A beginner's guide to single malt scotch
Apparently, whiskey is Irish and whisky is Scottish. I learned that from a very sexy in a hot-for-teacher way grad student from Glasgow. If you haven’t read my article Navigating Scotland as a First Time International Traveler*, feel free to check it out now. I’ll wait.
Okay, so as you now know, one of the best things about Scotland is that it’s the home of single malt scotch. Just as true champagne can only be made in France, true scotch can only be made in Scotland. This ambrosial nectar is made from malted barley and water — water that can only be found in Scotland.
The western shore of Scotland is covered in peatlands, which is basically a marshy bog of decaying moss. Sounds gross, tastes great. More importantly, it makes for great whisky.
In Scotland, scotch whisky is a way of life, easily obtained in the grocery store or local bodega. Enthusiasts like me will love the prices — a bottle of Aberlour 12 will only run you about 25 to 30 pounds, over twenty dollars less than it would cost in the states. I planned to go on a distillery tour when I visited last winter, but most of them were closed because of Covid, so I brought the tour to me.
With the help of a very sweet older man at a local Whisky shop, I discovered I prefer sweeter whisky from Speyside. Peat adds a smokey, bitter taste that most associate with the beverage. Sweeter Scotches are less bitter with a warming burn that goes down smoother than Kentucky Bourbon.
There are five types of whisky in Scotland, and each adhere to very particular, government-regulated rules. Each tastes a little different as well. Single malt scotch is made solely from malted barley. The barley has to be made into a mash and distilled through a pot still process at a single distillery. Single malt ranges from sweet to smoky, depending on the amount of peat used in the water.
Single grain scotch is also distilled at a single distillery but instead of being made from just barley, might contain other grains as well. The reason a whisky made with multiple grains is called “single grain” is not, as it turns out, to confuse unwitting Americans. It just means the whisky was made at a single distillery. The process is also a little different. Instead of being made in pot stills, single grain whisky is made in either continuous or column stills. If you want to know what that means, ask Wikipedia. Alls I know is, single grains tend to be a little smoother and sweeter overall, aged in sherry instead of oak, and contain tons of cool base notes like brown sugar, banana, and almond.
Now, on to the blends!
Most whisky and whiskey consumed around the world is blended. This category covers your Dewars, Jack, Johnny, and whatever your grandfather used to drink after dinner. There are three types of blended scotch whiskies: blended malt, blended grain, and blended Scotch. Blended malt is a blend of two or more single malts from different distilleries. Blended grain is two or more single grains from different distilleries. Blended Scotch is a mix of one or more single malts with one or more single grains.
Blended whiskies vary greatly in quality and flavor since they are basically a long island iced tea of scotches. I like Jack Daniels green label, but to each their own. The main difference between these types of whisky can only be felt after a night of drinking them. Blends give the worst hangover. Single grains leave you feeling just a bit queasy in the morning. But after a night of gorging on single malt, I woke up the next day fresh as a daisy — hence why it’s my favorite.
Scotch is an expensive habit back home in the states, so most of us are limited to what we can afford, blends. But if you ever make it across the pond, be sure to try as much whisky as you can, if for no other reason than to impress your friends with your very grown-up knowledge of fine scotch at your next virtual happy hour.
And if you do find yourself in Scotland, you can find a great Scotch at a great price by shopping outside of the touristy areas (hint: everything on High Street costs about 15% more) or at Tesco, my new favorite grocery store (sorry Publix!). And if you do happen to stumble inside of a tiny whisky shop at the crossing of High Street and World’s End Close in Edinburgh, say hi to Robert, and tell him Ajah sent you.
More adventures in Scotland: What to Eat in Scotland, Navigating Scotland as a First Time International Traveler