What little I know about Scotch

It is a lazy weekend at stately Todd manor.  I’ll head over to catch the game with Dad in a few hours.  I’ve had no book to read this weekend as my Kindle is still stuck somewhere beneath my bed.  As a result I’ve watched a lot of tv and movies.  Nothing to write home about in either category.

I’ve mentioned scotch several times in the blog, but I’ve never talked about scotch.  Funny that.  I am still very much a scotch novice and I certainly wouldn’t call myself a connoisseur.  But I do like drinking scotch and I have some favorites.  What I don’t know and haven’t tried could fill volumes.

My preference is single malt Scotches.  The blends I have tried have not appealed to me at all.  As a result I have not tried many blends.  It is entirely possible there are blends out there which I would love, but for the nonce I am still focusing on trying the single malts.

Making Scotch

Scotch is an aged distillation of lightly fermented malted barley.  There are a million rules as to what makes a legal Scotch.  The major rules that I know of are: must be made entirely in Scotland, rules about alcohol content during the various stages of creation and at bottling time, rules about the ingredients (barley, water, yeast and caramel colouring) and rules about aging.

The malting process is the labour intensive part and most breweries don’t malt their own barley.  To be cost effective you need to do lots and lots at a time.  So there are big malters in Scotland.  The various distilleries send their barley and specific instructions on how it should be malted and the malted product is sent back to them.

So barley is soaked in water and either allowed to germinate or to reach the point of germination.  Then it is spread out on the malting floor and dried using wood smoke.  This process requires the barley to be turned frequently, the smoke tended and a large area to spread out the barley.

The result is sent back to the distilleries.  They add make a barley flour and add hot water.  The next stage is to add yeast and allow to ferment.  Finally this is distilled either two (for most Scotches) or three times (for some Lowland – maybe others).

The product is then aged in casks – typically used bourbon casks for eight years (or more).  Then it is diluted to the proper alcohol content, the caramel may be added for colour (apparently this doesn’t change the taste) and it is bottled.  Some scotches are moved to different types of casks near the end to provide a finish (like a sherry cask to give a sherry finish).  In my experience that makes a yummy scotch.

There are lots of little tweaks each distiller makes that produces the variety of tastes in the scotches.

Drinking Scotch

Any way you enjoy your scotch is fine by me.  But it is fun to make a little production of it.  I like my scotch neat, with a little water or with two cubes of ice.  Whenever I try a new scotch I try it neat first.  The next time I have it I try it with a little water.  The idea with the water is that is “awakens” the scotch and causes it to release additional aromas and tastes.  The more complex a scotch the more I find it benefits from a bit of water – but I miss a lot of the various notes.

I have a horrible sense of smell.  I can never identify anything about a scotch other than inherent scotchiness by smell.  So while I always take a sniff it never does anything for me.

I do like to hold the scotch up to the light.  They come in a variety of colours from a light gold to a dark, almost opaque bronze.  Some seem to glow in the light, but that might just be me romanticizing it.  In general the older the scotch the darker.  A scotch finished in a dark cask (like sherry) also picks up a deeper colour – a sherry finish has a sure reddish hue.

It is also fun to swirl it in the glass.  Some scotch behaves like water and just sloshes around.  Some is oily and clings to the side of the glass and then drains back down in little fingers – that is cool.

Then you drink it.  Generally there are three to four tastes.  The moment just before it hits your mouth I get the aroma finally a bit.  Then the first shock of it.  Then it, I dunno, matures in your mouth.  Finally there is the aftertaste.  Now I suck at picking up notes here too.  I look for the level of smokiness, the level of burn, the level of warmth, any sweetness and any saltiness or medicinally taste.  Burn is that shock that gets overacted in any movie.  Warmth is that sensation of heat that fills your mouth and later your chest as you swallow.  I think they are different.  A “smooth” scotch would have little burn and little aftertaste, but lots of warmth.

What I like

There are three scotch regions in Scotland: Lowland, Highland and Islay.  Each produces scotches with different flavours.  I like scotches from all three, but I am fondest of the Islays and least fond of the Highland.

Islay scotches are known for their peatiness and the saltiness.  They are often pretty intense and shocking and they are in general my favorite.  I don’t really like young Bowmore, but everything else is grand.  My favorite to date is the Laphroaig.  Yummy.  There are only eight different Islay distilleries.  So it is possible to try them all.  I haven’t done that yet.

Lowlands has only three distilleries.  Auchentoshan (figuring out how to pronounce the scotch names is part of the fun) is my favorite.  I’d also recommend it as a starting scotch for anyone.  It is light and easy, but still interesting and fun.

Highlands is sort of everything else and there are lots and lots of them.  It has sub-divisions – Speyside, Cambletown (both official) and Island (unofficial).  In general, I’m not a fan of the Speysides.  They taste only scotchy to me and are devoid of interest.  They are also the largest number of distelleries.  I would say I actively dislike Glen Livet and Cardhu and I think Glenfiddich is vastly over-rated.  All Speysides.  I have not tried many of the other Speysides as a result.

I quite like Isle of Jura (a Island scotch) and Glen Garioch is a recent favorite (a Highland).   Double-plus good on both of them.

But even within region there is a wide array of taste between distilleries.  It might be possible to like a distillery, but none of its neighbours.

The next big factor is age.  In general I like older scotches.  Now older means more expensive, but it doesn’t necessarily mean better.  The older a scotch gets the more alcohol evaporates during ageing so it produces less scotch.  Plus the cost of having them in a warehouse for 16-whatever years is expensive.  The longer a scotch ages the more flavour it picks up from the cask.  In time this will overwhelm the original malt taste of the scotch.

In theory every scotch has a point (usually in the 10-13 year range) where those two factors come into balance.  For my own preference, I like to to be about 3-4 years older than that.

Finally there is the finish.  I’ve only tried a very few sherry finished scotches.  They are all very yummy, but with a decidedly different character than a scotch from the same distillery that does not have a finish.  I approve and want to try more…

OK – that took a long time to write.  Time to get ready to go watch the game.  Go, um, Steelers?


4 thoughts on “What little I know about Scotch

  1. Craig says:

    The Octamore I had the other week was spectacular but its a fairly specific flavour, if you like peat this one is great. It smells like a delicious tire fire.
    The lowland scotches take a finish much better then any of the others which isn’t surprising being milder.
    My favourite is Oban … when I can find it.

    • I got my brother and my father a bottle of Oban each for Christmas. It is very nice, but I wouldn’t rank it as a favorite.

      For everyone else, Craig has used that ‘delicious tire fire’ line three times to describe the Octamore that I’ve heard now… It is a good line.

      • Craig says:

        I only come up with one maybe 2 witty lines a year and then I flog it all year long.

        Oban has a bit of a story to it, Sue bought me a bottle of it for our second anniversary and it was the first bottle of real scotch I ever owned.

        • Good story! Good choice on your wife’s part too.

          Oddly my first real scotch was a Laphroiag, which is my favorite. But I have no great story about getting it.

          And don’t sell your wit short. As my blog demonstrates I can only aspire to be witty twice a year.

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