I can personally recall upon countless times where I am at a gathering and someone will notice me sticking my entire nose in, and taking small sips from, a dram of my favourite scotch, which to the untrained eye might seem a bit odd. Afterwards, they will often ask if I wouldn’t mind if they tried some, to which I reply of course not. As they apprehensively lift the glass up to their mouth and draw some of the liquid gold into their lips, I wait with baited breath in hopes that they exclaim that this is the single greatest liquid that they have ever tasted. Instead, what I’m often met with is a sour, watery-eyed expression, followed by many coughs, a few grunts and the sharp remark of “How do you drink this stuff!”
There is some sort of intimidation factor associated with the drinking of scotch. It is typically associated with those of the higher class and can cost quite the pretty penny due to its long aging/maturation process, alongside the taxes associated with its import to Canada. It has quite a high ABV at a minimum of 40%, and requires a certain amount of background knowledge to fully enjoy to the nth degree. Most think because they are not current enthusiasts that they have less of a right to enjoy it then seasoned veterans do, and may be wary of offending: someone who offers you a sample only for you to not fully appreciate its complexities and intricacies, those who regularly practice proper scotch drinking etiquette, the distiller who has spent years masterfully keeping an ancient recipe, or perhaps even on a grander scale, the entire colony of Scotland itself! Well fear not my eager aficionado’s, I have enlisted myself as your guide, to aid you in your quest to become a future master of malt, providing you with some tips and tricks, as well as some unthreatening and cost effective options, to ease yourself into the flavorful world of scotch drinking.
1. How to order Scotch Whisky: A Dram
A dram, technically speaking that is, is no more than a teaspoon, exactly one eight of a fluid ounce of scotch. However, the technicality and original meaning of the term has been lost and has now become the globally popular, fancy pants way, of ordering or asking for a glass of scotch.
2. What to Order? The Basic Types of Scotch Whisky: Blends, Grains and Malts
There are several types of Scotch whisky but for all intents and purposes of this article, which has a target audience of beginners, I will be addressing three of the main types of scotch whisky that you will most likely come across.
The most bottles of whisky that will slide across the counter at your local LCBO are most definitely blended varieties of Scotch whisky. They comprise of around 2 thirds of grain whiskey parlayed with about 1 third of malt whiskey from an array of different distilleries around Scotland. What emerges from this manufacturing process is a medley that has the greatest potential of appealing to the taste buds of masses of scotch drinkers, and its massive popularity only further proves that notion. As such, it makes an excellent start for beginners, as it is more characteristic of being smooth, inviting, relatively less potent and easier on the wallet and palate.
Keep in mind that blending scotch can, from a different school of thought, be considered more of an art form. Scouring the world for exceptional single malts and concocting them into something that tastes remarkably identical with every glass is something that I personally believe shows artisanal prowess.
The least favoured of the distinctive types, and for good reason. It is made using a variety of cereal grains comprising usually mashed wheat, barley and maize. With regard to barley, its malted and un-malted variations are fermented and utilized in order to craft this specific type of whisky. The distillation process for grain whisky is quite easy and cost effective and thus is not particularly sought after. Regardless of how good some of them taste on their own; they are chiefly used in order to amalgamate blended whisky, and can be used in combination with single malts to create a unique blended flavour.
Malt whisky is the foundational and original whisky of Scotland. It is made exclusively from malted barley and is distilled in copper pot stills by a batch process to be aged in oak casks for a minimum of three years. The most revered of the malted scotch variety is single malt, which has to undergo a series of strenuous regulations for it to bear the single malt name. It must have been manufactured exclusively using the mashing of malted barley grain, aged in oak casks for a minimum of three years and it must be bottled and exported out of Scotland from a single distillery.
This type of whisky, although less popular, is particularly more sought after due to the fact that you are getting exactly what you paid for, it is scotch in its most divine purity. Ergo, there is a certain amount of luxuriance that one feels when they both purchase and enjoy this type of whisky.
In terms of taste, single malt Scotch whisky brings about a much more varied and intricate taste experience, as distillers can manipulate their recipe to bring about new and intuitive, tasting notes. It can at times for this reason be significantly more difficult to wrap ones head around. It requires a certain amount of experience and trial and error to fully understand its sometime convoluted tasting notes, which can make enjoying this type of whisky more enjoyable and spontaneous.
3. Choosing Your Scotch Region
Whisky of all sorts is developed exclusively in Scotland but can vary in regard to what specific geographic area of Scotland it was created in, and subsequently what sort of flavour profiles one should expect upon consuming it. Here are a few noteworthy regions of Scotland, and the renowned distilleries found within them, that have become popularized for their masterful crafting of the world’s most exquisite and unique scotch whisky’s.
Highland: the most expansive of the scotch regions. Do to its vastness, no two scotches in this region are entirely characteristically similar, they can be quite divergent but are typically known for being full-bodied, catering to drinkers who enjoy a non-intoxicating kick of smokiness and peat. It is home to numerous amounts of distilleries but some of the more famous ones include: Glenmorangie, Dalmore, Dalwhinnie and Glengoyne.
Lowland: the lowland area of Scotland is known for its light bodied, floral scotches. Drinkers of scotch found within this region enjoy its mellowness, its mild mannered flavor profile and its delicate nature. It is located in the far south plains of Scotland and is home to three distilleries including: Bladnoch, Auchentoshan, and Glenkinchie.
