Ease your way into world of single malts, and even first-time Scotch drinkers will find a dram to love.
So maybe you were watching the new season premiere of Breaking Bad a few weeks ago and noticed Walter White was enjoying a nice big glass of Scotch. Or maybe you’re a fan of Mad Men, The Newsroom or Parks & Recreation. Regardless of the television show or movie, Scotch whisky has made its way into your subconscious and like Ron Burgundy, you’ve decided its time for some Scotch. Only thing — you don’t know where to start.
Begin by thinking of single malt scotch (whisky produced from malted barley at a single distillery in pot stills) as we do wine. Scotland is divided into five very diverse regions, and each region imparts its own terroir on the whisky. The Highlands, Lowlands, Speyside, Islay and Campbeltown regions have been producing Scotch since the 1400s, and each bottle is a reflection of the environment, history and people there. Depending on the region, you could find a sweet treat, or a peat bomb.
Starting with the wrong Scotch can end your journey into the malty world of kilts and whisky before it even begins. The smell of Band-Aids, the salt of the sea — it’s not for the faint of heart. But with a little guidance, you can ease your way to those big, bold Scotches, and eventually find yourself craving the taste of iodine.
Come on. Let’s take a walk down single-malt lane.
Scotch to Start: Smooth, Sweet, Soft
Cragganmore 12 Year: Gateway Drug of Scotch
Due to its unparallel smoothness, I call Cragganmore 12 Year the “Gateway Drug” of Scotch. The Cragganmore distillery is located in the Speyside region of Scotland. Speyside is a particularly desirable region that has plenty of barley, access to good water and, most importantly, has plenty of peat. Look for a big, floral aromas with hints of grass and smoke. Light and easy to drink, Craggamore’s flagship product is slightly sweet with a nice honey flavor on the finish. It’s all you’ll ever need for dessert.
Glenlivet 18 Year: “The Single Malt that started it all”
In the early 19th century, there were over 200 illegal distilleries in operation in the glen of the Livet. But Glenlivet was the first to register their distillery in 1823 and has the distinction of being the oldest distillery on record in the region — thus the phrase, “The Single Malt that started it all,” on the packaging.
Another personal favorite, Glenlivet 18 year has a strange kinship to Cragganmore in that John Smith, the founder of the latter distillery, worked for Glenlivet for a number of years. Knowing this, go into this spirit looking for some of the same taste profiles that you might have found in the Cragganmore. You’ll find floral aromas, with light-bodied honey flavors. Look for toffee, vanilla, apricot and citrus peel as well. Another perfect end to a delicious meal.
Next Level: Complex, Rich and Smoking
Glenfarclas 15 Year: A Hint of Peat
We’ll stay in the same Speyside region but go a bit less mainstream and embrace one of the best Scotch whiskies on the market, Glenfarclas. This distillery also has a connection to both the Glenlivet and Craggenmore, as John Smith bought the distillery for around $620.00 in 1865 and then sold it five years later to the Grant Family. In the early 1890s, Glenfarclas would merge with Glenlivet for a failed business experiment. Apparently, in Speyside, all roads lead back to the Glen.
You’ll find a rich amber color when you pour a glass of the Glenfarclas 15 and your nose will tell you that you’re still in Speyside with floral and honey notes reminiscent of our earlier bottles. But you’ll notice the addition of rich sherry notes with a touch of peat. And, distilled to 46% alcohol by volume (92 proof), Glenfarclas is a noticeable step up from our beginner Scotch selections.
Oban 14 Year: Step Up the Smoke
Known as the “Gateway to the Isles,” Oban’s proximity to the sea makes its Scotch a great bridge between the smooth and seductive characteristics of the Highlands and the domineering peaty flavors of Islay. The Oban distillery is one of the smallest distilleries in Scotland and was built in 1794 before the town of Oban grew up around it.
One whiff of Oban and you’ll certainly see the difference between this scotch and all we’ve tried before it. Floral Highland notes take a backseat to the smoke and peat that dominate. You’ll find the flavors of fall — dried fruits and honey — but there will also be a smoky dryness on the finish that can be a little offputting for some. An affinity towards Oban 14 means you’re ready to take on some of the more advanced Scotches on the market. Let Oban be your gauge.
Advanced Scotch: Don’t Start Here
Unfortunately this category is where many a novice Scotch drinkers begins and abruptly ends his relationship with the spirit. It’s understandable. Jumping straight into a Lagavulin, Laphroaig or Ardbeg is like cliff diving with swim floaties on. These Scotches hail from the isle of Islay, where big peat and big smoke rule the roost. The barley used to make Scotch in this area is dried for several hours over the smoke from peat (Peat is basically swamp moss that accumulates and partially rots underground. It’s then harvested and burned as fuel.)
But it’s not just the smoke and peat that will turn an inexperience Scotch drinker’s nose. The iodine, sea, salt and other medicinal flavors imparted by the bay take some getting used to. But start by mastering the basics and you’ll be on your way to the Scottish isles in no time.