With the recent return of Will Ferrell’s scotch-drinking Anchorman character, Ron Burgundy, this is the perfect time to explore the basics of Scotch. Once referred to as “aquae vitae” or “water of life,” scotch is simply malted barley that is distilled in Scotland in column stills or in pot stills.
It’s a hot topic among folks who discuss the craft bourbons they enjoy in their place of repose or recreation. For some collectors, it’s an endless hunt for the rarest of spirits for their collection. Others simply sip their favorite and are quite content with that. Be it Old Charter, Jameson, Willian Larue Weller or Dewars. It’s made from barley, wheat, corn or rye distilled, aged, bottled, shipped and sold out of a box, off a shelf or in a drink at the bar. Each whisky varies according to region it is made in retaining those unique characteristics. These expressions represent generations of craft and are intimately linked with the history of the locations.
Single malts, composed primarily of barley, are made in a pot still and originate from one distillery. Blended or vatted malts are are mixtures of single malts from different distilleries. So too are blended Scotch whiskies, except that they also include grain whisky, which is composed of corn and wheat and made in a column still. The good whisky is always kept in a special place whether its in a barrel, on a rack, on a shelf, in a cabinet, or even in a special room. Because of growing interest, good whiskey is in high demand.
Scotland is traditionally divided into four regions: The Highlands, the Lowlands, Islay and Campbelltown. The Speyside region housing half of Scotland’s distilleries was once considered part of the Highlands. Today it is recognized officially as its own district. In the Lowland– only three ditilleries remain in operation including Auchentoshan. Speyside as stated has the largest number of distilleries with some eighty or so including The MacCallan, Balvenie, The Glenlivet and the Glenrothes. The Highland region has Aberfeldy, Dalmore, Oban and Glenmorangie. The Islands is an unrecognized subregion. Arran, Highland Park and Talisker are among the distilleries in this region. Campbelltown, once home to 300 distilleries now only has two or three and Springbank is the best known of thise distilleries with a family history steeped in tradition. And then there is the Islay region which has eight producing didtilleries including Ardbeg, Bruichladdich, Caol Ila, Kilchoman, Lagavulin and Laphroaig.
Just as the regions vary so do the characteristics of the Scotch from the different regions. Highland scotches tend to be light bodied delicate whiskies. Highland scotch, Glenmorangie is Scotland’s favored malt in it’s 10yr style. The distillers revolutionized barrel aging by finishing scotch in sherry casks. Now after their success, other distillers have followed suit. The speyside malts have been desribed as having the fruit qualities such as bananas, pear and apples. There is little peat and maybe just a whif of smoke. Cream soda and lemonade have been found in the these whiskies as they can be essentially sweet. Whereas the The lowland scotches are known for the flowery characteristics as they don’t use peated malt. Notes of heather, mint spice and pears are used to describe the central lowlands scotch- Aberfeldy. They have sweeter characteristics but are not typically as sweet as the Speyside malts. The finish on these scotches such as the Auchentoshan is dry and therefore perfect for an aperitif. Smoke is is the predominant characteristic of the Islay scotches. Islay scotches vary from the northside to the southside which houses the peatiest of producers Lagavulin and Laphroig. These scotches therefore pair perfectly with a cigar. The Islay scotches from the Northside like Kilchomen still retain a bit of smoke but are not quite as robust as the southside scotches. Campbelltown scotches are full bodied and full flavored sometimes being described as having a seamist quality. Springbank can become raisiny and rich with age.
Take time to enjoy the wide variety of scotches. Don’t turn your nose up at blends such as Dewars and Famous Grouse. These are good blends that you can count on to be found at most bars. With a little bit of research we know that Famous Grouse is made from MacCallan and owned by the same company. Dewars is actually made from Aberfeldy scotch. Johnny Walker makes a fine blended whisky. Many may not know that the famous gold label is made from Clynelish scotch. The myth and lore that comes with many of these whiskies often makes them more desirable and even more collectable. Often times you will be surprised and delighted to learn more about what you are drinking no matter what it is. Hopefully this abbreviated scotch primer is encouragement to go out and do some research. It can be entertaining as well as educational!