Among life’s great pleasures, if making a list, I would be remiss not to include single malt Scotch.
If you’re not already a fan, may I suggest that you consider investigating for, in my mind, there is no finer grown-up drink in both the pleasure it gives the palate and the gentle message it sends to the brain. Just as after graduating to no-limit, even at a low level, it seemed pointless going back to limit, just as after learning chess, as a teen, checkers seemed so one-dimensional, just as after day-trading, even if for only a day, buy-and-hold became uninteresting, so single malt scotch, once appreciated, spoiled me for the others.
I mean no disrespect to fine wine which, when right, compares to fine art, or to macro-brewed beer, which makes no pretense of being anything other than what it is, swill that’s fun to drink. But I do mean to disrespect most of the others, and in this I include vodka, cognac, tequila, rum, brandy, gin, sparkling wines, and straight whiskey.
These are drinks that appeal mostly to the out-of-control college student still inside of us, either through the sugar content in the drink or their mixers, or their unabashed ability to get us drunk. I suppose there’s nothing wrong with that, if that’s your pleasure, and if you should happen to find me at some party enjoying a Bombay Martini with a twist, there’s no need to point out my hypocrisy- I’m already aware of it. Although there may be a need to take away my car keys.
Words and Music
Let’s do some defining, so that we are clear on what we’re talking about. Everything you need to know is to be found in the three words: (1) single (2) malt (3) Scotch.
(1) Single. This refers to the legal requirement that the whisky in the bottle comes from one, and only one, distillery. You might not think it, but that’s a big deal. Most whisky, including regular Scotch, is “blended,” meaning it is purchased from multiple distilleries and then mixed. Among these are the various Johnnie Walkers, J&B, Chivas Regal, Cutty Sark, Dewar’s, Ballantine’s, and the others. Single malt is different. Coming from a single source, the purity of the drink, and its singularity, is ensured. Coca Cola, and Johnny Walker Red, will always taste the same. And that’s a good thing. Your single malt will not.
(2) Malt. Not to get too technical, but the need-to-know is that the drink comes from “malted” barley. The barley is the thing- rye and wheat can be added to blended Scotches, but not single malt. Other facts you might find interesting: peat is used in the distillation process, which sometimes imparts a, well, “peaty” flavor to the whisky. To the beginner that can taste a little nasty, but after a time most people come to appreciate the earthy flavor. Also, while single malt Scotch is always aged for at least three years in oak casks there is no rule about what can be stored in the casks before the Scotch. In one of my favorite brands, that would be Port, which sits in the casks for several years and then is emptied (and, presumably, drunk) before the Scotch takes its place. This is also done with Sherry and with other flavors. As you can imagine, such things give a nuanced and very enjoyable extra taste to the drink.
(3) Scotch. Scotch comes from Scotland and nowhere else.
There are different regions of Scotland and experts like to identify the different flavors and aromas associated with the different parts of the peninsula where they are distilled. The country can be dividing many ways, including these five whisky-making regions:
|Region||Well Known Brands|
|Highland||Dalwhinnie, Oban, Dalmore|
|Speyside||Macallan, Balvenie, Glenfiddich|
I think all these Gaelic names add a veneer of integrity, history and culture to the industry.
Speaking of Gaelic, you might impress your friends by informing them that the word “Glen,” which often shows up in the product names, means “narrow valley,” just as it does in English.
Top selling single malts with a following in the United States, according to scotchwhisky.com:
How to Drink It
Perusing the text on the Laphroaig container in my cabinet I found these useful instructions on how it should be drunk: “Take it neat, like a stalwart, or with a splash of soft water. Roll it around on your tongue. Release the pungent, earthy aroma of blue peat smoke, the sweet nuttiness of the barley, the delicate heathery perfume of Islay’s streams.”
If you remove the poetry, they seem to be saying, “drink it straight or with water.”
How to Buy It
The prices vary like crazy so, if you care about such things, it is best to shop around. Whereas a six-pack of Bud is going to cost pretty much the same everywhere, and Diet Coke, too, a Macallan can be all over the place. But know this, it’s going to be expensive. A trip to the bevmo.com site has a bottle of Lagavulin 16 Year Old at $112 (for ClubBev members) and Oban 14 Year Old at $100. At totalwine.com Macallan 12 Year Sherry Oak runs $80, Glenlivit 12 is $89, and Glen Fohdry 12 Year Speyside is $40. (They will also sell you a bottle of Glen Fohdry 29 Year Oloroso Cask Speyside for $250.) Personally, after putting in some effort, I have done very well budgeting between forty and seventy dollars for a bottle. Cost is an indicator of value, but not a determinate.
Still, there’s no way to hide it, these prices will quickly suck the out-of-control college student right out of you. I confess, the cost makes me overly concerned about waste and very particular about who I share with. But, for those who believe, as I do, spending money on quality elevates the soul, it’s worth it. In closing, although I know it’s cowardly, I’m not going to tell you my favorite brand. I will tell you that I drink mine straight-up, from a shot glass.
To Your Health,
Wren is a contributing editor to HeadMagazine.com. He enjoys drinking his scotch while watching sports on television.