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A Matter Of Taste: Becoming A Scotch Whisky Expert

Scotch is a popular beverage. Are you surprised? Did you think “brown liquor” was losing popularity? The U.S. became the first billion-pound export market for scotch in 2018, according to the Scotch Whisky Association.

You may have a desire to develop an expertise in scotch, enabling you to hold your own in conversations with friends who consider themselves knowledgeable in this area. Good news! Unlike becoming an expert in insurance, there are no exams to pass. Becoming an expert on scotch comes from learning the basics, tasting a variety of types and determining your personal preferences.  

What Is Scotch Whisky?

It’s an alcoholic drink, brown in color, made from either malt or grain. In the U.S., it’s typically about 40%-43% alcohol by volume, or 80-86 proof. Some whisky, described as “cask strength,” can have a higher alcohol level. The word “scotch” is meant to signify it was made in Scotland. The French contend Champagne comes only from that named region in France; the Scots have a similar argument about their whisky.

How Is It Made?

Scotch is made by one of two processes. As a scotch enthusiast, you don’t need deep technical knowledge of how it’s made. When people ask the time, they don’t want to hear how you build a watch.

Malt whisky is made only from malted barley using pot stills. The process involves four stages:  Malting, mashing, fermentation and distillation. Glossy photos show shiny, copper stills and men raking grain. Technology has made the traditional process easier while retaining the character.

The other method of production is for grain whisky. The patent still process is more continuous. The blend is malted barley and other unmalted cereal grains. The process is similar to the pot still method, but more automated. Final distillation takes place in the patent (or Coffey) still.

Takeaway: The four steps are: malting, masking, fermentation and distilling. Methods vary.

Where Does It Come From?

Like the French with Champagne, the Scots are very particular. Scotch whisky comes from Scotland. Ireland produces whiskey, but it’s called Irish whiskey (with the “e” added in the spelling for anything other than Scotch, Canadian and Japanese whisky).

We produce whiskey in the U.S.  Jack Daniel’s is famously known as Tennessee whiskey. We Americans usually call our product bourbon, after Bourbon County, Ky., where it is produced. Japan produces their version. Suntory is the famous name. Your local warehouse club might carry a whiskey produced in India.

Takeaway: Scotch whisky comes only from Scotland.

Blends vs. Single Malts

Different people want different things. Some people simply want a pleasant beverage, while others prefer something with character. The advantage of different tastes is the ability to differentiate and try to guess the location or identity of the scotch.

You know blends as famous brands. Johnnie Walker, Dewar and Chivas Regal are familiar names. They blend scotches from different regions of Scotland to produce a certain profile or taste.  

Single malt is the product that attracts the attention of enthusiasts. Single malt scotches are produced by different distilleries, much like Bordeaux wines come from different chateaus. They have different flavors.

Takeaway: Blends are big brands, aiming at a middle-of-the-road flavor. Single malts have character. They have a different taste.

Aging Is Important

It’s been said people mellow with age. It works the same way with Scotch.  If you tasted whiskey immediately after distillation, you might think you were drinking gasoline! Not a pleasant taste.  Like wine, Scotch whisky is usually aged in wood casks before it’s bottled and sold. Some air gets in, evaporation takes place, the spirit mellows and improves. Some distilleries use sherry casks or wine barrels to pick up additional flavors. Aging takes place in the barrel. The aging stops when the whiskey is bottled.

One of the most famous blends is Johnnie Walker. It comes in several tiers based on age:  Black Label is 12 years old, followed by Green Label at 15 years, then Johnnie Walker Aged 18 Years and finally Blue Label, assumed to be 25 years old.

Takeaway: The longer the whisky is aged, the smoother (and more expensive) it becomes.

What Makes It Different?

Single malt scotch comes from six primary regions of Scotland. They are:

1. Highlands. The area is pretty big. Highland malts are made from 100% malted barley, often dried over peat fires. The distillers use the pot still method. Highland malts are associated with a smoky, medicinal taste. Dalmore and Oban are popular names.

2. Speyside. This region is smaller than the Highlands or Lowlands. Speyside malts are light and grassy or rich and sweet. Familiar names are Glenlivet, Macallan and Glenfiddich, which are also the best-selling single malts in the world.

3. Islay. Islay malts come from a small island west of the Scottish coast. They have a smoky flavor because they also use peat fires to dry the barley. Famous names are Bowmore and Lagavulin.

4. Lowlands. This is a big region geographically but Lowland malts are less popular than Highland malts. The area is known for blended scotch. Lowland malts are often triple distilled. Glenkinchie and Auchentoshan are two examples of single malts.

5. Islands. They aren’t an official region, but you will come across Island malts. They vary, but often have a smoky flavor. Jura and Talisker are the names you are most likely to see.

6. Campbeltown. Campbeltown is in southwestern Scotland, at the foot of the Mull of Kintyre. It was once a thriving distillery region but only a few distilleries remain there today. Scotch from this region is known for its dryness and sometimes pungent taste. Prominent names include Glengyle and Springbank.

Takeaway:  Scotland has more than 120 malt whisky distilleries. Many single malts have a smoky flavor. Age mellows the taste while increasing the price.

How Do You Enjoy It?

While vodka and gin are often served in mixed drinks, scotch is traditionally enjoyed on its own.  A small amount of your scotch is poured into a standard tumbler. Some people add a few drops of spring water to help release the aroma. There’s a type of glass, wider at the bottom than the top, called the Glencairn. It’s named after the company that makes them.

Takeaway: Scotch on the rocks or scotch and soda are not how serious scotch fans drink their favorite beverage.

What To Eat With Scotch

So what foods go with scotch? Let’s assume you are drinking with friends, not drinking scotch throughout a three-course meal. Smoked salmon is a pretty good choice because it’s another major Scottish export. Dried fruits and unsalted nuts work well too. This is good because it’s in the bar snack category. Cheeses, especially cheddar, go well with scotch. Let’s be obvious and include a glass of water so you don’t end up drinking too much.

Takeaway: You want some food in your system. Assortments of unsalted nuts are probably the easiest snacks to find.

Fun Facts About Scotch

1. Proper spelling is important. Although we Americans talk about “whiskey,” in Scotland, their preferred spelling is “whisky,” dropping the “e”.

2. Water of life. Many cultures had a high-alcohol distilled beverage, often given to people who were dying from a serious illness or injury. Back when there were no anesthetics, it was meant to ease the pain or transition to the afterlife. This was called “eau de vie” or water of life. The word “whisky” has similar linguistic roots.  

3. Enter St. Patrick. Irish whiskey has been gaining in popularity. The brands Bushmills and Jameson have been around forever. It’s been said St. Patrick introduced the distilling of spirits to Ireland in the fifth century.  

4. Minimum aging. If a Scotch whisky has no age listed on the label, it must have been aged for a minimum of three years.

is president of Perceptive Business Solutions in New Hope, PA. His book "Captivating the Wealthy Investor" is available on Amazon.com. He can be reached at [email protected].


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