By Ron Fisher
They say that Scotch is an acquired taste, most likely because of its smoky flavor. My father was a Scotch drinker, and when I was growing up, I would get a sip of his drink every hither and yon, so I acquired the taste without much thought on my part. That said, it’s a complex spirit, and enjoying it can be quite an adventure.
Scotch starts with barley malt that has been cooked above a peat fire. Barley malt is barley that has been moistened, allowed to sprout and kiln-dried. In Scotland, the malt is dried in kilns with a porous floor directly above burning peat, which gives the malt, and hence the Scotch, a smoky flavor. By contrast, with Irish whiskey, also made from barley, the malt is dried over a non-porous floor, and thus the smoke never meets the grain. Because of the smokiness, Scotch doesn’t mix well, and there are very few Scotch-based cocktails, which we will return to in short order.
Scotch has deep roots. The earliest reference to distillation in Scotland is an invoice from 1495 for barley malt that had been sold to Friar John Cor (how often in history we find monks fermenting and distilling!). Only whiskey produced in Scotland can be called Scotch. It must be predominantly made from barley and aged in oak barrels for at least three years. Ageing, which allows a slow evaporation through the pores of the wood, makes the whisky smoother, and the oak gives it both flavor and an amber color. Among whiskies, Scotch requires more ageing than bourbon, and bourbon more than rye.
There are two types of Scotch that one finds on the shelves at the liquor store: single malts and blends, although both names are a bit misleading. With a single malt, the word ‘single’ refers to the distillery, and not the malt. This type of Scotch (think of Talisker, Balvenie or Macallan) comes from one distillery, and is made only with malted barley, but is still typically a blend of different barleys or even different years. Blended Scotch (Chivas, Dewar’s, Johnnie Walker), which is 90% of the whisky produced in Scotland, contains whiskies from more than one distillery and uses malt from barley and other grains (wheat, oats, corn). In both single malts and blends, distillers mix the whisky to keep the taste consistent, since different barrels and different malts can impart different flavors.
The accepted custom is that a single malt is consumed straight up. In my college years, I was travelling with some friends in Scotland, and at one bar, one of the guys asked for the local single malt on the rocks. The bartender rather emphatically put his hands palms-down on the bar and, leaning directly towards my friend, said, “A blend you can have with ice, but a single malt (with ice),” his voice rising, “you’ll not have in this bar!” So, I always drink single malts straight up, if for no other reason that I’m still too scared to do otherwise. Actually, adding water to a single malt, a few drops per ounce, won’t dilute it but will add to the flavor. The water unravels certain amino acids and ‘opens up’ various compounds within the Scotch. Try it – you’ll taste the difference.
Which blend or which single malt to drink is really a matter of taste. Single malts can be expensive, but they are very distinctive, and finding one that you enjoy, both the aroma and flavor, is a real treat. There are excellent blends, as well, which are as ‘crafted’ as the single malts. Johnnie Walker Black is a hearty, smoky Scotch that stands up to water or seltzer. Cutty Sark is light in color, and besides being the Scotch that my father drank, there are stories that it was Hemingway’s choice because he could have a double and everyone would think it was Scotch and water.
What cocktails can you make with Scotch? There is only one. The <Rye on the Rock> test kitchen went through all the cocktail books and made almost every Scotch-based cocktail that we could find – a Rob Roy, a Rusty Nail, the Mamie Taylor, and a Blood and Sand – and we didn’t like any of them. Once upon a time, the British drank Scotch with ginger ale, but we didn’t like that either. The one which passed muster is noted below.
<<Scotch and Soda>>
2 ounces blended Scotch whisky
5-6 ounces soda water
Put Scotch into a tall glass. Add ice and soda water. Enjoy.