you’re looking to break out the snifter and start tasting.
What is Scotch?
There is a lot of confusion about what exactly falls under the “Scotch” category. The definition is actually very simple—Scotch is whisky that comes from Scotland, just as Bourbon is whisky that comes from Kentucky, and Champagne is sparkling wine that comes from a certain region of France. The common misconception is that Scotch is a smoky whisky, but that is only because a lot of the labels from Scotland are stuffed with peat.
About that Smoke
The smoky flavor you get when you sip some Scotches is from the peat, which is burned during the malting process to add the signature taste. Peat comes from the bogs of Scotland, and while naturally decayed organic matter may not sound so tasty, distilleries have been playing with it for decades to come up with their signature flavors. Keep in mind—not all Scotch makers throw the peat on the flames when they are making their labels. Some are lightly peated or not peated at all. If you don’t like smokiness in your glass, there is still Scotch out there for you.
Single Malt vs. Blended
Another reason why people are intimidated by Scotch is the price. Admittedly, there are some pretty expensive labels out there, but those are usually the single malts. These have to be made at a single distillery and aged in barrels for at least three years. Blended labels are easier to make since the source material can come from different distilleries. If you are worried about the spirits effect on your wallet, look for a blended variety.
Like a fine red wine, Scotch has to be aged before it comes to the market. Like we said, single malts have to be aged for at least three years, but most labels are aged much longer than this. The spirit is placed in an oak cask for 10, 15, 20 or even more years, and because a lot of the barrels were used for sherry production before, their history imparts some flavor into the spirit. The longer the spirit is aged, the richer the flavor—but keep in mind that (like wine) you’ll have to spend more for older Scotch.
So, you’re ready to head to the liquor store and try some labels out. A good place to start is with The Macallan, which is an affordably priced single malt that isn’t too smoky but still carries all of the flavors that so pleases those old men at the club. If you’re looking to try something a little stronger and smokier, Laphroaig is pretty much the most peat-heavy around. Or if you’re into totally smooth spirits, knock back a dram of Highland Park, which is flavorful but easy to mistake for a whisky that doesn’t have the Scotch designation. As they say in Scotland when the glasses are raised—“Sláinte!”