In recent years, Scotch whisky has emerged from the seclusion of gentlemens’ drinking clubs, ditched its old school tie and found itself part of a fashionable clique in style bars worldwide. Its increased popularity means that many drinking establishments present a baffling choice of whisky. So if you’re keen for a hook up with a cheeky wee dram – then a little studying is a sensible thing.
But First, a Warning
It’s not just the population of Scotland that have fire in their belly! Scottish whisky – or ‘Scotch‘ – is distilled liquor traditionally made from malted barley with a minimum alcohol content of 80 US proof. All Scotch is aged in oak barrels for a minimum of three years – usually longer. So when it comes to the relevance of ageing, tips include:
- 1: the older the whisky, the smoother the taste; and
- 2: the older the whisky the higher the price!
Next – Know Snobbery
The most prestigious whiskies are traditionally ‘single malts‘, crafted from a single batch of malted barley and distilled at the same location. In contrast, ‘blended whiskies‘ are created by drawing on product from various distilleries to achieve the final mix. The reputation of blends is increasing and they often achieve credible accolades, but their worth is regularly undermined by pedestrian blends that contribute to that dubious pub classic: “Whisky ‘n’ cola.”
To satisfy the snob in you, make single malts your focus.
Then, Know Your Highlands from Your Islays
Unlike the numerous wine regions strewn across Europe, the Scots have kept it simple. There are just a handful of main regions: Lowlands, Highland (which includes Speyside and Islands), Campbeltown, and Islay.
Each region’s whisky can be identified by different characteristics: Lowland whiskies are light, soft and mellow with green grassy aromas; Highlands are robust and dry with light hints of peat (up north they’re spicy and heathery and further east they’re fruitier); the sheltered valleys of Speyside offer elegant, gentle whiskies with a floral delicacy; Campbeltowns are rich in flavour with hints of peat; and Islay whiskies are famously the most challenging: Rich, heavily peated and, thanks to their Atlantic location, imbued with a sea-salt tang.
When it’s time for the tasting, here’s the rule to remember: Take it slow. Each element of tasting a whisky is an experience guaranteed to grab every sense. Start by warming the glass in your hand, observe the colour of the liquor, then swirl the whisky to encourage aromas to emerge. Inhale the scent, follow with a small sip, and let the liquid develop on your tongue. Note the mouth-feel, perhaps there’s oiliness present, then allow the finish to come through– the seductive aftertaste, which lingers on each sip.
What about the Mix?
It’s a truth that many whiskies change with the addition of a tiny drop of mineral water, in that they ‘open up’ releasing new scents and aromas that can’t be detected without. But the addition of water is a personal choice: Some prefer the taste with, some without, so trial is everything. As for ice? Remember it will melt and change the flavour, so an alternative way to chill is using clean, chilled whisky stones from the freezer and adding them to the dram.
For mixing with anything else: order a single malt and cola, and risk the wrath of bartender and patrons alike! But in a cocktail bar, trust a bartender’s latest single malt creation– even the most militant malt aficionados could be pleasantly surprised!
Five to Try
Whether you’re planning a pre-trip tasting or creating your trip around tasting alone, here are five whiskies to try and five places to visit which showcase the best from each spectacular Scotch region. You should note that whisky festivals happen across Scotland throughout the month of May each year; also browse Sykes Cottages’ luxury holiday cottages in the UK for the perfect complement to a whisky-tasting retreat.
- Lowlands — Try: Glenkinchie 12 Year Old. Visit: Edinburgh! Stunning capital, champion of Scottish tradition and home to excellent bars and restaurants
- Highlands — Try: Glenmorangie Highland Single Malt 25 Year Old. Visit: Embark on the whisky trail, a route of welcoming distilleries and tastings through the Highlands north of Aberdeen
- Speyside — Try: The Macallan Sherry Oak 12 Year Old. Visit: The Speyside whisky festival during the first week in May!
- Islands — Try: Highland Park 18 Year Old. Visit: Charter a boat around the Orkney Islands for riveting archaeology and amazing wildlife
- Islay — Try: Laphroaig 10 Year Old Cask Strength. Visit: Esoteric Finlaggan, ancient seat of the clan chiefs and any Islay restaurant for world class Loch Gruinart oysters that complement every dram.