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A Beginner’s Guide To Scotch

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It was once known as aqua vitae, uisge beatha, “the Water of Life.” But you know it as Scotch whisky.

Scotch whisky is perhaps the ultimate symbol of success, refinement, and an appreciation of our subtle mastery of the chemical universe to create artifacts bold and beautiful. It is as much a celebration of the beauty of the craft as it is a salute to time itself. Scotch is an ancient creation, and like the quintessent flower of immortality that medieval alchemists searched for long ago, it requires time to bloom fully and reveal the purest aspects of itself. A beautiful draught that deepens into eternity.

A friend of mine, who is well on his way to becoming an unscrupulous personal injury lawyer down in Alabama, once said there is no distinguished doctor, litigator, or senator in the seat of power that does not keep a bottle of the Dew of the Highlands in the oak drawers of their desk.

An understanding of scotch is crucial to the fulfillment of a worthwhile life. First, what distinguishes scotch from other whiskys?

There are many blends and variations, but the finest Scotch whisky is a “single malt” whisky, meaning it is produced from water and malted barley at a single location through batch distilling in a pot still. This is a process largely unchanged from the spirit’s first written mention, in the royal Exchequer Rolls of 1494. Scotch also bears its name because scotch must, by definition, be produced at one of the Scottish distilleries or aged in Scotland for at least three years.

To truly understand a single malt scotch, you need to know exactly where it comes from.

There are five major scotch regions:

1. Highland, bearing sweet, smooth and fruity flavors, is the largest region in terms of size and offers the most variation. Examples include Dalmore and Glenmorangie. An unrecognized sub-group of the Highland whiskys is the Island region, bearing more pine and briney finishes with a distinct coastal flavor. Similar to Islay but much milder. Examples include Isla Jura, Orkney, and Highland Park.

2. Speyside bears the sweetest, fruitiest of all the scotches with rich floral and sherry notes. Over half of all distilleries in Scotland are here, including the legendary “whisky valley” with a dozen distilleries drawing from the same river, the river Spey. These whiskys are the most popular and well known across the world. Examples include The Macallan, Aberlour, Balvenie, Glennfidditch, and Cragganmore.

3. Islay is a tiny island in the southwest of Scotland with 8 distilleries in close quarters. Islay is a bitter, briney, and heavily peaty family of scotches, with the strongest flavors. Often described as drinking a liquid board. Examples include Laphroaig and Lagavulin.

4. Lowland bears light, malty, and grassy flavors. Only three of the old distilleries remain here, but new ones are pending their first releases. An example is Glenkinchie.

5. Campbelltown, far southern coast of Scotland with full bodied, slightly hot and salty finishes. These whiskys are not commonly exported. An example is Glengyle.

Scotch ranges in taste and flavor between Islay and Speyside, encompassing all the experiences of drinking the fieriest bourbon to the sweetest cognac, depending on location and make. No other family of spirits carries so much variety in a single category.

For educating their customers on the scotch regions, Highland Park distillery once wrote:

“A good malt bears the imprints of its origins. The source of the water, the quality of the air and the character of the peat used to dry the malted barley. Malt whisky is like the Scots tongue, broadly one language yet within that, so many different dialects, each unique to its own distillery. It is this subtle distinction that gives every malt its unmistakable identity.”

When you go to order Scotch, it is best to know how to ask for it prepared, and when to insist on a certain glass.

Experts agree the best experience is to drink scotch out of a tulip-shaped dram over a standard bourbon tumbler. The reason for this is it allows you to swish and sniff your whisky to release the full range of flavors rising from the spirit in the glass’s neck. The stuff has been sitting in a cask for ten years at the very least, it wants to breathe! Let it out!

These used to be hard to find, but luckily with more artisanal cask aged beers coming onto the scene, tulip drams are more common, as well. Still, most bartenders in the US will serve your drink in a tumbler by default, so you will usually have to ask.

Also, contrary to protocol for whisky and bourbon enthusiasts, an ice cube is preferred over a whiskey stone, because scotch loses a lot of its flavor when chilled, but actually requires a bit of watering down to stratify the different tastes inherent in the bottling. Although a man and a true Scot will always drink their favorite whisky neat and without adulteration once they get the taste.

Hopefully now you know a little bit more about how to order and enjoy scotch. Scotch whisky can easily become a lifelong passion, and offer a constant source of new delight and discovery for the devoted. So get over the knowledge barrier, and dive into the Water of Life. You won’t regret it.

Plus Ron Swanson enjoys scotch, and that alone should be reason enough to get into it.

Image via Shutterstock

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Doctor Franzia

*Not qualified to practice medicine*

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