by Neal MacDonald
Actually going out and buying scotch is a confusing mess to the uninitiated. Just looking at the shelf you see distilleries with long names, wide swaths of years, different maltings, limited editions, a variety of foreign regions… and every last drop is relatively expensive. If you Google it, you’re introduced to strange descriptions like “peat reek” and “iodine” and asking in person inroduces you to snobs who look down their nose at you for not knowing how to pronounce Bunnahabhain or Auchentoshan.
No wonder people stick to their vodka-and-Red Bull or Captain-and-Coke. Making an informed purchase apparently requires some kind of advanced college degree!
We think that’s wrong. Drinking scotch is a wonderful experience and a lifelong journey of discovery. Marketers and snobs have collectively made starting that journey fearsomely intimidating and ultimately off-putting. We discovered this firsthand when hosting a scotch flight at a recent event: regular people are hungry for just a little help to get started.
So this is your guide, O Regular Person, to making scotch buying easier by giving you the information you need to make smarter purchases.
DO YOU LIKE GOOD BEER?
Yes, I love all kind of beer!
Excellent, then you’ll probably like good scotch. It’s essentially distilled beer without the hops. Scotch whisky is primarily made from barley (same as beer) versus corn and other grains popular with bourbon. -> GO TO STEP 2
No, I prefer wine.
That’s cool… but given that, scotch (and any whisky) probably isn’t for you. You perhaps ought to consider brandy instead, which is distilled wine and carries some of the same grape characteristics. -> GO TO STEP 4
When you like a drink, do you say: “I can’t even taste the alcohol!”
OMG! I say that all the time!
Fine… a lot of people don’t actually prefer to get smacked in the face with booze when they drink. For you, blended scotch is perfect because they’re designed to smooth out the liquor and make it more approachable. Put your blended whiskey in ratios of about 3:1 or 4:1 in ginger ale (or even water) with a lemon twist. Look for labels that say BLENDED in the $20-$45 range. -> GO TO STEP 4
Sort of… but I still want to know I’m drinking a real drink.
Good! A little heat can be a fine thing in an otherwise silky drink. You, too, would appreciate a good blended scotch but keep it simple with only 1 or 2 ice cubes for dilution. You might love the Manhattan with Scotch (making it a Rob Roy). Take your scotch with a bit of Drambuie or other honey liqueur for a Rusty Nail cocktail. Look for labels that say BLENDED in the $30-$55 range. -> GO TO STEP 4
Are you calling me some kind of wimp?
Not at all, sir (or ma’am). -> GO TO STEP 3
Please pick from the following…
Floral, honey, and fruit
You’re looking for single malt scotch from the Lowlands or the Speyside region. They’re designed for lighter flavors and often feature apple, cherry, and honey characters. Luckily for you, Speyside offers more liquor per square mile than any place on earth. Drink with just a splash of water. Look for labels that say SPEYSIDE SINGLE MALT or LOWLANDS SINGLE MALT, aged 12-18yrs in the $30-$80 range. -> GO TO STEP 4
Intense Flavors (think Indian food)
Do you find more flavor is always better? Adventurous soul that you are, you’re looking for the Highland single malts that specialize in robust, individualistic, and challenging flavors. More smoke; more peat; more flavor… more is better. Drink with just a splash of water. Look for labels that say HIGHLAND SINGLE MALT aged 12-18yrs in the $40-$90 range. -> GO TO STEP 4
Fortified Wine (e.g., Port)
If you’ve always liked a port wine or sherry after a fine meal, you’ll be happy to know there is a tradition in aging scotch in barrels. Spanish sherry, port, or madeira are often used to age scotch giving the whisky an additional color and character that is very appealing. Drink with just a splash of water. Look for labels that say HIGHLAND SINGLE MALT but crucially mention SHERRY CASK FINISH (or similar) aged 12-18yrs in the $40-$90 range. -> GO TO STEP 4
Cigars and Open Sea
You are in the small but ardent group of Islay single malt lovers. Here, the smoke, the peat reek from the bogs, and the salt-spray of the sea all find their ultimate expression in the Scottish islands. Smoking a cigar and sipping an Islay is a near religious experience. Drink with a drop of water… one drop only! Look for labels that say ISLAY or ISLANDS SINGLE MALT aged 10-18yrs in the $50-$110 range. -> GO TO STEP 4
Still too wimpy
For you, ultimate scotch drinker, there are special labels you should be looking for that you can sip neat and contemplate in blissful solitude, free from the ignorant masses who understand nothing of true scotch. Don’t take our advice… you know how best to drink it. Look for labels that say SINGLE MALT CASK STRENGTH and LIMITED EDITION aged 15-40yrs in the $100-$Infinity range. -> GOTO STEP 4
Go forth, drink scotch, and live life to the fullest!