BY DUNCAN CHAISANGUANTHUM
“Of all the spirits mankind has distilled, refined and enhanced from nature’s huge store of goodness, Scotch Whisky is the noblest.”
A fine sentiment, that, courtesy of the unbiased folks at the Scotch Whisky Association, the Scotch makers’ P.R. outfit. While we prefer bourbon as a daily libation (if you don’t drink bourbon daily, you really should), Scotch is the undeniable status king of the whiskey world. As incipient presumed-people-of-taste, you should know a thing or two about Scotch; thus we present a primer and a few reviews.
First, the basics: all Scotch must come from Scotland and be aged in a cask for at least three years. In fact, most single-malts (explained below) are aged far longer (usually a minimum of seven years).
Second, know the difference between blended and single-malt Scotches. Blended whiskeys, as the name suggests, are blended with whiskeys from multiple distilleries. Many famous whiskey names — Johnnie Walker, Dewar’s, Chivas Regal, Jack Daniel’s and Maker’s Mark — are blends. Single-malts are generally stronger, possess more salient flavor characteristics and are generally considered superior although there are some premium blends that are as highly regarded (e.g., Johnnie Walker Blue Label). Everything we tasted is single-malt Scotch.
Third, appreciate the key factors of making single-malt Scotch: geography, the oak used in the casks and the length of time the Scotch ages in the cask. Geography is important chiefly because it affects the raw materials that go into making the Scotch. For example, on Islay (“eye-la”), a southwestern island of Scotland, the ground is primarily made up of peat, and the water runs brown with it. Laphroaig, one of the Islay single-malts we review, uses that peat-laden water in every step of its distillation process, making its Scotch exceptionally peaty. The oak used in the casks is important because Scotch, prior to going into the casks, is almost colorless and lacks a good deal of the flavor it will eventually have. The Scotch leaches flavor and color from the casks over time; thus the time in cask is also important. Casks are often made of “whiskey oak,” or from casks already used to age other alcohol, such as sherry (the Macallan, a great single malt, is aged in both sherry and whiskey oak casks, giving it remarkable color and mellow flavor).
Fourth and finally, do your single-malt tasting properly. Many people take their Scotch neat (i.e. no water, no ice). While neat is a fine way to taste Scotch, there is a broad consensus that adding at least a few drops of cold, pure water is the best way to draw out the flavors of a single-malt. Avoid ice altogether unless you are a complete wimp or are drinking to refresh rather than to savor. And by all means, nose a single-malt. Single-malt tasting is largely about the nose, particularly if you take your Scotch neat – there is simply too high an alcohol content for your taste buds to experience the full subtleties of single-malts.
Laphroaig (“la-froyg”) 10-Year ($45.99): The 10-year Laphroaig was the incumbent favorite. Extraordinarily smooth with a nutty, peaty flavor. The smoky flavors especially predominate. Savor and the exceptionally long finish will reward you.
Bowmore 12-Year ($39.99): Somewhere in between the Laphroaig and Oban in terms of power. Smoky, medicinal flavors. Hints of ginseng and herbs. Best value of the group.
Oban 14-Year ($49.99): Lovely, flowery nose. Michelle Glassman concurred, noting, “The Oban does not smell as horrible as the rest.” Extraordinarily mellow with light, uninteresting flavors of smoke and flowery herbs. Slight tendency towards bitterness but some found it sweet.
Glenlivet 12-Year ($49.99): Very smooth and mellow with fruity, flowery hints. Rule of thumb: If it has “Glen” in the name, it’s decent (yes, we take all our cues from Swingers). Widely viewed as a good starter single-malt.
Bruichladdich (“brook-laddie”) 10-Year ($49.99): A very popular Islay single malt. Neither exceptionally good or bad. Slightly sweet with smoky flavors.
The Verdict: We love Laphroaig, with Bowmore a close runner-up. Mike’s caveat: Laphroaig was his introduction to single-malts so he has a sentimental attachment (isn’t he adorable?).