What is Single Malt Scotch?
The term Scotch covers a large array of different whiskys, but most people use the term to refer to Single Malt Scotch. Malting is the process of letting barley steep in water and germinate until the enzymes convert barley starches to sugars. These sugars can then be fermented and distilled into whisky. Single Malt Scotch is made from only malted barley, only distilled at one distillery and only in one batch. There are various brands of Blended Scotch Whisky (like Johnnie Walker) which can be very formidable and expensive in their own right, but we’ll stick to Single Malts for this post.
What is Peat and how do I know what I like?
Peat is moss common to many Scotch distilling regions in Scotland. The moss is dried and used to fuel the fires in the kilns used to dry the malted barley. Toasting the barley with the peat moss fires gives the whisky a smoky flavor. The more Peat that’s used in the fires, the smokier the single malt will be.
The degree of Peaty or smoky flavor in a single malt is one of the easiest characteristics to detect. I appreciate Peat in my single malt – the more it smacks me in the face the better, like those from the Islay region – but you will quickly get a feel for what you like. On the opposite extreme are the Speyside single malts which are peat-less in virtually all cases. The selection of starter single malts below will give you a good feel for your appetite for Peat.
Scotch Distilling Regions
Scotch from the lowlands is usually smooth and light without the heavier smokey, peaty or brine-y flavors of the highlands or the islands.
The Highlands are the biggest whiskey region in Scotland and produces the widest range of characteristics in liquor. It’s hard to infer much about flavor or color just by knowing that a Scotch is from the Highlands. Single malts from the coastal areas of the Highlands may resemble the Islay and Islands flavors with more peat and brine than their inland brethren while other distillers might produce scotch as sweet and full bodied as Speyside.
This region is beside the River Spey in the North East of Scotland. It contains the highest concentration of distilleries in all of Scotland, which is not surprising because of the transportation options and fertility offered by the river and surrounding valley. Speyside Scotches tend toward the sweet and full bodied end of the spectrum. Glenlivet and Glenfiddich (Glen-fiddy) are famous Speyside labels. You will find a lot of Glens here but not much peat.
The first single malt Scotch I ever tasted was Ardbeg 10 year, so I have a soft spot in my heart for Islay, the Southern most Scotch producing island of Scotland. Islay distillers make some peaty (smokey, earthy) and briney Single Malts.
The other islands are grouped together as a region because they’re just not as cool and popular as Islay. They’re still part of the In crowd, just not at the top.
Campbeltown is at the end of a long peninsula pretty isolated from the rest of the Scotland. The three little distilleries there get their own region because they are so far from the rest of the Scotch makers (you might refer to them as bumfuck if you weren’t refined like me) in Scotland that they got kinda out of the loop, so they had to make up their own way of doing things. Gone are the days when Cambpeltown was home to 21 distilleries and considered to be the capitol of Scotch.
Aging (or Maturing)
There is often a number associated with the name of a single malt. That’s the number of years the whisky is aged in casks. Most commonly, casks used to age scotch where originally used to hold either Spanish Sherry (imparting some of the signature creaminess of Sherry to the whisky) or American Bourbon (often giving an oakier flavor). Generally, the longer the aging, the more of the cask’s flavor that is imparted and the mellower the sharp tones of the alcohol become.
Now, go get some of the inexpensive, amiable starter single malts from 4 Single Malt Scotch Whiskys for the Beginning Whisky Cabinet and start pouring.
Now, let’s do some drinking. Tasting has a lot to do with the terminology you have at your disposal to describe the whisky and the experience you have in your pallet. For example, if you don’t know what the “slightly decomposing underbrush of the forest floor” tastes like, you’re probably not going to describe the flavor of your Scotch that way. Use tasting terms from your own experiences and that have meaning to you. The Scotch Tasting Wheel from Nick’s Wine Merchants is a great graphic to give you some tasting terminology inspiration. There are many versions of the wheel out there, but this one is both user friendly and visually appealing.
Also, check out this very useful is the list of Scotch tasting terms at McGees.org.
And finally, some tasting tips from a Pro.