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Some Starter Scotches

December 3, 2010

It’s been all wine and malt liquor around these parts lately.  But after my post on Laphroiag a few weeks ago, there was a burning question about Scotch that I’ve been meaning to answer.  Given the chill in the air, and the present gift giving season, I think now is the perfect time to tackle this topic.

Ellen Whitby wrote:

It sounds like you are describing Laphroig as a drink for seasoned scotch drinkers and it would be hard for a non-scotch drinker to appreciate. If one wanted to try to appreciate Laphroig, it would seem to me that you would start with milder or more gentle scotches…not necessarily less flavorful but flavorful but with less intensity.  If you agree, could you suggest a few to get started? If you’d like, I’d be happy to have you join me as my “scotch coach”.

The short answer is a qualified yes, and I’m not saying that just because I want free Scotch.  Although being a “Scotch coach” sounds like an awesome job.  Mind you, the goal of this should not be about working your way up to anything, but rather enjoying and exploring one country’s particular take on a spirit.  The full exploration of fine Scotch whisky could easily take many lifetimes.

Scotch is just whisky from Scotland.  Whisky is just grain that’s been fermented, distilled, and then aged.  In Scotland that means it’s made from malted barley and aged in used barrels.  This is different from Bourbon, which is made from mostly corn and aged in new, charred oak barrels.

It would be difficult for me to describe any scotch as mild or gentle, since they are all distilled spirits.  And many people just do not enjoy sipping spirits that are unadulterated with ice, water, or other mixers.  I believe that is in part to blame on how they drink them.  Instead of taking a small sip, and letting it roll around the mouth and tongue, some people attempt to drink spirits like they were drinking water.

This hurts.  It hurts the drinker with a burning throat.  And it hurts the enthusiast, who witnesses a fine whisky being consumed but untasted.

Ice and water though are not out of the question.

Scotch on the rocks is not terribly Scottish, although it is how my father-in-law takes it.  The cold and the dilution of the melting ice actually make Scotch refreshing.  It’s unlikely, but true.  And in the heat of summer, I can’t find any fault in that.  But it also mutes many of the flavors and aromas lurking in the glass.  The most charitable thing I’ve heard a distiller say about the American practice of adding ice to their Scotch went something like, “If that’s how you enjoy it, you should continue to do so.  All I ask is that you try it once all by itself.”

A few drops of water can actually help open up a glass of Scotch.  Mrs. Fussy takes hers with a measured spoonful of water, which to her taste hits the sweet spot of taming the spirits intensity while preserving much of its character.  Although I suspect a master distiller would be disturbed by how much the she’s diluting the whisky.

It may make sense to start your scotch journey with blended scotches and not single malts.  Blended scotches are not inferior, but because they don’t carry the cachet of single malts, you can get better quality bottles for less money.  What you aren’t getting is the taste of one unique distillery.  But what you gain in return is the master blender’s honed craft for taking a bunch of beautiful malts and combining them into a harmonious creation.

This way you can really dip your toe in the water without spending $30-50 on a bottle of something you might hate.  Coming in under $20 a bottle are the below blended Scotch superstars.  There are even better blended Scotches at much higher prices, but those would be off strategy.

– Teacher’s Highland Cream blended Scotch whisky is a bit sweet and sherried.
– White Horse blended Scotch whisky is on the smokier side.

But if you want to go with the gusto, pretty much everyone I know cut their single malt Scotch whisky teeth on The Glenlivet 12 Year Old Speyside.  A bottle of it can be had for $30 or less and F. Paul Pacult calls it, “Speyside’s benchmark malt.”

The juggernaut of the mass-market single-malts is Macallan 12 Year Old Speyside, although over the years I have watched its price rise with its popularity.  I still remember when I could pick up a bottle for $30 on sale at BevMo!  Now it retails for around $50.

If you are willing to spend the money, and have some time to kill, I would highly suggest browsing the online selection at D & M.  They have great Scotch porn, among other things, like their Scotch club.  But by reading all of the detailed descriptions of the bottles for sale, a few may pop out and grab you.  Just be careful, because after looking at Scotches that cost hundreds of dollars, the ones that are only $75 seem like a steal.

