A Bourbon Drinker in Scotch Country
Growing up in Kentucky means you get an introduction to bourbon and develop a fondness for the brown stuff a little earlier than the US Government would like. After the fried chicken place that won’t be named, bourbon is our most recognizable export.
Everyone who grows up there fancies themself a bourbon aficionado. We make a face when someone brings up anything made in Tennessee or Canada and most definitely shy away from scotch. Bourbon, by and large, is much sweeter than whiskey and scotch. It can be enjoyed neat, on the rocks, and in cocktails. Hell, you can even put a wee bit of Coke in it and most people won’t bat an eye.
It wasn’t until later in life (hello 30s!) I started to be curious about scotch, after all my very distinguished mother-in-law drinks it, how bad could it be? So, I set out to all my favorite cocktail bars, and asked for “training wheels scotch,” while explaining my fondness for bourbon. Still, I couldn't get into it. I had the strongest desire to convert it into an old fashioned, or worse, douse it in Coke. (No, those urges weren’t realized.)
None of this would do. So for the love of research and all things booze, I set off on an expedition to Scotland in search of acquiring a taste for scotch. It was hard work, going where no southern woman had dared go before (not really, but let’s go with it). Between my southern drawl and their Scottish accent, I was in for a trying time navigating my way from pub to distillery, driving on the wrong side of the road, while trying to chase down a love for Scottish whisky.
First things first, I did some research. I won’t bore you with the intricacies of the differences in the distilling process, the barley vs. corn, the barrels, the water quality. The internet is literally full of those types of articles, and don’t get me wrong--all this stuff matters and is damn interesting--but lets get you enjoying the stuff first. The one piece of information that is key as you start looking for whiskey to try, is the term peat, or peatiness. Stay away, until you are ready. Peat is “an accumulation of partially decayed vegetation or organic matter that is unique to natural areas called peatlands, bogs, mires, moors, or muskegs”- thank you Wikipedia. It's what gives scotch the smoky harshness, or the key ingredient to ‘bad scotch face’.
Some facts you need to square yourself with first:
Scotch is an acquired taste, and probably not for ameatuer drinkers. I found the payoff for having the patience to get into it well worth it. Stay the course.
Single malts for life, no blends.
The MOST important thing to take away from this, is which region of Scotland you need to start your foray into scotch. Bourbon from Kentucky does not vary as much from distillery to distillery as much as a scotch does from the region to region. A whisky from Islay is completely different than one from Speyside. (This will all soon make sense.)
Preparing for the First Sip
My methods are by no means scientific or even recommended, but they worked for me. Go forth and drink responsibly.
Start with a base. Fill your stomach up with delicious haggis or fish and chips. If not actually in Scotland, find a Scottish pub or eat whatever you fancy. Just don’t do this on an empty stomach.
Drink beer with said meal. I usually had consumed a minimum of two Guinnesses (or your beer of choice) before I started trying scotch. Basically you don’t need to go into this completely sober.
Now you are prepped and ready to try scotch. Do a tasting with a wee dram of one from each region. Here’s a handy map of the five scotch regions with my interpretations of where to go first and characteristics of each.
Water/ice IS your friend. The scotch snobs are laughing at me, but also probably aren’t reading this. Either add a small cube of ice, or a drop or two of water to lighten the harshness and soften the burn.
Do not swirl whiskey! This isn’t wine. Take the dram to your nose and take a small breath in.
Now drink it, don’t swish it around your mouth and don’t shoot it like its tequila either. Take a small sip, and let it linger briefly and swallow. In the beginning I just swallowed--you can still enjoy the aftertaste and distinguish the flavors by simply swallowing.
Lets Drink: Picking the Right Bottle
I’ve chosen whiskies that are easy to find in the states (that don’t cost a fortune) and arranged them by region in order of how you should begin your scotch experience. As the saying goes, you need to walk before you can run, so jumping straight to Talisker is not recommended.
Starting with whiskies that have some of the same characteristics as bourbon, a sweeter finish, and almost no trace of peat.
Speyside: The epicenter for whisky in Scotland, has the highest concentration of distilleries, and many of the world’s most well known scotches are from this region. The Speyside region is geographically part of the Highlands region, but is considered separate because of its unique characteristics. The favor profile can vary from light and floral to rich and full bodied.
My pick: Glenfiddich 12
This was the first scotch I liked enough to have multiple. From here, there was no turning back for me.
Lowlands: With only three operating distilleries remaining in the Lowlands, it's hard to go wrong with choosing an easy-drinking scotch from this area. The Lowlands is generally considered as the most light-bodied of the single malts. Read: great for beginners.
My pick: Auchentoshan Three Wood
Congratulations. You aren’t totally repulsed and haven’t gone back to bourbon or worse—a cosmopolitan.
Highlands: This is a tough region to get a handle on. There are different characteristics within the Highland region (southern, western, etc.) so it’s a bit harder to differentiate what you will like and how much peatiness will be present without asking your friendly bartender or whisky shop owner.
My Pick: Dalwhinnie 15
This has a hint of smoky...I’m warming you up for the peaty bastards to come.
“I love scotch. Scotchy scotch scotch. Here it goes down, down into my belly.” Ron Burgundy
Welcome to the cool club, you like scotch!
Islands: There are hundreds of Scottish islands around the mainland, but only a handful of them are home to a distillery. IMO all of them have *some* similarities but, by and large, are vastly different. Island whiskies are considered a hybrid of Islay and Highland Scotch.
My pick: Scapa
A rich and fruity flavor is present, which makes it a favorite of mine from the Islands.
Islay: Never my first choice, but drinkable after I’ve had many others. These peaty beasts are smokey, pack a punch and are definitely an acquired taste.
My Pick: Lagavulin 16
Thick and rich, with a powerful punch of peat.
Go forth and scotch!