A Quest for the Perfect Scotch

I have to admit that when I think about my love for scotch I feel pretty damn pretentious. As I write this, I am seated in a dimly lit room, the sound of Coltrane lingering in the background, with a glass of my favorite single malt scotch by my side. I feel as though from the outside it would look as if I were trying to fit some arty stereotype, a habit far from my nature, but thanks to my journey to find the perfect single malt, I fit the bill.

My maternal grandfather was a scotch drinker. He passed away when I was a year old and I never had the opportunity to get to know him. I was told his scotch of choice was Dewars, a very well known and popular blended scotch. After learning this, I went to an Irish pub and ordered my grandfather’s drink. I was not impressed. If my memory serves me correctly, Dewars was mild, sweet, and not very smoky. To many these traits add to the drinkability factor. It is not too strong for a beginner, the price is attractive, and it mixes well.  I had no idea what I was looking for exactly, but Dewars did not satisfy my palate.

I decided I wasn’t ready to give up on my grandfather’s drink and began to do some scotch research. As previously mentioned, the scotch I tried was a blended scotch. Everything I read told me single malt was better. Single malt is a whisky made from only one grain, malted barley, and is distilled in a single distillery. Blended whisky typically uses numerous grains and is distilled in more than one distillery. Because of the single grain and distillery, single malt is generally classified as better tasting scotch. That is also why it is more expensive. One of the first things I learned were some common misconceptions. For instance, to be called “Scotch Whisky,” the product must be distilled and bottled in Scotland. If it is made in another country, it should be termed “whisky” (scotch from Scotland is spelled “whisky” not “whiskey.”)

The Scotch making process is in depth and time consuming. Kevin Erskine’s “The Instant Expert’s Guide to Single Malt Scotch” explains the scotch making process briefly. “Single malt is produced from malted barley. The barley is soaked in water and allowed to germinate. It is then dried using smoke from a fire which (usually) has had peat added. The malted barley is then ground into grist, mixed with water, and allowed to ferment through the addition of yeast. The resulting liquid is distilled (twice) in copper pot stills, and matured in oak casks for at least three years. Once bottled, whisky, unlike wine, does not continue to age or change, provided the bottle is kept sealed and out of sunlight. “

Only oak casks are used to mature single malt Scotch Whisky. It is believed that whisky gains 60-70% of its character from the oak casks that it was matured in. The cask has a greater impact on the flavor than the barley, water, peat, and still shape combined. Before it can legally be called whisky, it must be matured in a cask for a minimum of three years, although most are matured for at least 10 years, if not longer. Whisky aged ten years or older is very likely to have the age on the bottle. If the age is not on the bottle, it has been aged at least three years, though less than ten years. Most whiskies contain 40-46% alcohol, unless labeled as cask strength.

With this information, I set out on a journey to find “my” scotch and I had my sights set on single malts. I asked a good friend, who was somewhat of a scotch connoisseur, for guidance on my journey. He suggested I work my way up to the strong single malts, and recommended a flavor map to guide me.

www.malts.com

I began with the Glenfiddich 12 year, a light and floral scotch that is a common choice for beginners. Even with nothing to compare it to I found the taste a little too weak and quickly moved on to the Macallan 12 year. What a mistake! Often described as rich and delicate, it is also very sweet. If you tend to like sweet drinks, this may be the drink for you, but it was too sweet for my liking. I followed this by trying the Bunnahabhain 12 year, which falls on the fruity and spicy section of the map. While it had components of being quite peaty, or earthy in taste, I decided I needed to continue my search for something stronger.

I had finally worked my way up to the smoky part of the map. I began with the Ardbeg 10 year, a full-bodied scotch that, although slightly fruity, had more of a peaty flavor with a hint of smokiness. I enjoyed it, but knew the search was not over. Next came the Talisker 10 year, heavy in peat and smoke with a hint of tobacco flavor. I thought Talisker would be my drink, but as it turned out, another smoky scotch was about to win my heart.

When my scotch connoisseur friend realized I was drawn to single malts with a very smoky flavor, he recommended I try the Laphroaig 10 year. Strong in flavor, Laphroaig is the perfect blend of peat, wood, and smoke. It is considered one of the few “pure” whiskies as it is aged only in casks previously used to age bourbon.

I enjoy my scotch neat. Adding a touch of water will may bring out the flavor with certain single malts. Others enjoy it on the rocks, although some purists claim that adding ice freezes the aroma and dulls the taste. Experts recommend using a tulip shaped glass that will enhance the aroma. This type of glass, with a narrow mouth, contains the aroma near the glass’s neck, and therefore allows for the maximum fragrance when nosing. The nose plays an important role when tasting. All that is left is to sip and enjoy.

I have never considered myself to be someone who is at all concerned with the image that my choices portray. But with scotch, a big part of the appeal was the image that accompanies it. I like to think of this as the Humphrey Bogart effect. When I think of Humphrey Bogart–classy, wise, and handsome. It was the drink of an iconic man. I have to admit that I get some satisfaction that we have that in common, but more than anything, I genuinely enjoy the scotch.

Do you drink scotch or whiskey? Are you a drink snob? Hate all brown liquor? Share your recommendations or favorites with us in the comments. 

Chantal O'Connor
A self-proclaimed non-enthusiast, Chantal lives on the wrong side of the Hudson River in upstate New York. She is a cat person at heart and prefers the past over the present. Her free time is spent reading biographies, watching black and white films, and drinking Scotch. Chantal responds to any form of optimism with a genuine, yet suspicious "hmmm."
  • Lex_Discipulus

    My husband is a scotch drinker. I personally cannot get into that. Oof. Give me straight tequila, craft beers, wine of any type and I am happy.

  • http://firinnasch.tumblr.com/ Firinn Asch

    I love this! I am a big scotch drinker – the smokier the better. Right now, I’m really feeling the Glenmorangie Companta, Highland Single Malt Scotch Whisky. TRY IT.

    • WrongAsRain

      You guys are starting to make me consider trying scotch. I like smoky things.

  • http://www.theflounce.com AlexisO

    I thought this was really interesting! Are these brands (or types, I don’t know the verbiage) readily available in liquor stores or is this specialty stuff?

    • WrongAsRain

      Also wondering about the prices on 10 years myself. I’ve never tried scotch, but if I did, I would try it by the glass at a bar. I know even the blended common brands like Johnny Walker are not very affordable (the fancier blue label is like $150).

  • botenana

    Thanks for sharing! I’m not a scotch person, or even a liquor person. About as deep as I go is Bushmill’s and that’s just because it’s what my family drinks. I have two or three drinks a year, so next time i decide that i’m gonna splurge, I will keep your recommendation in mind!

  • TheeLoveCats

    I used to be a promo girl and one of those coolest promos I got to do was be a whisky girl. I got the fastest “education” on whisky (I wish they actually took the time to teach me about it, instead of me looking like the dumb, hot girl who is trying too hard, but anyway!). My job was to give people free samples of three different kinds of whisky at a Celtic festival. Laphroiag was one of them! I cannot for the life of me remember the others right now. There was one that you were suggested to sip while eating dark chocolate and oh my goodness, the flavors just opened right up! It was sooo good.
    This was a great article. Nice work!