Author’s note: This was originally written months ago. I have decided that the time is right to post this before MM sneaks in and fills the front page with more recipes (who ever heard of recipes on a cooking blog?!?)
While on a flight to California for the ultimate in geeky conferences (Blizzcon), I decided to try to explain a fascination that I have had for years. While I have been geographically close, I have never been to Scotland, nor do I have (as far as I know) any Scottish blood flowing through my veins. But since I have been a teenager, I have had a fascination with Scotch Whiskey.
That is not to suggest that I started drinking Scotch as a teenager, because I didn’t. Heck, I didn’t hardly drink anything (Dad, I hope you are reading this, and believe me). As a teenager, I actually had a part in a play which mentions “Chivas Regal” as a sign of “making it” in life, as in “sitting back and sipping Chivas”. I always had this picture in my head of a dignified gentleman, sitting in a high backed leather chair with a small string quartet playing Mozart in the background as the man sipped a small glass of Scotch, smirking, very pleased with himself, all the while.
My first experience with Chivas Regal, a blended Whiskey (not from a single malt, more later), was not the idyllic situation that I had planned. I poured a glassful (perhaps a water glass was too big) of Chivas and took a big gulp. Up until that point in my life I had tasted pretty normal liquors. Dr. McGillicuty’s, Jaegermiester, Goldschlager, Beer, Wine Coolers, etc. are pretty normal upper teens and lower 20’s fare, right? But, I can not possibly describe the burning and coughing and hacking that followed my first taste of Scotch. If any of you have thought, “I like Rum and Cokes… I should just try Rum straight up!” you may have experienced something close. The fact was, I HATED it. I thought to myself, “If this is making it, I don’t want to.” That first bottle of Chivas, minus that virginal glassful, lasted me many, many moons after I first tasted it. But so powerful is memory that I couldn’t get my original, utopian, vision of what Scotch was supposed to represent in my life out of my head.
Then I discovered the real truth. The key to unlocking the secrets of Scotch: 7-up and ice! (Or, Sprite if you prefer.) These wonderful add-ons to my Chivas tastings prevented (or allivated, a much more desired effect) the burn of the alcohol of the whiskey, while sweetening it and making it much more palatable. For those of you, like me, who feel strongly that you have become an adult (finally!), and that you should be able to enjoy sip of Whiskey (Bourbon, Irish, Scotch or Kentucky) without gasping for breath for 10 minutes afterward, try a little 7-up and a couple of ice cubes with it. Things will proceed much more smoothly.
Ok.. Here’s the basics that you need to know about Scotch Whiskeys (as a beginner myself, I would never try to advise a true connoisseur of the libation, I let a wiki do that… http://www.wikihow.com/Taste-Single-Malt-Scotch):
1) There are, to an American, two different types of Scotch Whiskey. The first, and most common, is the “blended” Scotch. Dewers and Chivas are two examples of a blended Scotch. The second type, while much more pricey and snooty, are not that different. They are called Single-malt Scotches. The difference between these two is pretty easy to distinguish. Blended whiskeys come from more than one different kind of malt and/or barrel of whiskey. Single malts are made with a single malt (usually grown nearby) and casked all at once, however there can be flavor differences even between two different casks (again, more later). The biggest thing to remember about point one is that Single-malt Scotches are usually MUCH more expensive and usually have a defining characteristic that make them specifically tasty for a certan palate. Blended Whiskeys are usually a good place for beginners, smoother and not as full of character, and then you can move into single-malts as you decide what you like and don’t.
2) There are about as many different kinds of Scotches as there are Scotsmen. Actually… There may be more Scotches (especially if you include butterscotch). Scotland itself recognizes 6 different varieties of single-malt Scotch. These are based on where, in Scotland, the Whiskey is made. Here’s a tip: If you are new to Scotches, avoid Speyside or Islay scotches, unless you have a weird craving for sucking on bandaids (I kid you not!). The reason for all of the variations? Malt, peat and mixture. When you mix different malts with different peats and waters, the outcome in favors can be varied from the aformentioned bandaids to the smoky salitness of the sea. The Scots also have this talent for taking used things, in this case, barrels, and re-suing them, and potentially making them better. What they do is take wine or sherry or even bourbon casks and fill it with the new Scotch. These all wood barrels can’t help themselves, they let out some small bits of their previous inhabitants flavor. So you get sherry oak notes in the tasting, or you will taste the chocolatey goodness of a fine Pinot in your Scotch. These casks become standards that also give you different tastes. This is the point where you have to buy many different scotches and see what you like and don’t like and start doing your research to see what else you might like. Drinking Scotch begets drinking more Scotch. Consider yourself warned!
3) More expensive scotches do not mean better scotches. Remember that bandaid thing I mentioned above? That comment came from the fact that I bought and tried a couple of Scotches that I really thought were going to be something special because they were priced that way. Spending $75/bottle on a Scotch is a good way to drink a bottle that you think you have to like, but don’t. Then again… When I was younger and more easily impressed with my accomplishments, I passed some certification exams and obtained my MCSE from Microsoft. (This was back in the NT 4.0 days for those of you who know what that means). After getting my cert, I decided to reward myself with a bottle of 25 year-old MacCallan. At the time, that bottle cost $175. So, how good does something have to be to warrant spending $175/bottle? Well. This bottle was so TOTALLY worth it! One of the bestest (note: do not use this word at wine or Scotch tastings), smoothest, mellowest, yet with character, liquors I have ever drank. This was before the distillery was bought out by Japanese investors, which hasn’t degraded the flavor, merely changed it and the price. That bottle lasted me over a year and unfortunately, it was not shared with my friends. Mostly because my friends didn’t want to appreciate the sublte flavors and texture, or like Citizen Chef, has yet to meet a Scotch they liked. But also because I hadn’t realized the cardinal rule of all Whiskeys, which is that they are much better shared with friends. Was that bottle worth the much higher price than $40-$50/bottle of most single malts? You bet your sweet bippy it was. I still rank that beverage as one of the best that I have ever had the honor of tasting. Does that mean you have to spend $175/bottle in order to enjoy scotch. Not hardly. Find yourself a good cheap “house” brand and go for it. There is no shame in getting yourself a merry little buzz on Dewer’s at $15/bottle instead of buying the 30 year-old MacCallan or other high faulutin’ brand.
Long story short… Buy yourself a fine Scotch and enjoy. Just remember the basics. Good Scotch should be enjoyed and shared. It should not be a “Bataan death march” for your, or your friends’ mouth and throat. Add some soda if you need to. Ice also helps. A little water is often used, even by Scotsmen. But in its purest form, a good Scotch in a nice glass (you don’t have to use crystal or anything fancy, but avoid plastic or paper for this!) really does help you feel like you have “made it!”