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Single Malt Scotch 101

December 9, 2009

By Monsieur Anton

 

Here I go treading on Gusteau’s territory again.  Nobody knows more about Scotch than the good chef, but since he’s been busy in the kitchen, I’ll have a go at it.  No doubt he’ll have something to say when I’m finished.

Whiskey is an alcoholic beverage made from fermented grain mash.  Whisky however (the Scotts don’t bother with the pesky e), must be made in Scotland.  Duh.  It is made from water and malted barley.  It is aged in oak barrels for no less than three years and one day. To be single malt it must be made from water and malt, from one distiller.  Makes complete sense, doesn’t it?  Blended Scotch can be made from mixing malts and grains from more than one distillery.   Hence the term blended.  Since we’re real men (real women drink Scotch, too!), we’ll cast our attention to single malts.  They are usually more distinctive, and expensive.  This is not to say there cannot be some fine blends.  Chivas Regal is nice.  Johnnie Walker makes some fine blends, but for my money stay away from the Johnnie Blue.  It’s very good mind you, but way overpriced. 

Single malt Scotches, much like wines, are defined by the region in which they are produced.  The water and grain take on the native characteristics of the land and sea.  This along with the technique employed by a skilled distiller can make for some distinctive whiskies.

The distiller has many tools at his disposal to make his whisky unique from others that may have been made in the same region.  Among these are the introductions of peat, which is basically earth; decayed vegetation.  A distiller can use peat fires to dry the malted barley to be used, imparting a distinctive “smoky” or “peatiness” that many aficionados seek.

The aging process is vital in the making of single malt whisky.  The finished product is aged in oak barrels.  The type of oak used, and the length of time (most single malts are aged no less than ten years) can make up 60-70% of the final taste.

 

The majority of single malts that make their way to the States are from four regions, Highland, Speyside, Islay and Lowland.  There are others, but for our purposes we’ll concentrate on these.

Highland whiskies tend to be full-bodied with deep notes of peat and smoke.  They are usually quite smooth and go down warm with a slow finish.  Some examples of the regions are, Glenmorangie, Dalwhinnie, Oban, The Singleton and Ardmore. My choices here are Glemorangie with its light, delicate flavors and smooth finish and Oban which is a bit more smoky.

With almost half of Scotland’s distilleries are located in the Speyside region, it is whisky central.  Speyside single malts are usually very complex with a mix of flavors from smoke and leather, to honey and apples.  It can be hard to define Speyside.  Just drink a lot of the region’s offerings and discover for yourself.  Happily there are many quality whiskies to try.  To name just a few, The Glenlivet, Balvenie, Glenfiddich, Macallan and Knockando are big stars of the region.  While The Glenlivet has always been a go to brand for me due to its quality at a reasonable price, if Gusteau is paying I’ll opt for Macallan with smoothness imparted from Sherry casks and Balvenie, a rich flavorful offering.

Lowland whisky tends to be light and dry.  While the region covers about a third of Scotland, there are relatively few distilleries there, and the ones that do exist mostly make whisky to blend with other more full-bodied blends.  One single malt of note here is Glenkinchie a fresh tasting, almost herbal malt.

Islay whiskies are not for the faint of heart.  They are very peaty, almost medicinal with the taste of the sea.  The ever-present saltwater invades the peat creating a very strong, distinctive taste.  Islay produces some much sought after single malts that might come on a bit too strong for the newbie Scotch drinker.  If you are more seasoned or adventurous dig in!  Some to try are Ardberg, Laphroaig, Lagavulin, Talisker (Skye) and Bowmore.  All of these have a distinctive peatiness to them, with the makers of Laphroaig claiming to produce “the most richly flavoured of all Scotch Whiskys.”  I’ll admit it is a bit much for me.   I prefer the much easier to drink Talisker or Bowmore.

Whatever single malt Scotch you decide to try, I’d urge you to give it a try neat.  At least initially, do not dilute it with a water or ice.  Pour yourself a dram (an inexact measure) of whisky and take in the aroma.  Take a moment to find the characteristics.  Then take a sip.  Savor the flavors and complexities.  If you want you can now add the smallest drop of spring water.  Notice how this opens up the Scotch, but be sure it’s only a drop!  If you like, you can have a glass of water on the side.  Nobody will think the less of you.  If some snob looks at you like the water is your training wheels, just tell them you’re thirsty and shoot them a dirty look.

Single malt Scotch whiskies offer nice warmth for the plunging temperatures of the season.  They also make the cold weather more bearable.  Me, I can, and do, drink single malts year-round, but they are never more satisfying than at this time of the year.

Chef Gusteau says: “Anton, my friend, finally we wholeheartedly agree on one thing…you drink a lot!  Just kidding…sort of.  I love single malts.  When you consider how much time and energy go into producing such fine “beverages” you begin to appreciate the finer things in life as well.  The wonderful things in life do take time and effort, and you will always be rewarded for your patience.  It is truly amazing how the distillers in Scotland use the natural resources around them (for example, moss, which is found all over the rocks along the coast).  By doing so, each distiller can truly differentiate their whiskies by region.  The islands of Islay and Skye have tons of moss/peat, so naturally their whiskies have pronounced flavors of smokiness and peat.  The Highlands and Speyside prefer to show off superior grains, leading to cleaner, more fragrant whiskies.  But at the end of the day, nothing is more relaxing than two fingers (a fun measurement of how much to pour in a glass, determined by how high up on the glass your fingers cover when holding the bottom) of a fine Scotch.  Each time I enjoy a glass (nightly), it reminds to slow down, and enjoy the finer things in life.  So friends, enjoy and lift up a glass and toast with friends!”

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. Rosemarie permalink
    December 11, 2009 7:52 pm

    Hello, great post. I would like to get my boyfriend a good bottle of scotch for Christmas, he has indicated he likes the peated type, which seems to be the Islay. After some research, I would like to get him either the Ardberg 10 year old or the Lagavulin 16 year old. Could either of you tell me where I could acquire such a bottle in Cleveland?
    Thank you!

    • December 12, 2009 3:09 am

      Hi Rosemarie,
      Thanks for the note. Giant Eagle at Legacy Village in Lyndhurst has both available. If you truly want to impress and share the Christmas spirit…go with the Lagavulin. It shares the strong peat flavor as Ardberg, but is so much smoother and more enjoyable, in my humble opinion. Did I mention that both Anton and I would love a bottle as well? If you find yourself looking for a little less peat flavor, but a truly enjoyable scotch…I highly recommend Talisker.
      Enjoy the holidays and thanks for reading. Chef Gusteau

  2. December 11, 2009 9:08 pm

    What a lucky guy your boyfriend is! Both the Ardberg and Lagavulin are fine choices and available at most fine liquor stores in the Cleveland area. You didn’t say what part of town you are in. On the eastside I’ve found both at Zagara’s grocery which has a liquor agency in it, and Shaker Square Beverage. I checked into Minnotti’s on the westside, and they tell me they have them both. Most decent liquor stores will be happy to order any liquor available in Ohio for you if they don’t already have it in stock.

    The Adberg 10 will set you back $49.95. The Lagavulin 16 will be $87.25. As I said, you have a lucky boyfriend.

    Thanks for reading At the Pass!
    Monsieur Anton

  3. Rosemarie permalink
    December 12, 2009 8:16 pm

    Thanks! I live near west side, but I am having dinner in Shaker Square Monday, so maybe I will stop by there. Thank you so much for your input! I like your blog by the way, it is funny/informative. Which is great! (and yes, I do have a lucky boyfriend!)

  4. January 7, 2010 7:53 am

    Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones you have a lot more creativity and originality now keep it up!

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