A Little Bit About Scotch Whisky

“The proper drinking of Scotch whisky is more than indulgence: it is a toast to civilization, a tribute to the continuity of culture, a manifesto of man’s determination to use the resources of nature to refresh mind and body and enjoy to the full the senses with which he has been endowed.” – David Daiches, Scotch Whisky 1969 (not Whiskey, like in the US)

That may be a bit of an overstatement, but I can’t say I disagree when I’m holding a dram of the really good stuff. It is an acquired taste, but once acquired, maybe the writer who said that scotch is like liquid sunshine has a point (though I’d reserve that term for wine).

Single malt scotch whiskey – or whisky in Scotland – or just Scotch most other places – is made up of really just two ingredients: malted barley and water. Once fermented and distilled, the whisky is then aged in wooden casks for a lengthy period of time. In Scotland, the law states that all whisky must remain in the cask for a minimum of three years before being sold. But really most mid-level and certainly all high-end distilleries will keep it in for much longer than that.

Glenfiddich (roughly pronounced “glen-fidik”) is one of the most widely distributed single-malts in the world. Their standard bottle (if you go into a bar and just ask for Glenfiddich) is 12 years by standard, and it has an entire line of whisky that runs up to as high as 50 years.

Like wine, much of the distinctive taste of whisky comes from its barrel aging. So it matters what kind of wood is used; what type, how old, if the wood has been used before, etc. Unlike wine, whisky ceases to change once it’s bottled. You can have a Glenfiddich from 1890, but if it was bottled after 12 years, it’ll taste roughly the same today as its cousin did when it was opened in 1902. (Unlike wine, which will have slight or even significant differences based on when it was opened, the weather, age, length of time in the bottle, etc).

The price of scotch whisky runs up exponentially as it gets older. For instance, a bottle of Glenfiddich 12 year might run you around US$38, but the 18 checks in at roughly double that, while the 21 will certainly be well over US$100. This is because each year the whisky sits in the cask, it loses around 2% of the total liquid. This is called the “Angel’s Share”, as it just evaporates into nothingness. That’s why a bottle of whisky that’s 50+ years old is incredibly rare – as it takes a lot of casks just to fill a single bottle – and will probably run you more than the average person’s yearly salary.

With that introduction (hopefully it was useful to someone out there), here’s five of my favorite bottles of whisky. If you try them, remember that the proper way to drink whisky is with a single drop of water to open up the flavors of the alcohol. If you must cool it off further, drop a single ice cube in for a minute or two. Or get a cocktail shaker with a couple of cubes of ice, shake well, then throw away the ice.

bowmore scotch whisky

Bowmore – Darkest – 15 years

Bowmore has a huge range of whisky, ranging from 8 years on up. This variety is one of my favorites and, as far as whisky goes, isn’t too rough on the wallet. It ages in a combination of bourbon and sherry casks and has a rich, dark color. It’s got a smoky smell, but is smooth on the tounge. You get just a hint of the sherry on the finish.

glenfiddich scotch whiskyGlenfiddich – Age of Discovery Bourbon Cask – 19 years

The second of a special release series among Glenfiddich’s long line of terrific scotch whisky. This is a 19 year old whisky that’d been aged in bourbon casks. Smooth and light, but also complex and well-balanced. Gives a long, warm finish. There’s a whole variety in this line; I’m looking forward to trying the one aged in the wine barrels.

glenmorangie scotch whiskyGlenmorangie – 18 years

The quote above about liquid sunlight comes through with this bottle – that’s exactly the color you’ll see. This one spends 15 years in American white oak casks, then they finish 30% of the whisky in Spanish Oloroso. This is the lightest of the whiskies on this list in color, it’s also one of the smoothest around with a hint of citrus.

macallanMacallan – 18 years

Macallan 12 is okay, but generally doesn’t hold up to its counterparts from Glenfiddich or Glenlivet. However, the 18 really outdoes itself. Medium in color, it has a bit of fruit and spice to it. Also has a surprising tinge of smoke to it. (Macallan generally isn’t noted for smoky whisky).

talisker scotch whiskyTalisker – 18 years

Talisker is a bit different from your average scotch whisky. It comes from a small island called Skye, and it’s the only whisky made there. It’s very peaty, which essentially means it has a very smoky taste to it – generally people either like this a lot or not at all (I love it). The 10, one of my favorites, is highly noted for its smoke. The 18 is more subtle and complex, with a bit more spice to it, but a smoother, all-round taste. It took the title of Best Whisky in the World at the 2007 World Whiskies Awards too.