Few spirits elicit more devotion, praise and disagreement than scotch. The world is generally divided into two camps: Those who love the robust flavor of scotch, and those who grimace. (We pity the latter fools.)
In order to get a better idea of what goes into the making of our favorite blended scotches and single malts, we spoke with Johnnie Walker
whisky master Andrew Ford as well as Mark Reynier of the Bruichladdich
distillery in Islay. Under their tutelage we gleaned quite a bit of scotch wisdom. Not the least of which was Reynier telling us that on Islay, locals serve a dram of scotch to their morning guests instead of tea, which we see as a nice alternative to pouring Coors Light on their Fruit Loops.
Read on to learn about the glory of peat, the importance of good wood, and how you too can become a renowned whisky master.
The Basics: Malt and Grain
Single malt scotch's ingredients are water, yeast and malted barley -- and nothing else. As Johnnie Walker whisky master Andrew Ford explains, the barley is dried with what's called peat, a "decayed vegetation material that we dug out of the ground." (Sounds delightful, right?) It's the amount of peat that determines a scotch's flavor. The adjectives "smoky" and "peaty" are synonymous. We suggest using the latter to sound like a true expert. If you can affect a Scottish brogue while doing so, all the better.
Blended scotches -- which comprise about 90 percent of scotches on the market -- combine malt varieties with grain varieties. "It's quite a similar process, only we can use cereals other than barley," Ford explains. That traditionally means wheat, although corn is occasionally used. "It produces a very light spirit, not nearly as much flavor as the traditional malt spirit. No smokiness, very light flavors of the cereal. The simple idea is we'll blend the very light spirit with the flavored [malt] spirits and create something that has the best of both worlds."
Blended or Single Malt?
You might have a pompous uncle who swears by single malts, neat, while bemoaning how déclassé blended scotches are. Ignore him -- he's just confused. Sure, a full-bodied Lagavulin will put hair on your chest and fire in your breath, but blended scotches are an equal treat. "I think a lot of people move to single malts but then also realize that blended whisky is a great drink, and come back to it," says Ford. "I know I did that."
The cask in which scotch is matured is one of the most important parts of the process. Many scotches follow a strict recipe, passed down over the years; each bottle is blended using a certain proportion of malt and grain whiskeys, each aged in different types of casks.
Many scotch casks are imported from America's bourbon producers. U.S. regulations state that bourbon casks can only be used once; the casks are shipped to Scotland, where the scotch industry can take advantage of their residual "sweet vanilla, coconut" taste during the aging process. Additional scotch casks, made of European oak, come from the Spanish sherry industry. This provides additional layers of taste sensation, or "mouthfeel," if we're being fancy.
"[It's] a very rich flavor. Sometimes we say rich fruits, dried fruits, raisins, sherry-like flavors, and a long finish," explains Ford. "They really coat your mouth. Some people love sherry cask whisky, and they'll buy single malts that have been in sherry casks."
The majority of blended scotch, however, comes from "refill" casks. Those are casks that have come from their bourbon or sherry beginnings, been used to age one round of scotch, and then are reused for a second or third scotch aging. "That matures the whisky gently, without imparting wood flavors."
Booze Geography (for Peat's Sake)
Different regions of Scotland
are known for producing different types of scotch. As Ford admits, many people used to ascribe these differences to geography, climate, water or humidity. This is generally a load of romantic bull; the regional differences are a matter of taste, trend, and history. "The lowlands of Scotland -- Edinburgh, Glasgow and the region roundabout there tend to produce light malt whiskeys that have flavors of hay or grass, sometimes slightly fruity," he says. "Then we have the highlands: they tend to be a bit more robust -- more character, sometimes hits of smoke in there." Speyside is in the highlands, but constitutes its own region, centered around the river Spey. "They have a style which is often fruity: apples, pears."
You should know about Islay
, from where many heavily peated single malts hail. Islay ("eye-lah") is home to big guns like Lagavulin or Laphroaig. Bruichladdich produces a wide range of scotch flavors, including Octomore, the most "heavily peated" in the world. Mark Reynier explains: "It [peatiness] is measured in ppm (parts per million of phenols) in the malted barley. Barley malted with hot air will have just 2 or 3 ppm. Octomore
, distilled at Bruichladdich, is currently 140 ppm. Laphroaig is about 35-40 ppm." That results in a potent, 127-proof spirit, and a paradox -- a scent that can burn your nose from across the room, yet is still palatable and smooth to sip. (Or as Bruichladdich puts it, "an iron fist in a velvet glove.")
Scotch in Style
How you drink scotch is up to you, but there's certain rough rules to follow. "Younger" blended scotches -- not necessarily a synonym for "cheaper," but close enough -- are best for mixing cocktails. Ford says that Johnnie Walker Red, and even Black, are both fine to pair with cola or ginger ale. But when you graduate to Blue (which retails at $200-$300 a bottle), it's best to go it alone. That's not just because it'd be silly to douse extremely expensive scotch in mixers. "It doesn't work very well," Ford says. "As you get more and more wood influences -- the wood comes through in these highly matured whiskys -- the mouthfeel when you add mixers is not really very desirable to many people."
On the Rocks
Drinking scotch "on the rocks" won't elicit many gasps, but Bruichladdich's Reynier cautions against it: "Ice delivers a thermal shock that particularly deadens the extra flavor compounds of naturally bottled single malts, the flavor compounds usually removed by chill-filtration -- a commercial homogenization procedure for most large-volume drinks." (If you missed the subtle hint, Reynier's own brand doesn't practice chill-filtration.)
And for the sake of all that's sacred, don't ever ponder a single malt cocktail. Mark Reynier groans at the horror: "Unless you mean a 'cocktail' of Bruichladdich 18 and still spring water."
Mark Reynier flat out says that scotch is not for mealtime: "Wine goes best with food." But Ford disagrees, and some of his suggestions had our mouths watering. "Often foods that have got quite a lot of fat content work well," he says. "The alcohol cuts through them."
From M.I.T. to Scotland?
Ford notes that many whisky masters arrive in their vocation from a science background. The rest is a combination of perseverance and chance. "All of us in the blending team kind of stumbled into it," he says. "If you've got an idea of volumes, strengths, flavors -- that helps. What you need is a good palette and a good nose. Most of all, you need an interest in scotch. It's not about having a superhuman palette or a superhuman nose, [but rather] educating it so you know exactly what you're looking for and have a good vocabulary of how to describe flavors."
So, if (like so many people) you are a currently unemployed scotch aficionado, it might be time to book a plane ticket. Says, Ford, "The way to do it is come to Scotland, get a job with a scotch whisky company, and just hang in there. Eventually, if you've got a good nose and you're interested, you'll move in that direction."
Looking for more expert advice? Check out some of our recent columns.
Ron White Wants You To Drink Scotch Like A Man
The Gentleman's Guide To Being A Classy Drunk