The brown liquors aren't for everyone. This is particularly true when it comes to scotch whisky. Many are pungent, smoky, and strong. If you usually drink a Crown and Coke, or a Whiskey Sour, scotch will definitely surprise and perhaps shock your taste buds. I'm a born and bred bourbon whiskey drinker, yet it wasn't until I was introduced to some of the lighter, sweeter single-malt whiskies from Scotland's Highland region that I was really able to appreciate it. I recently sat down with Andrew Friedman at Liberty on Capitol Hill to learn more about whisky.
Several things set single-malt scotch whisky apart from the rest of the crowded pack of whisk(e)ys like bourbon, blends, and whisky from other parts of the world. First, it's the water. Scotland has hard water, and since it's one of whisky's three ingredients, it plays a key role. Scotch whisky is also aged in used bourbon casks (and sometimes used sherry or port casks). Most scotch whiskies are aged at least three years, but as you'll see on the labels of most bottles of scotch, some of the more expensive-and often tastiest--whiskies are aged 10, 15, 18 years or more.
Location also has a big effect on scotch. Scotland has several distinct regions that are home to numerous distilleries. The air, soil, water, and sea breeze all impact the scotch produced in that region. The most widely available--and most popular--whiskies are from the following three regions:
Highlands: This region produces lighter, almost sweet whiskies. Look for Macallan, Oban, and Glenmorangie labels.
Speyside: This region, located in the northeastern edge of the Highlands region, is home to a number of distilleries--Glenfiddich, Aberlour, Glenlivet, and Balvenie among them. These are also milder, somewhat sweet whiskies.
Islay: Pronounced "EYE-lah," these whiskies are strong, smoky and pungent. Look for Bowmore, Laphroaig, and Ardbeg.
About those pungent, smoky Scotch whiskies. That smokiness comes from peat. Peat is an ancient heating source that was and is used throughout the British Isles and other parts of Northern Europe after the Vikings cut down all the trees. (Hey, the Vikings had ships to build so they could discover North America.) Peat is basically vegetation that is compressed in bogs or other marshy areas. It is dug up, cut into bricks, and dried. From the earliest production of scotch, peat has been burned to heat the room where the malted barley is drying. The smoky, warm air in those rooms imparts a pungent flavor into the grain. That character stays in the grain throughout the distillation process, and results in smoky, "peaty" scotch. Water from regions like Islay are also said to have a peaty characteristic due to the heavily peated soil.
When tasting whisk(e)y, Andrew recommends a wine glass or brandy snifter. There are also special "whisky" glasses. Basically you want some space in the glass above the whisky to capture the aroma so you can smell it better. Try smelling with an open mouth first. Then, take a sip and breathe in and out of your nose to spread the aroma around. It's best to tasty whisky neat, but if you like, a drop or two of water will open the aromas and flavor a little more. Generally, the older the scotch, the more concentrated the flavors. Ten or 12 years old is a good starting point. If you are new to scotch, a mild one like Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, or Glenmorangie makes a nice introduction.
Ready to taste some scotch whisky or other whiskies from around the world? You're in luck. Several bars around the city stock an impressive selection of whisk(e)y on their shelves and are staffed with knowledgeable bartenders. Check out any of the great cocktail bars like Liberty, Zig Zag Cafe, or Rob Roy. While scotch isn't widely used in cocktails, these bars still stock a nice selection. The lounge at Canlis, The Metropolitan Grill, or John Howie Steak also stocks an impressive selection of whiskies.
For a more advanced scotch tasting experience, consider two upcoming events:
The Single Malt Scotch Whisky Society Extravaganza comes through Seattle twice a year. The next one is on Friday, April 1 at the Rainier Club at 7 p.m. For $135, you get a buffet dinner, tastes from over 100 whiskies, cigars, and lots of dudes in kilts. Despite the kilts, the event is pretty interesting. There are serious scotch fans on hand, and the reps from various distilleries pour some impressive and rare scotch whiskies. To buy tickets, call (800) 990-1991. The Hop Scotch Spring Beer & Scotch Festival combines a Scotch tasting with a tasting of beer, wine, and other spirits. On April 1 and 2, visit Fremont Studios to taste from the 80+ breweries, wineries, and distilleries on hand. $30 gets you the basic five-token beer/wine tasting. $10 more gets you a nice sampling of scotch whiskies, Oban and Lagavulin among them. There are even seminars if you want to throw in a little education.
The Hop Scotch Spring Beer & Scotch Festival combines a Scotch tasting with a tasting of beer, wine, and other spirits. On April 1 and 2, visit Fremont Studios to taste from the 80+ breweries, wineries, and distilleries on hand. $30 gets you the basic five-token beer/wine tasting. $10 more gets you a nice sampling of scotch whiskies, Oban and Lagavulin among them. There are even seminars if you want to throw in a little education.