Nothing else holds the promise of single malt scotch. Aromatic peat and heather rise from the golden liquor, which has waited in a cask for more than a decade to take its first breath of air. It is the perfect drink for a cold winter night, and it is a gift sure to warm the heart of any whiskey lover this holiday season.
The term "whiskey" comes from Scotland and Ireland, derived from the Gaelic word "usquebaugh," which means water of life. However, just as bourbon is a whiskey that can only come from Kentucky, scotch is a whiskey that can only come from Scotland.
(Scotch and bourbon are both whiskey, but there are some whiskeys that are neither bourbon nor scotch. For instance, there is Canadian whiskey like Crown Royal or Irish whiskey like Jameson's.)
In addition to coming from Scotland, scotch must be made from malted barley, which is barley that has begun to germinate. The barley is dried, usually over fires containing peat. This rich, organic matter comes from Scotland's many bogs and gives scotch much of its flavor. The dried malt is then soaked in water and allowed to ferment before it is distilled in copper pot stills. Finally, the scotch is aged in charred oak casks for at least three years, which further concentrates the flavor.
Blended scotches like Chivas Regal or Johnnie Walker are fine for beginners or dilettantes, but true scotch lovers insist on single malts. The difference is that a blended scotch contains scotch from many different distilleries or even whiskey made from corn or wheat. Different batches are mixed to produce a "house" style, which is usually generic if not downright bland. Single malts, by contrast, must come from only a single distillery, each of which cultivates a distinct character intimately tied to the land. There is a profound difference between scotches from the cold, craggy highlands and those from low islands like Islay (pronounced "eye-la") and Skye.
One of the most approachable single malt scotches is Dalwhinnie. It comes from the Scottish highlands, and it is aged in casks for 15 years before it's bottled. It has a heather, floral bouquet with the slightest hint of peat and wild honey. On the palate, Dalwhinnie is rich but smooth, with just enough sweetness to moderate the power of the liquor.
Oban is another highland single malt from the west, near Islay. After 14 years in casks, it has a powerful smokiness that complements the earthy wealth of the region's peat. There is the same flowery aroma found in Dalwhinnie, but Oban also has a tantalizing hint of the sea, with a bit of saltiness and seaweed.
Talisker is the only scotch to come from the Isle of Skye, which is Scotland's largest, most northern island. The volcanic rock of the island contributes to Talisker's pungent, smoky aroma and its peppery flavor. The 10 years Talisker spends in casks adds to its smokiness, which is further enhanced by the region's rich peat.
For the bold, nothing compares to Lagavulin, which comes from the island of Islay. Islay scotch is known for creating peaty whiskey, but Lagavulin has a deep peatiness that sets it apart. The flavor is rugged, with the warmth of a campfire and a powerful combination of sweetness and smoke. Lagavulin spends 16 years in casks before it is bottled. This is not a scotch for beginners, but for a scotch lover eager to try something new, Lagavulin is sure to delight.
If you've never tried scotch before, this holiday season is the perfect time to experience Scotland's finest. Single malts should never be mixed with anything but a dribble of water, or perhaps a single ice cube. You might want to have a glass of water on the side, because scotch is full of flavor but also quite strong.
If you're drinking scotch at a pub, you can order it "neat," and it will come without any ice or water. If you'd like a glass of water with your scotch, tell the bartender that you'd like "water back." Some pubs do not offer many fine scotches, but others, like Fenian's, have a wide selection including all of the scotches described above.
All of the scotches above cost between $45 and $70 per bottle, or between $6 and $12 at a pub. Like fine wines, single malt scotches cost a bit more than their inferior cousins, but the price is well worth it. This holiday season, sit back with a glass of single malt, and let the aroma and flavor of Scotland soothe and satisfy your spirit. You'll see why they call it the water of life.
After "Sideways," and this article on Scotch, my mouth and mind are ready to delve into the full spectrum of tastings. I appreciate your ability to translate from the palate to the page, and look forward to reading more from you. It would be fun to having a pairing column, where you compare complimentary tastes and describe how they harmonize. Outstanding!