Islay: Islay scotch is known for its intensity and its unmatched smokiness. Some believe that the high winds and the regions exposure to the sea play a pivotal role in the formation of its potent flavor. I would strongly suggest becoming comfortable with scotch before even thinking about sampling ones from this area, as it’s powerful tastes will leave a bad impression behind and may permanently discourage you from trying scotch ever again. Distilleries worth mentioning include: Laphroaig, Bowmore, Lagavulin and Ardbeg.
Campbeltown: Oddly enough, Campbeltown was once to whisky what Canada is to maple syrup, although it may be hard to believe with its now three functioning distilleries. Campbeltown, although small, was at one point in time the whisky capitol of Scotland, and its whisky’s have become characteristically renowned for their sui generis salty and briny character. The three distilleries in this area are: Springbank, Glen Scotia and Glengyle.
Speyside: In Campbeltowns place; Speyside has now rightfully claimed its rule as the center of exceptional scotch producing regions, housing nearly half of all of Scotland’s distilleries. It acquired its name from the river Spey that stretches and cuts through the region, providing and endless stream of fresh water that distilleries pride themselves in using during their production processes. Speyside whiskies are considered the most elaborate, and have become well known for their sweetness and elegance. Some of its more famous distilleries include: Glenfiddich, Glenlivet, Macallan and blended scotch distilleries such as Johnnie Walker and Chivas Regal.
4. How to Properly Taste your Scotch
Select a glass
You have several options when it comes to the selection of a proper glass. Most will swear by a Glencairn or Copita nosing glass because of their ability to really trap in and release specific scent compounds, yet as a beginner, any old rock glass will do just swimmingly.
Add a touch of water or ice
I’m sure I will have plenty of avid scotch drinkers sneering at the mere thought of my even suggesting this, but trust me, as a beginner this addition will become your best friend. This technique is frequently used by tasters who have a desire to mellow the burning after effect and make nosing far less revolting, which in effect, allows them to really grasp a good sense of the individual scent and taste notes found in their dram. I would add a teaspoon of water or a single ice cube, no more, no less, as adding more will mutilate the unique flavour and scent of your dram and less will still leave behind that undesirable burning sensation in both your nose and throat that beginners tend to loathe with such a passion. As you become more comfortable with the taste, really make an honest effort to wean yourself off of placing additives in your glass of scotch as it is technically meant to be drank neat (on its own). You will find that you develop a deeper appreciation for the beverage once you enjoy it in its un-tampered glory.
Before you become tempted to guzzle down your dram, allow your nose to share in the experience by drawing in some of its pleasant aromas. Place your glass at about chin level and allow your nose to protrude through the opening, getting as close as comfortably possible. If it is too harsh or light on the nose for your liking, adjust yourself accordingly. Swish the contents of your glass slowly and correspondingly draw in a slow deep breath from both your mouth and nose. As you are doing so, attempt to isolate some of the various scents that come to your attention. Remember that no smell is too outlandish; take the liberty of documenting whatever comes to mind regardless of how odd it may be at first thought. You may also nose some things that do not necessarily make themselves prominent in taste, which is completely normal. You should be consistently noticing an emergence of new scents, continue for as long a duration as you wish.
Now for the fun part, tip the glass slowly, allowing for a drop of the lustrously gold spirit to pierce through your lips. Allow it to sit in your mouth for a small while, and feel free to swallow it immediately if you wish. However if you want to fully immerse your taste buds, swish it violently around your mouth, making sure that each nook and cranny has been dampened, then swallow a bit forcefully to savour its deliciousness for a grand finale of flavour. The taste will dwindle in vitality as time progresses so recite to yourself, or others, the first initial flavours that hit your senses like a freight train, ones that come about during the middle and some aftertastes that linger for a period of time. As a reference point, there are often times the master distillers tasting notes that will be listed somewhere along the bottle, but if not, take to the internet and look up some impressions others may have had in scotch based forums like master of malt or scotch addict.
Recommendations for inexpensive beginner bottles
Glenlivet 12 year
This is my go to bottle for someone who wishes to enter into the world of scotch drinking. Glenlivet is one of the most popular single malt scotches on the market and for good reason. Its light, floral, sweet and fruity character, with a tasteful hint of spice to finish, is perfect for any beginner or seasoned veteran alike, and for a price of $59.95, you simply can’t go wrong.
Glenmorangie 10 year
Glenmorangie is an excellent selection for a beginner both in my opinion and the online communities; it’s light and sweet, and wholly captures the essence of a simple, yet crisp, Highland single malt. Although it may end up costing you a little bit extra at a price of $69.95, you simply will not regret doling out the extra coin.
Chivas Regal 12 year
Chivas regal is actually made by the same distillery that produces Glenlivet and promises to deliver the same amount of amazing flavor. Its oak cask aging method gives it a heavy scent and taste of oak, alongside some sugary cereal grains and a light amount of smoke to conclude. It has an amazing price of $52.95.
Johnnie Walkers: Black Label 12 year
If you are looking to venture into more potently smoky territory, I’d suggest going with walkers black. It has a very interesting nose, a smoky and sweet toasted vanilla flavor with a long and smooth finish that will leave you wanting more, and with a price tag of $59.95 you can feel free to indulge, guilt free.
I myself am a recent beginner and writing this guide has allowed me to revisit the innumerable reasons why I have and will continue to have a strong passion for this spirit in all of its forms. It is my hope that this guide has encouraged you to feel more confident and fully prepared to purchase and enjoy Scotland’s most prized export, Scotch whisky.