For those kilties who just received their first bottle of Glenfiddich or Oban, but don’t know their single malt from their blended malt, Life in a Kilt Magazine is here to help. We invited Ken Klehm, Asheville-based distiller, to share his insight and expertise to those looking for their first initiation into the world of scotch whisky – what to look for, how it should taste and why people love the stuff so damned much.
“Scotch. . . Scotchity scotch scotch.” —Ron Burgundy
A primer on scotch whisky is a subject that should be discussed with a glass of the beautiful stuff in hand. I suggest you pour yourself an ounce or two into a glass and follow along. I will admit to having a bit of Highland Park (a personal favorite in the “affordable” single malt category) next to me at the moment.
Because the world of spirits is a complex one with few simple answers and a lot of secrets (and also because I do have whisky in hand), you should not take what I write as the whole truth. This is a subject that could fill tomes and take hours of discussion, preferably with a fireplace and dog along with the subject under discussion. Got your glass ready? GREAT, lets go!
But first, a vocabulary lesson
Whisky is a spirit that is made from grain that isn’t distilled to vodka purity. Scotch is whisky made in Scotland and generally made in one style. The keen observer will note the spelling – the “e” that is used for most American whiskeys isn’t used with scotch. One can make a whisky in the style of scotch in Paducah, but it isn’t scotch (even though it tastes like it).
So what do I mean by “in the style of scotch?” Every style of whisk(e)y has a distinct recipe of different grains and proportions. Scotch is usually made with 100 percent seated malt. In comparison, bourbon has to be at least 51 percent corn with malt, rye and wheat making up the balance.
Oh right, malt. Another boring definition incoming. Malt is barley that has been force-germinated, then stopped a few days later by being heated in a kiln, or in the case of scotch, over a peat fire. Here’s another: Peat is a compacted mass of old vegetation cut into block from the ground of a peat bog. This peat is the real distinct flavor that makes one think “mmm, scotch.”
There are other things that make the flavors in scotch. The type, shape and the material that the still is made of are all factors that vary greatly between distilleries. Each distillery will use their preferred yeast strain.
Then there is the aging. This is where things get really good.
The type of barrel the whisky is aged in is usually used bourbon barrels, but sherry, Madeira, port and even rum barrels are put into service to add nuance as the scotch ages. While older isn’t always better, it does usually mean more expensive.
For example, the Highland Park I am sipping on says it is 12 years old on the label. What that actually means is that the YOUNGEST whisky in the bottle is 12 years old. Every bottle is a blend of many barrels to make a unified flavor profile as determined by the extremely well-trained palates of the distillers and blenders, so that every bottle tastes like one expects it to taste.
This is where I have to make a confession. I came to scotch later in life. I was a bourbon lover from before I was legally able to drink as anyone who went to that weird kid college with me will remember. Scotch tasted like smoke and Band-aids to me. It still does, but now I like those flavors. When I started working in bars and had the opportunity to taste a whole bunch of different spirits (and even good scotches), I still didn’t like them. Except when I had a cold. Then scotch was wonderful. Slowly, I started liking them more and more. More than a decade later, I keep half a dozen bottles on the cabinet at all times, and frequently enjoy some with the lovely lady friend.
If you are new to scotch, don’t go spending $100 on a peat-bomb, single malt; start off less expensive and blended. Wait, single malt? Blended? What does that mean?
Lesson 2: Single vs. blended
A single malt whisky is the product of one distillery, where it is distilled and aged. Even though it is a mix of many barrels, a single malt whisky is all made in the same place, the same way. Blended scotches are made up of a few different distilleries’ product to make that whisky’s flavor profile. Please don’t believe that blended whiskys are inferior to single malts. That isn’t the case – although I have never had a single malt that was on the same quality of the Old Smuggler I “enjoyed” out of a plastic canteen on my 23rd birthday. Ask any scotch lover who has been lucky enough to sample Johnny Walker Blue Label; it is as lovely as some of the finest single malts.
Geographic regions: No there won’t be a test later
If you choose to get into drinking the single malts, there are six regions of scotch making that have their own characteristics.
The largest area of scotch production and therefore the most diverse. The northern Highlands give the world a heavier bodied and spicy whisky, while as one heads south, the product gets lighter and fruitier.
Examples: Oban, Dalwhinnie, Edradour
South of the Highlands, it makes the lightest whisky of the six regions.
Examples: Glenkinchie, Rosebank
This is where the highly peated and most complex scotches originate. Although it is geographically small, it has the most distilleries.
Examples: The Balvenie, The McAllen
Between Highlands and Speyside in flavor, the sea winds that whip across these sparsely vegetated places adds a bit of salt to the flavor.
Examples: Isle of Jura, Talisker
Saltier than the Island scotches and almost as peaty as Speyside. There are only a few distilleries in this area.
Examples: Springbank, Longbow
If you start enjoying scotch from the Islay area, you have gotten your advanced degree. The heavily peated and very briny whiskies that are made here are not for the first time drinker, but are made to be savored.
Examples: Ardbeg, Lagavullin
Well my glass is dry, so I’m going to refill. Don’t be scared of scotch, try many and find one or more that you like, and go from there.
Ken Klehm has a degree in brewing, fermentation, and distillation, has frequently been called “The godfather of the Asheville NC craft cocktail scene,” rides a British motorcycle, is an avid pinhole photographer and plays bass in a band accurately named Crappie.