The world of Mad Men, the now-famous TV series chronicling the lives of advertising men in 1960s America, has made reminded us all that a good scotch whisky is sometimes an absolutely necessary part of the work day. For his part, Don Draper is the very image of whisky as a man’s drink, with untold depths of complexity.
Called the most organoleptically complex spirit in the world by famed whisky writer Charles MacLean, whisky is amazingly popular worldwide, with single malt scotch in particular drawing the attention of connoisseurs. However, the very complexity of the spirit makes it very difficult indeed to figure out how to select a good bottle of scotch.
Below we present five essential steps in selecting a good bottle of scotch. It won’t make you a connoisseur but it will show you how to get there.
KNOW YOUR SPIRIT
- There are two prominent spellings for whisky, either whisky or whiskey. Whiskey is typically used by Irish and American distilleries, while whisky is used by Scottish, Canadian and Japanese distilleries.
- Scotch is strictly produced from malted barley (other grains may be added) in a distillery in Scotland.
- There are three main types of scotch: single malt, single grain and blended
- For single malt or single grain whiskies, the word single refers to the distillery, not the type of malt or grain used
- While malt whiskies use malted barley, grain whiskies typically combine both grains and malt.
- A blended scotch is the combination of two or more single malt or single grain whiskies
- There are three definitions of blended scotch – blended malt scotch is a combination of two or more single malts; blended grain scotch is a combination of two or more single grains; blended scotch is a combination of both single malts and single grains
KNOW THE DISTILLERY OR BRAND
- Like wine, knowledge of individual distilleries and their special properties is essential.
- For example, malting, where the barley is mixed with water to start the fermentation process, is done in-house by only a few distilleries
- Malt scotch involves a double distillation process, although some distilleries introduce more.
- Grain scotch involves a single or continuous distillation process.
- The size and shape of the stills used by a distillery are believed to affect the final bottled product, with distilleries taking pains to replicate their original stills down to the precise specifications when replacing old stills or adding new stills.
KNOW THE REGIONS
- Scotch can be geographically divided into Islay, Highland, Lowland and Campbelltown varieties.
- These regions only indicate the location of the distilleries. It does not mean anything in relation to malting and maturation.
- In relation to blended scotch (close to 90% of this spirit globally), the notion of ‘origin’ is not applied because blends offer a taste of all of Scotland.
- Geography can speak to the character of single distillery scotch. Islay malts are famously peaty, for example.
KNOW THE AGE
- By law, scotch must be aged a minimum of three years and must be made with water, malted barley and yeast
- Most of the intense flavors associated with scotch come from the aging process, specifically from the type of wood casks used to age the whisky.
- Aging whisky takes place in secondhand casks, typically sherry, bourbon and wine casks. Most standard blends have an average age of about five to nine years.
- Famous brands such as Johnnie Walker, Chivas Regal, Dewar’s and the like age their blended whiskies after blending.
- Most malts are sold between their 10th and 20th years.
- The age of the scotch is normally indicated on the label. For blends, the average age of the individual whiskies are not listed.