Now get out there and start sipping.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. December 3, 2010 11:11 am

    Yo Dan!

    Lovely post and damn good advice. Well done!


  2. Mr. Sunshine permalink
    December 3, 2010 11:35 am

    It’s Laphroiag

    • December 3, 2010 1:06 pm

      Gah! Thank you. My editor must have missed it. Now it’s corrected.

  3. AddiesDad permalink
    December 3, 2010 11:36 am

    Speyside single malts may still be too “peaty” for palates new to scotch, at least in my most humble opinion. There are small scotch sample sets that are sometimes available in bigger liquor stores this time of year, which provide a range of scotches to try without breaking the bank. My other suggestion would be to go to a bar that is known for it’s single malt selection with a friend who may know a little something about single malts and try a couple. 9 Maple in Saratoga Springs has an incredible selection, and if you get there early enough, there’s an outside chance the bartender might be helpful in choosing a malt for you.

    If the reader wants to take the plunge, I’d suggest “young” bottles of Oban or Balvenie, both of which are quite light in flavor, but still carry the notes that differentiate single malt scotches, and can be found for under $70.

    • Doc permalink
      January 23, 2011 12:54 pm

      I second the endorsement of Balvenie 12yr. $35 at TJs, great deal. What about Famous Grouse? Anyone have any thoughts? I have tried it a few times and find it to be pretty good… I think it has Highland Park and Macallan in it… I’m not a devotee though for some reason.

  4. Ellen Whitby permalink
    December 3, 2010 11:49 am

    Thank you for that, Profusser I’m looking forward to the journey and we should make a plan for coaching. I will get started on my own but not this morning. Though I’m sure it’s 5:00 somewhere, here it’s not even 10 am.

    Is there a traditional time for drinking Scotch (before or after dinner, for example)? Or a traditional way to drink it (with or without a meal, with a cigar)?

    Maybe it will go well with latkes. I’ll let you know.

    Happy Hannukah.

  5. December 3, 2010 1:08 pm

    I’m a bad Scot and take my single malt with ice. One small bit at a time, so as not to dilute the Scotch too much, but I find it more drinkable with a little chill. Like Ellen, I seek out the “gentler” scotches … while I don’t mind a decent dose of peat or smoke, those that have too much or are fishy just have not endeared themselves to my palate yet. I find Oban consistently drinkable, and do enjoy McClellan.

    I had the pleasure of visiting the Glen Breton distillery in Nova Scotia. You can find their flagship single malt in the States and it’s pretty good. However, they did a batch of scotch that was finished in ice wine casks. You could only get it on location and it was a pretty penny, but amazing. Should you come across someone with a bottle, you should make him your friend. Sorry…we’ve finished ours.

  6. December 3, 2010 4:26 pm

    I like Talisker, even thought it is a bit pricey and has kind of “late 80’s business exec” kind of vibe, if that makes any sense.

    • December 3, 2010 5:12 pm

      I too enjoy Talisker (one of my favorites actually). It has THAT vibe? Really? I’m not sure I know what that mean. Please explain.


      • December 4, 2010 11:03 pm

        Oh, Talisker is my boyfriend’s favorite … I look forward to pointing out the late 80s exec vibe!

  7. December 3, 2010 5:55 pm

    Daniel — great article, as always. I think you post these just to bait us drinkers. :)

  8. Sophia Walker permalink
    December 3, 2010 8:16 pm

    I like bourbon myself…

  9. Louis M. permalink
    December 18, 2010 7:26 pm

    I’d recommend Bunnahabhain Single Malt 12 year as a great lower priced Single Malt. Its very light Islay with a hint of peat that can be had for under $50 a bottle.

    It really does make sense to work your way into some of the better Scotches. Until you’ve developed your taste you cant really appreciate something like a Macallan 25 Year Highland – and that would be like throwing your money away.

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