Make no mistake, it's coming. Even if you've long steered clear of that intimidating wall of Glenlivets and Glenfiddiches and Laphroaigs, the day will come when you will require a glass of Scotch. It's an inevitability in every well-rounded human life. It may come after a major victory or a crushing blow; it may arise quietly in the middle of an introspective reverie. Whatever shape it takes, when the moment comes, you will crave a glass of rich, smoky gravitas -- and then, my friend, you will be a Scotch drinker.
To prepare for the day you'll want to settle in with a single malt, start here with our quick breakdown of the world's most serious spirit.
1.) Scotch whisky comes from Scotland (and it's spelled without an "e"). Period. If it's not distilled and aged for three years or longer in Scotland, it's not Scotch. (But it might be bourbon.)
2.) Scotland's malt whiskies are grouped geographically, and the Scotch produced in each region tends to share a set of distinct flavor characteristics.
Lowland Malt Whisky: Made south of a boundary drawn from Dundee to Greenrock, traditionally known for lighter-styled single malts (the "Lowland ladies").
Highland Malt Whisky: Made north of the boundary, the whiskies made in this area have wide range of characteristics, but are largely dry, spicy, and peat-inflected.
Speyside Malt Whisky: Technically a sub-region of Highland malt whiskies, Speyside Scotch is made from distilleries in and around the valley of the River Spey. They're known for their complexity, smokiness, and elegant intensity.
Islay Malt Whisky: Made on the island of Islay ("eye-luh"), these whiskies tend to have (not surprisingly) briney, tangy notes.
3.) "Single malt" whisky is just as it sounds -- it's distilled from malted barley at a single distillery. At the other extreme is blended whisky, which combines as many as 50 malt whiskies with grain whisky.
4.) The ingredients it takes to make Scotch are simple -- barley, water, and yeast -- but the process by which they are combined to create over two thousand different variations of whisky is quite complex. Here are the basics:
- The barley is "malted," which means it's soaked in water for 2 to 3 days, and then dried and allowed to "germinate," a process during which the barley produces enzymes that are crucial in converting the grain's starch into the sugar necessary for fermentation.
- To stop the germination process, the barley is then heated -- it's this point in the process where a producer can introduce peat smoke that will influence the flavor of the whisky.
- The barley is then ground and mixed with hot water and yeast and is allowed to ferment; the resulting liquid goes into a still, or a series of stills, until the producer attains the desired proof.
- The final product is aged in oak barrels for a minimum of three years, though most Scotch matures for at least five years or longer before hitting the shelves.
5.) There are a number of ways to mix Scotch, but when you're first starting out (and especially if you've got a really nice bottle on hand), don't. Try your single malt served straight up with either a single ice cube or a splash of water, an addition which will help open up the spirit's complex flavors.