About eight months ago I made a New Year’s resolution to “get into” Scotch. Scotch, or “single malt whisky,” as I’ve since been corrected numerous times like some dumb alcoholic child, had never made it into my drinking portfolio, even though I love bourbon and rye whiskeys, and even though I had tried to like single malt Scotch whisky dozens of times in the past.
So while other people made resolutions to get in shape and write books and take that trip to Bali, I resolved to drink more brown liquor. I also made a resolution to play with more dogs. 2015 has been a big year.
So on New Year’s Day, I hopped in the car and drove down to Pints Pub in Denver, the home of the largest single malt whisky selection in the world. It was a good decision. The barkeep, who also owned the restaurant, and whose name I forgot by the time I stumbled out, walked me through the lay of the land.
First, single malt Scotch whisky is made with water and malted barley. That’s it. The two things I’d always associated with Scotch — peat and smoke — come from the water, the barrel and the roasting of grains. There are other types of Scotch whiskies, which add in whole grains (called single grain whisky) or which blend multiple single malt whiskies together (called blended whisky).
These whiskies come from four major regions in Scotland: Lowland, Highland, Campbeltown and Islay. Each region has its own characteristics; for instance, Lowland whiskies will be milder, while Islay whiskies tend to be robust, salty and peaty. The terroir greatly influences Scotch whisky, as for instance, Islay whisky can often taste like seaweed, iodine or band-aids, because of the peat from the area that is used to smoke the barley before it is put into the whisky-making process.
The Lowland and Campbeltown regions now only have three distilleries each. Meanwhile, the Highland is the largest producing section, and the coastal region Speyside, which once resided in the Highland, has now become its own official region.
Armed with this new foundation from which to build an appreciation of Scotch whisky, I asked the bartender to pour me a “beginner Scotch.” Judging by his face, I realized my question outted my ignorance and naivety, like when a freshman raises his hand to ask if he can go to the bathroom in a college lecture.
He asked what I typically drank, and I told him bourbon. He poured out three single malt whiskies: one each from Highland, Speyside and Campbeltown. “These,” he said, “will bring you from bourbon to single malt whisky.”
Important to the process is learning how to drink single malt whisky. A dropper of water cuts the edge, but you should smell it, regard its color, start it neat and sip. Like any fine indulgence, have on your mind the flavors and scents you’re likely to find in it: smoke, peat, seawater, mud, hot wood, fresh grass, flowers, citrus, baking spices, tobacco, leather and more.
And so on that day, I can’t say I fell in love with single malt whisky, but it gave me the tools and a starting point to make the transition. Now, eight months and many glasses of Scotch later, I’m all in. Traveling around Boulder County bars and reading guides like the highly recommended Michael Jackson’s Complete Guide to Single Malt Scotch (and, yes, laugh all you want at his name, but this man can very well save your life), I learned to love the spirit, and I thought I’d pass along a map of the road to Scotch whisky, no matter what liquor you’re starting at.
A note about why you want to do this: About three years into drinking bourbon on a serious level, I noticed the breadth of the spirit was starting to narrow. There is a point where you have tried dozens of bourbons and the variability between them just doesn’t excite anymore. Scotch seemed like a helpful hand to pull me out of the abyss.
Plus, drinking single malt Scotch whisky shows discipline and determination. It says, “I may be too drunk to drive this golf cart, but dammit if I didn’t earn the right to do it, Todd.”
And for those fine men and women who already drink single malt Scotch whisky, this roadmap can be flipped around and used as a way to branch into other spirits. But, my guess is you’re pretty happy where you’re at right now.
Bourbon in many ways is the best entry spirit into single malt Scotch whisky. They’re both woody and hot with typically long finishes, though the corn (and often heavy wheat) in bourbon makes it sweeter than single malt whisky. A bourbon that is heavy in rye like Elijah Craig 12 year might be your best jumping off point. The rye mimics the malted barley in a mild single malt whisky, and the stiff aroma will hit you well before your first sip. There’s also a smoky, campfire quality to the Elijah Craig 12 year that other ryes and bourbons don’t have.
From there, you’ll want to check out one (or all) of the three single malt whiskiess I had at Pints Pub on that fateful visit: Glenfarclas 10 year, Glengoyne 10 year and Springbank 10 year. The Glenfarclas will be the most mild and similar to bourbon, but Springbank is the best of the three, and I recommend it to seasoned drinkers and newbies alike. It is salty and powerful, and just hints at peat, which is a good way to acclimate your tongue to some of the more serious Islay malts.
Fortunately, aged rum has undergone a renaissance and has really fallen into favor with U.S. and Caribbean producers over the last five to 10 years. Aging rum, often times in used whiskey or wine barrels, produces many of the flavors you’ll find in a good single malt whisky. They’re all sweeter, but you’d be surprised how barrel aging subdues the sugars in many rums.
You’ll find Appleton Estate in a lot of Colorado rum aisles, and that’s a good place to start your transition. You might also reach for the esteemed Zaya 12 year Gran Riserva, or Colorado’s own Montanya Oro Dark Rum, which is aged in Stranahan’s whiskey barrels.
Then for your Scotch whisky, you may want to jump into a Balvenie 21 year Portwood, which is finished in port wine casks, or the ubiquitous Glenmorangie 18 year, which is light and smooth, and has tastes of sweet honey and fruit.
Gin, too, is undergoing some changes due to the massive popularity of the craft distilling market. One local craft distiller, Vapor Distillery, has the unique “Ginskey,” which is gin aged two years in bourbon barrels. They call it a “botanical bourbon,” but when I tried it, it tasted incredibly smooth and warm, like you might find in the Glenfarclas 10 year mentioned previously. Barrel aged gins continue to grow in popularity, so any that you find would be a good start. You might want to get into a Glenfiddich 12 year, which is light, floral and just a little spicy.
There’s nothing I can do to help you.
The anejos of the world are a good place to start. Drop a fat ice cube in your favorite old tequila and work from there. Now I can’t say I’ve had this, because it’s expensive, but Tears of Llorona No. 3 Extra Anejo is on par with the top-end names in any spirit. It’s been called the “Pappy Van Winkle,” of tequila, to give you an idea, and they compare themselves to a high-end cognac.
For something more attainable, you could start with the Espresiones del Corazon series, which matches tequila with the barrels of the fantastic whiskeys of Buffalo Trace — Eagle Rare, George T. Stagg, Sazerac Rye, etc. From there, I don’t know why you’d be holding onto tequila flavors, because you can get the salinity, punch and earthiness tenfold in many single malts. To start, you might want to do a Talisker 10 year, though it could be a bit abrasive at first. It’s a fine whisky, though, and if you made it to sipping extra anejo tequila on the regular, you’ll make it through a bottle of Talisker in no time.
You’re brave, but also if you’re into barleywines and barrel-aged beers, it’s not that big of a leap to Scotch whisky. Start with the Corsair Small Batch Triple Smoke, which is a whiskey made with malted barley smoked with peat, cherry wood and beechwood. You’ll pick up a lot of familiar notes. And for a starting single malt, you can try out the Highland Park 12 year.