Search & Distill: Scotch With an Open Collar

It's not the stuffy stuff you think it is.

I've been on a personal Scotch crusade ever since I attended a big tasting at the Rainier Club several months back. The inverse cacophony of stodginess surrounding what should have been a raucous evening bored me into a temporary funk. Scotch everywhere, and barely a good time to be had—I wasn't expecting a rager, just something a little livelier than a job fair.Scotch is at least as intriguing as bourbon, but suffers from its aging, elitist base, whereas bourbon has all that cool speakeasy cachet. Like cognac and champagne, Scotch represents the end-all, be-all of its type, in this case whisky. Scotch is made from malted barley exclusively, and that's what separates it from many American whiskeys (whisky without the "e" refers to the Scottish and Canadian varieties only). The process of drying out the grain on malting floors over peat fires before fermentation gives Scotch its characteristic smoke and earth notes. As a Scotch ages, it develops a terroir, or sense of place, depending upon the area of Scotland in which it matured. Scotch from the island of Islay tends to be full of peat and have a sharp mineral edge, while those from the lowlands have a lighter, mellow character. In this way, Scotch is just like wine—you can find an area you like and explore.Try starting with a blended Scotch before you go full-throttle toward the pricier single malts. Of all the 15- and 20-year-old Scotch I downed that ill-fated night at the Rainier Club, the Famous Grouse blended Scotch whisky ($24 for a 750ml bottle) lingers in my memory as something I need to buy more often. Blended whisky isn't necessarily inferior; it just means that someone blended different batches from different distilleries to create an end result that conforms to a certain house style. Famous Grouse is based on whiskies with great pedigrees—the likes of Macallan and Highland Park—and is the Scotch most likely to seduce a bourbon drinker. It has a lightness and a sweet edge that are more familiar to those who grew up on American whiskeys and bourbon, with bright citrus and vanilla notes. (The difference between whiskey and bourbon is the latter's list of requirements, including grain that is 51 percent corn.)If you've already got a taste for whiskey and want to start a little further up the ladder, the 12-year Macallan ($47) gives the gentlest and richest experience for the money. It's all honeyed fruit and toffee, but often overlooked for its flashier cousin, the 18-year-old Macallan. Additionally, Ardmore's peated single malt ($54) is one of the finest expressions of sweet smoke around, with a fruity spice to it that I more commonly associate with beer. Ardmore may not be as well-known a label, but it's marvelous nonetheless—a nice bridge between a mellower Scotch and a more distinctive one.For a bigger challenge, try Laphroaig 10-year single malt ($45). Like extra-funky Flemish ales or French syrahs that are all leather, pepper, and stink, Laphroaig inspires love-or-hate relationships. It's like smoking peat and seaweed through a salt bong, and I definitely love it, but I didn't get there overnight.Scotch has as many personalities, if not more, than bourbon—and plenty to offer the adventurous drinker. Now if we could only take it away from rich, old white guys.msavarino@seattleweekly.com

 
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