Watchonista’s Guide To Scotch Whisky
Join us as we explore the world’s most famous spirit – Scotch whisky.
In recent decades, a new generation of whisky distillers has taken the ancient spirit and given it unique regional twists, from craft distillers in the United States creating collector-worthy bourbon to elegant Japanese whiskies. But for many connoisseurs, single malt Scotch whisky is the best of the best.
What is Scotch Whisky?
First things first – when it comes from single malt Scotch, it’s whisky, not whiskey. In order to be called “single malt Scotch whisky,” it must meet several criteria. It can only be made using only three ingredients: cereals, water, and yeast. It must be double distilled in copper pot stills at a maximum ABV of 94.8%, matured in a single distillery, and aged in oak casks for a minimum of three years. Of course, this must all take place in Scotland.
After these basic requirements are met, there are plenty of factors that influence the final style of a whisky. Including the location of the distillery, how the spirit is matured, and whether or not it is peated.
Terroir isn’t just important in wine. Whisky makers pride themselves on their pristine environments and believe that the land on which they grow barley and the natural water they use distinguishes their whiskies from others. Some areas have unique environments, too. For example, whiskies from Islay, the southernmost island of the Inner Hebrides in Scotland, are influenced by the maritime conditions and the brisk sea breezes.
In terms of style, one of the most important factors is how the spirit is matured, also called finishing. Casks impart significant flavor and color to the spirit within. The Macallan is known for finishing its whiskies in sherry casks, while others experiment with port or bourbon casks. This is where the magic of a master blender comes into play. They can deftly blend these spirits to find the perfect balance.
Peat is a hate-it-or-love-it element. The intense smokiness it imparts comes from drying the malted barley over peat fires. That process releases phenols that are absorbed into the barley, giving the barley the smoky, peaty notes. For many, including Parks & Recreation’s iconic whisky lover Ron Swanson, peat is essential. It is a divisive flavor that some people find overwhelming. Unpeated whiskeys let more delicate floral flavors shine.
We’ve rounded up some of our favorite whiskies to help you choose the perfect daily drinker, special-occasion whisky, or just to try something new.
You can’t go wrong with a dram – the Scottish term for a single serving of whisky – from The Macallan, The Dalmore, or Glenmorangie. These three excellent brands have extensive ranges that feature classic styles and more innovative uses of casks and blending. Our favorite classic whiskies are The Macallan 18, The Dalmore 15, and Glenmorangie 18. As for the more unique whiskies, the favorites are The Macallan Double Cask 15 and The Dalmore King Alexander III, which blends whiskies from six different casks.
The Macallan is also known for commanding high prices at auction, including the world’s most expensive bottle of wine or spirit ever sold: The Macallan Fine & Rare 60-year-old 1926 sold for $1.9 million in 2019 at Sotheby’s in London. You could even go as far as to say it is the Patek Philippe of the whisky world.
For Peat Lovers
Aside from its unique climate, Islay is renowned for its peaty whiskies. Lagavulin is perhaps the most famous from its frequent appearances on television and ultra-smoky reputation, but Bruichladdich and Ardbeg also offer wonderful spirits.
The level of phenols in a whisky determines its peatiness. And peatiness is measured in parts per million (PPM) phenols. At 40 PPM, Bruichladdich’s Port Charlotte range is heavily peated and comes in a wide range of styles — the distillery is known for its frequent innovations and experiments. Ardbeg offers a range as well, from the young, very raw, very smoky Wee Beastie that is not for the faint of heart to the elegant, limited-edition 25 Years Old.
The Daily Drinker
You don’t need to spend hundreds of dollars to find a great Scotch. Aberfeldy has several wonderful bottles, including the award-winning Aberfeldy 12. It’s distilled in the Scottish Highlands and has light fruity notes, and at $45 a bottle, it is perfect for every day.
(Images provided by the brands)