How to choose a good scotch

Written by jason belasco
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How to choose a good scotch
How can you tell a Glenmorangie from a Laphroaig? (seaside whiskey image by Ivanna Buldakova from Fotolia.com)

You see other people purchase expensive Scotch with 14-syllable names, and you want to join in the fun. But you don't want to get something only a novice would order or purchase, or something that will make you gag. How can you tell a Glenmorangie from a Laphroaig, and how do you pronounce either of them? It's time to learn how to select a Scotch--along with a bunch of interesting facts that every Scotch aficionado should know.

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Blends and Single Malts

There are two types of whisky (Scotch whisky is spelt without the "e") distilled in Scotland: grain and malt. Grain whisky is made from malted barley, unmalted barley and other grains, while malt whisky is made from malted barley alone. Blended Scotch is made from blends of up to 50 different kinds of grain and malt whiskies. Ninety-five per cent of the Scotch exported from Scotland is of the blended variety, but that's not because the rest of the world has poor taste; most of the Scotch consumed in Scotland is also blended.

The popularity of blended whisky can be explained by two factors: It is less strongly flavoured and challenging to the palate than single-malt whiskys; and it is usually less expensive. Blends have much less "snob value" than single malts, though, and they don't have as much character or flavour.

Popular blended whiskys include Ballantine's, Hankey-Bannister Bell's, Justerini & Brooks Rare (J&B), Cutty Sark Royal Salut, Dewar's, Teacher's, Green Plaid and The Famous Grouse. The fanciest and most expensive of these is Royal Salut, which comes in a crockery bottle.

If you want to hang with the cool kids, put the blends away. Single-malt Scotch allows for true discrimination, connoisseurship, lavish spending and unbridled snobbery. The snobbery is, however, tempered by the fact that Scotch is an earthy beverage with strong, smoky flavours, and only those who have taken the time to acquire the taste can drink single malts.

Yet single malts make their own friends. Enjoying a single-malt whisky is a complex and varied experience of scent, taste and mouth feel, and it can be rewarding. That doesn't mean you should buy just any single malt, though.

Regions

Single malts are often classified according to the region in which they were distilled. Scotland is basically segregated into four Scotch regions: Highland; Lowland; Speyside; and Islay. Each region produces Scotch with different characteristics (see Resources).

The Highland region is the largest by far, and the single malts produced there vary widely. The region can be further subdivided into the Northern, Eastern, Western and Central Highlands, and doing so allows for more specific commentary.

The Northern Highlands distilleries produce lighter whiskys known for their delicacy, complex aroma and slight saltiness (because they're distilled by the sea). Northern Highland brands include Balblair, Clynelish, Glenmorangie (the most popular single malt in Scotland), Highland Park and Pulteney.

The Eastern Highlands distilleries are known for whiskys that are medium-bodied, smooth and slightly smoky. Two Eastern Highlands Scotches are Glendronach and Royal Lochnagar.

Western Highlands single malts are somewhat sweet and have a peppery finish and a hint of smoke. They include Ben Nevis, Oban and Talisker (known for its hot, peppery flavour).

Central Highlands whiskys are said to be light-bodied, somewhat sweet and fragrant, with a dry finish. These include Dalwhinnie (a "classic malt") and Edradour.

There aren't many Lowland distilleries, but they are known for making single malts much lighter and mellower than other Scotch whiskys. Lowland whiskys used to be popular with the English, who found the light flavour more suitable for their delicate palates. However, Lowland Scotches all have the powerful, complex flavours and aromas that are distinct to single-malt whiskys, and they might well be the best Scotches for beginners.

These brands include Auchentoshan and Glenkinchie.

The Speyside region is located within the Highlands, but the Speyside distilleries are adjacent to the River Spey and are thought to have sufficiently unique characteristics to warrant a region of their own. This region boasts the highest concentration of distilleries, and the whiskys they produce are known for their sweetness and their complex and elegant flavours and aromas. More than half the distilleries in Scotland are located in the relatively small Speyside region, and they produce many brands that are highly recommended. The "Top Class" Speyside whiskys include Aultmore, Glen Grant, Linkwood, Benrinnes, Glenlivet, Longmorn, Cragganmore, Glenlossie, Macallan, Glen Elgin, Glenrothes and Mortlach.

Islay (pronounced "eye-la") is a small island off the western coast of Scotland, and it is home to the heaviest, strongest-flavoured, smokiest and most challenging of the single malts. Some drinkers love their complexity and robustness, while others think they are unspeakably foul. Their strong flavour is thought to be due to the Islay region's exposure to the high winds and seas of the west coast. Salty spray is blown far inland, and this can get into the water and the peat, both of which are used in the production of Islay malts. These whiskys might not be good for neophytes, but if you like the flavours of single-malt Scotches in general, it may be worth your while to try some of these.

Some recommended brands are Bowmore (one of the milder Islays), Caol Ila (pronounced "cal-eela"), Lagavulin and Laphroaig (pronounced "La-frayg").

Age

The longer Scotch is aged, the smoother it is. Therefore, you should select the oldest available Scotch of the variety you desire. The age of a Scotch depends on how long it was aged in barrels. Scotch does not continue to age once it has been bottled, so the age of the Scotch is the age marked on the bottle, no matter how long it has been stored after it was bottled.

Scotch whisky is required by law to be aged for a minimum of three years, but it should be aged much longer. A good rule of thumb is that good Scotch will have been aged for a minimum of 10 years. After 10 years, the Scotch starts to come into its own. Twelve-, 15- or 21-year-old Scotches are nice if you can afford them.

Not all bottles of Scotch state how long they have been aged, but all the ones worth drinking do. The age marked on a bottle of blended Scotch is the age of the youngest Scotch in the blend, not the average age of the Scotches.

Whatever its age, all Scotch should be stored in a dark, cool location.

Interesting Facts

Scotch whisky must be distilled in Scotland to be called Scotch. Scotch can be bottled elsewhere, but it must be distilled in Scotland.

The word "whisky" comes from "uisge," a shortened form of "uisge beatha," which means "water of life" in Scots Gaelic.

It is traditionally believed that whisky came to Scotland from Ireland. The earliest recorded distillation of whisky in Scotland was in 1494, by Friar John Cor, but this was for a very large quantity of whisky (such as an established distillery would produce), and it would be a mistake to assume that he invented Scotch or anything of the sort. Nobody knows who invented Scotch.

Most people consider it gauche to serve single-malt whisky with a mixer stronger than club soda. Some popular ways to drink single malts are straight up, over ice or with a splash of water or club soda. Some think it is a waste to drink single malts with club soda, because the carbonation interferes with your appreciation of their subtler qualities.

Nearly all Scotch is chilfiltered, which refers to the removal of solids that cause the Scotch to become cloudy when ice cubes are added. This was done to appease the tastes of American consumers who did not like their liquor to turn cloudy. For those who want to taste Scotch the way the old Highlanders drank it, cloudiness and all, two unchilfiltered brands are Te Bheag and Praban.

Most Scotch is watered down to a standard strength of 80 or 86 proof (40 or 43 per cent alcohol) before it is bottled. Scotch must have a minimum strength of 80 proof. However, some Scotches are sold at "cask strength," which means they are bottled directly out of the barrel, and these can be as strong as 120 proof.

Scotch whisky is made from all natural ingredients, all of which are found in Scotland. Scotch requires the right ingredients; cool, damp conditions; and the experience of Scottish distillers.

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