Scotland is known for many things, but when it comes to beverages, none are more renowned than Scotch whisky. (Note the spelling, without the “e”, like rye or bourbon whiskey.) This nectar is produced strictly in Scotland from grain and malt. There are basically two kinds: blended and single malt.
Blended Scotch can be made from many different kinds of grain and malt whiskies from different distilleries, while single malt is made from one particular distillery utilizing one particular malted grain, usually barley. Blended Scotch is distilled once in a column still, but Single-Malt is distilled twice in a pot still. Both styles possess an earthy, smoky quality, but single malt generally is stronger flavoured, more complex and more expensive than blended. As such, single malts are usually never mixed with anything else, but sipped neat, often in a tulip-shaped glass to appreciate all the olfactory nuances. Blended versions can be enjoyed straight up or mixed with ice or in cocktails. With the basics out of the way, let’s address picking one that appeals to you.
The first thing to do is decide what style you might prefer, the mellow, easier-sipping, blended Scotch or the more distinct flavour of a single malt. Popular blended styles include Ballantine’s, J&B, Cutty Sark, Dewar’s, Teacher’s, Black & White, Johnnie Walker, The Famous Grouse and Chivas Regal.
If leaning toward single malt, there are more peated and less peated versions. This is the smoky flavor that accompanies almost all Scotches. Those from the Lowlands (Rosebank, Glenkinchie, Blandoch, Auchentoshan) are very mellow displaying malty, grassy notes with subtle, delicate aromas. Highlands (Glenmorangie, Oban, Macallan, Highland Park, Dalwhinnie, Glengoyne, Glen Garioch, Talisker, Dalmore) can vary greatly in character, but they tend to possess a slight sweetness so they can appeal to the softer palate.
If mellowness, sweetness and fruitiness are what you’re after, those from Speyside (Glen Moray, Cragganmore, Aberlour, Glenfiddich, Glenlivet) will deliver. Cambeltowns (Glen Scotia, Glengyle, Springbank) tend to have little peat and salt to them and are generally medium to full-bodied.
However, if big, bold, distinct, heavily peated, smokiness is what you’re all about, then vie for those from Islay (Lagavulin, Bunnahabain, Bruichladdich, Laphroaig, Bowmore, Ardbeg).
If you are just starting out as a single malt drinker, you may prefer to begin with less peated versions so as to wean your palate to the taste. Any knowledgeable liquor store consultant or manager can help you distinguish between the two.
Next, choose an age for your Scotch. By law, this whisky must age for at least three years before sale and one that has aged longer will be smoother going down. However, considering that it ages in oak barrels, the longer time spent in wood might render the Scotch overly woody, and not to your taste. Some are aged in old Sherry or Bourbon casks and take on a bit of the previous residents’ complexity. Also, the older the Scotch, the more expensive it is, especially the single malts, but older isn’t always better. There are certainly plenty of good 12-year old and younger Scotches out there that won’t break the bank. I think most Scotch drinkers would agree though, that if a bottle does not clearly state the age on the label, it’s probably not worth drinking.
I don’t have to spout the merits of sipping a good Scotch to seasoned sippers, but if you’re new to this whisky, it can take some time to acquire a taste for it. As to which style is better, it’s a matter of opinion. There is certainly some snob appeal that often comes from being a single malt drinker and many will say only this style allows for true discrimination as it offers much more aromatics, taste and texture, but both have their merits. Once a taste for it is acquired, I think you will agree that a good Scotch is like sipping a fine old wine or aged Cognac. It is most pleasurable.