Scotch: A Beginner’s Guide to Whisky as Art, Part 2By J. Wallace
Getting to know scotch whisky is easy; try a few varieties in your local bar, find a brand you like, and invest in a bottle. For some advice on which whiskys to start with, be sure to re-read Part 1 of our Beginners Guide to Whisky. Once you get that bottle home is where the real challenge begins. Most people don’t realize how they take a good bartender for granted. But you’ll soon learn there’s more to pouring scotch than meets the eye. After reading this you might even feel inspired to leave an extra buck for your favorite barkeep next time.
If you are drinking scotch-n-water, the whiskey tumbler is a great choice. It’s a classic look, and good whiskey tumblers let you see your drink, appreciate its color and give you a good idea of whether its too watered down or just right. Besides, for those who drink their scotch on the rocks, there’s nothing quite like seeing a fresh tumbler full of ice and whisky. Avoid opaque or non-see through glasses for scotch and water or scotch on the rocks. It’s just not the same.
When it comes to drinking your scotch straight, there are two ways to go. You can still use a tumbler, but there’s also the elegance of a scotch tasting glass.
Scotch tasting glasses are specifically designed to enhance the flavors and bouquet of scotch. See how the glass is flared at the top? The aromas are directed by the design of the glass, and the opeining is made to deliver the scotch to your mouth in just the right way. These glasses are made to savor scotch “neat,” that is, without ice and/or water. The amount of liquor pictured in the glass is about the amount you want to pour; the glass is made to maximize your experience with that amount of scotch for best results. Some prefer a more tulip-shaped glass to concentrate the aromas, but it’s really down to personal preference.
Whisky and Water
Why pour water into a fine single malt scotch? Opinions on whether or not to do this vary wildly, but the main joy of adding water to scotch is to “open” the flavors and discover nuances you might otherwise miss. There are plenty of opinions on how much water to add; some recommend 1/5 water, others prefer half-scotch, half-water. We recommend starting small and working your way up to half-and-half mixtures to see what works best. You will notice a variety of nuances as you increase or decrease the water ratio.
Some people are quite fussy about using non-chlorinated water, and they do have a point; if you have paid for a fine scotch, do you really want that chemical taste floating around in the glass? Use spring water or filtered water at the very least for best results. This also applies to those who like scotch on the rocks, but the effects of chlorinated water may be less noticeable with the ice.
Many whisky lovers say you shouldn’t bother drinking fine scotch if you’re going to use ice. Chilling scotch does tend to detract from the overall tasting experience, a bit like putting a bottle of red wine in the refrigerator. It’s better to pour cheaper whisky when drinking it on ice. Fine varieties should be savored to the full at room temperature. If you want the experience of scotch on the rocks, try a blended scotch like Grant’s or The Famous Grouse.
Where To Buy
Locating a good whisky is not difficult. Even grocery stores carry Glenlivet and sometimes even Macallan. You can buy excellent scotches at your local liquor store, but beware the corner shop price gouge effect. A $40 dollar bottle of 12-year old Macallan will go for as high as $60 in a neighborhood liquor shop or convenience mart. You will find better prices elsewhere. Wine shops are your best bet for selection, price, and regional preferences. Some wine shops keep their most expensive scotch behind locked doors, and it’s not unusual to find 30-year old cask-aged bottles or better under lock and key for hundreds of dollars.
As a rule of thumb, consider these average prices available online:
12-year old Macallan: $40-50
18-year old Glenlivet: $55-70
16-year old Bowmore: $100-120
Prices vary according to demand and location, so these are just a general guideline. Age isn’t an infallible indicator of quality. Some reviewers rate the 10-year old Macallan higher than the 12, and others prefer 12-year varieties of one brand over older versions of another. Again, it’s all down to taste and you should definitely try out a new scotch in a bar or thanks to a generous friend before investing in a full bottle.
There’s lots of scotch wisdom online and on the newsstand. The Scotch Blog is great, and as the banner says, “Pleasingly irreverent”. Read that one along with the eight-times-a-year Whisky Magazine for some well-rounded scotch research. If you want a broader view of whisky that includes Irish, Canadian, bourbon, and other varieties, check out Malt Advocate. These are all great resources for the new scotch lover and each publication has an extensive community to learn from, network, and swap experiences with.
Learning how to savor a good scotch comes with time and experience. Gearcrave recommends finding Scottish and Irish pubs with a good presentation of scotch bottles behind the bar or even better, a scotch list. If you have trouble deciding, ask your bartender to recommend something in the way of a single malt for a new scotch enthusiast and start from there. Don’t forget to show a little love at the tip jar for the service! A good bartender will steer you right.
[top image courtesy Stomp.com]