By Delin Watmough
Often times when I tell people that I'm a Scotch drinker, the response is “how can you drink that vile stuff?” and to tell the truth, I thought the same thing the first time I tried it.
It was at an informal New Year's Eve party at the small dealership I worked at in Picture Butte where one of my customers brought in a bottle (I think it was Famous Grouse), offered me a drink, and not knowing any better, I took it. Well, after I recovered from drinking what I thought was turpentine, I swore to never touch the stuff again. I think most people have had similar experiences or have had the misfortune to accept a sip out of my flask (ask Derek about that story). Anyways, a few years later a co-worker who knew about my passion for craft beer (another blog completely) told me about a tasting program at a local liquor store. So, not being one to turn down free alcohol, I went. Boy, was that a mistake LOL.
I walked in and a fellow with a thick Scottish accent wearing a kilt was behind the bar. He was telling people about Scotch, explaining the different types, regions, methods and after tasting a couple that he recommended, I was hooked. I spent the next 4 months going to the program every Friday night and learning everything I could about this amazing liquid from Scotland. Right after that, I had the luck to move to Killam, met Karen and Ian, and attended my first Robbie Burns where I met Tom and Blake, who both helped fire up my passion for whisky that continues to this day.
Anyways enough about me, you all want to know about whisky.
Whisky, or Scotch, was first mentioned in the Exchequer rolls of 1495 and is mostly distilled from malted barley. However, commercial distilleries started introducing whiskies made from wheat and rye in the late 1800s. All whiskies labeled as Scotch must be made in Scotland and aged in oak barrels for a minimum of 3 years. Originally known as “aqua vitae,” or water of life, there are five distinct categories:
Single Malt Scotch Whisky
Single Grain Scotch Whisky
Blended Malt Scotch Whisky
Blended Grain Scotch Whiskey, and
Blended Scotch Whisky.
The 2 most common categories are Single malt and blended Scotch Whisky. They are also the source of some heated conversations debating about which is better.
In addition to that, there are 5 regions of Scotland that produce whisky. Originally, there were only 4 though, due to the large number of distilleries there. The Speyside region was added in 2014 by the Scotch Whiskey Association.
The Lowlands – Known for whiskies with soft, smooth characteristics and a floral nose and sweet finish.
Speyside – Gets its name from the river, Spey, and has the largest number of distilleries than any other region and has many different flavor profiles from rich and textured to sweet, caramel, fruity and spicy.
The Highlands – Being the largest of the regions, this area is known for fruity, sweet and spicy malts but includes a sub-region of the islands which produce many fine single malts that truly run the flavor spectrum. This region does not include the Island of Islay, which is its own region (personal note, I am a fan of most of the Island whiskies due to the unique varieties and complex flavors they tend to have)
Campbeltown – Once home to over 30 distilleries, it now only has 3 and produces Scotch with fruity, peaty, smoky sweet flavors and has been jokingly referenced to as “flavor of wet dog”.
Islay – Saving the best for last, Islay whiskies tend to be full of flavor and character with heavy peat smoke and iodine. There's also a bit of sea salt and nuttiness due to the fact most of the water has peat in it. The malt is also normally dried over a fire of peat. These whiskies tend to be either loved or hated, but I do not recommend that new scotch drinkers start out with a Islay as it can be a little over powering (again, just ask Derek).
Single Malt vs Blended Whisky
Purists would have everyone believe that single malt is the only way to go. However, there are a lot of excellent blends on the market today (there are also a lot of bad ones, hence the reputation). Discounting a whisky just because it is a blend is actually a disservice to yourself. We had an excellent blend at Robbie Burns a couple years ago called Monkey Shoulder that was very popular, and I personally really enjoy the Kirkland 12 among others like Casks of Islay, and Smoke head.
Now, a lot is being made of the age of the whisky. Yes, it is true that the older a whisky is the smoother and more complex it becomes. Whisky stops aging once it is bottled, so if you have a 12 year old whisky that you bought back in 1969, you still have a 12 year old whisky. But, just because you can’t afford a bottle of 25 or 30 year old whisky does not mean you will never be able try such a fantastic offering. Tastings, like we have at our Robbie Burns Dinner and our Gathering of the Clans Highland Festival give everyone a chance to try things they normally would not be able to for a fraction of the cost. However, with the recent popularity of Scotch around the world, distillers are moving away from age statements, and instead are trying to produce those complexities that aged whisky has using other methods.
All this being said, distillers are becoming very creative, using many different methods and barrels and blends to produce a myriad of flavors and complexities that really truly boggles the mind. Wine, Rum, Sherry, Bourbon and Port barrels are being used to impart the flavor profiles of those spirits and smaller barrels are being used to give more contact of the liquid with the wood in order to enhance flavor with a shorter aging time. This results in so many different flavors and types that there truly is a Scotch for everyone. The trick is just finding it.
I am looking forward to seeing you all, and helping you find the Scotch that is right for you, because the best Scotch in the world is the one you enjoy the most. Whisky, like life, is not about the destination but about the journey, and the people you share it with.
May your days be long and your glasses full.