A Sip of Scotland: A wee look at Scotch whiskys

Listening to Alistair Nisbet, proprietor of the Central West End pub The Scottish Arms, recall his first sip of scotch, it’s hard not to picture yourself headed back home with him, east off Scotland’s Great Glen, past the sullen port town of Inverness locked between the river Ness and the shores of Moray Firth, deep into the hills and glens of Speyside – the epicenter of whisky country. “Aye sonny, go and get me a dram and we’ll have a wee chat,” his grandfather would call out. When the old man asked for the special single malt, Nisbet knew he was in for a long-winded heart-to-heart.

With that personal history in mind, it’s not a surprise that Nisbet immediately described scotch as a conversation companion. He’s happy to correct the common American mistake of impatience. “There’s a lot more to scotch than just drinking it right away,” Nisbet explained in his thick Highland brogue. It’s an experience to be savored. “A half hour to an hour can be a fine time to sit down and have a nice dram.”

Where it comes from

Scotch malt whisky is distilled exclusively in Scotland in pot stills from water and malted barley (no other grain). Though most are about 10 years old, to be considered scotch, whisky must be matured in oak casks for no less than three years. The whisky’s flavor is developed by the distinct methods of its distillery. For example, by stoking the kilns (which dry out the germinated barley before it’s mashed or ground) with peat, a distiller will add a more smoky taste to the whisky. Also, the longer a whisky is aged, the more wood flavor it absorbs from the barrel.

How to taste

William Meyers, longtime whisky enthusiast and president of the St. Louis Scotch Club, advised first-timers to start their whisky neat (straight): “That way you try it as it was put it the bottle.” Meyers said to nose the liquid first with the glass at angle in order to pick up any floral and spicy notes. But unlike wine, you shouldn’t get too close. An indirect whiff is all you need to avoid the overpowering alcohol odor. After a straight sip, Meyers recommended adding a few drops of water to break the surface tension and release the whisky’s flavor and character. “Also check for the finish,” he said. This can be short and harsh, sweet and lingering, or barely detectable.

Single malt versus blended

A single is a pure malt whisky made in one Scottish distillery. A blended is just that, a blend of several single malts plus grain whisky; these are generally cheaper, not as mature and easier on the palate than their single-malt brothers (and thus often shunned by scotch connoisseurs).

Getting started

With less peat in the soil, the Lowland distilleries generally produce lighter, more floral malt whiskys. Nisbet always starts novices with one of those or a Speyside selection. What you don’t want to do, he said, is start with an Island or Islay whisky (notorious for their medicinal, heavily peated and smoky taste).