In the next installment of my Wide World of Whiskey, we’re visiting the United Kingdom country of Scotland, where men wear kilts and a lake monster draws tourists.
As you know — because you all are keeping up with this series like it’s the next big Netflix binge — I’ve already covered the categories of Tennessee Whiskey and Irish Whiskey. If you missed those sessions, click on the links and see me after class.
So we’re onto Scotch Whisky, admittedly one of my least favorite whiskeys but surprisingly one of the most popular and savored categories in the world. I blame history for that. After all, the first written mention of Scotch was in 1495 — it got quite a head start on us.
(If you were paying attention during the first class, you’ll note that it’s referred to as Scotch “Whisky” and not “Whiskey” because Scotland doesn’t have an “e” in its name — a general rule for the spelling difference.)
Helping me navigate my way through this somewhat complicated spirit is, once again, Colin Blake, director of spirits education at Louisville’s Moonshine University, and Stewart Buchanan, global brand ambassador of the Brown-Forman-owned Scotch brands BenRiach, GlenDronach and Glenglassaugh.
Try saying those three times fast.
If it’s not Scottish, it’s crap!
I know I’m in the minority with my disdain for Scotch — hence the subtitle, made famous by an SNL skit by Mike Myers (Google it, millennials). That’s why I wanted to talk with Blake, who appreciates the smoky spirit and its rich history.
Blake’s word for Scotch is “nuanced,” and the main difference between this whiskey and all the others comes down to one small but mighty thing: peat.
Like Irish Whiskey, most Scotch Whiskys use malted barley only, although some do use a few cereal grains. Forget corn, though, the Scottish would look at you funny if you asked for the New World vegetable. Peat, however, is the game-changer here. So what is it and why does its powerful smoke carry through to the finished product?
“The main difference between Scotch and everything else is the peat,” Blake confirms. “In the very beginning of the process, they burn the peat to dry the malted barley. The peat smoke entrenches itself in the grain and carries through everything.”
Peat, which is an accumulation of partially decayed vegetation and organic matter, is part of the European landscape, and back in the day — and sometimes even now — it’s used as a fuel source. Instead of tossing a log into your fireplace, many people in Scotland and Ireland will throw in a chunk of peat they dug up or borrowed from a neighbor.
During a trip to Ireland a few years ago, my tour guide Nigel also said peatlands, sometimes called bogs or moors, were a good place to hide a body as well — just in case you were wondering.
But I digress.
It’s crazy to think that something you do in the very beginning of whiskey-making would carry through to the end, but boy, does it ever. Peat is distinct. Peat is thicker than a campfire. Peat is your grandpa’s attic.
Blake points out that not all Scotch Whiskys use peat, which is important to note. But even in the un-peated sample I tried, I could still detect traces of the stuff.
Another big difference between Scotch and bourbon is the aging. Like Irish Whiskey, Scotch also is predominately aged in used American whiskey barrels — never in a new one. A lot of that has to do with the climate in Scotland as well as the delicate malted barley.
“Think of a barrel like a tea bag,” explains Blake. “The first time you use it, you’re gonna get the most flavor, aroma and color out of it.”
So when our bourbon goes into the new, charred oak barrels, we get the best flavors that wood is ever going to give, thank you very much. But the Scottish don’t see it like that. They don’t want the charred oak flavors overrunning their dainty barley distillate, so they’re basically fine with our sloppy seconds.
Scotch is typically aged a whole hell of a lot longer than bourbon. That, once again, has to do with Scotland’s cold and rainy climate. Once the distillate goes into the used barrels, it sits and sits and sits — for 15, 20, 25, 30 years. Legally, Scotch only has to be aged for three years, but most is older than that.
“The evaporation rate is much, much lower, because it’s already wet outside and cool,” Blake says. “It’s under 2 percent, as opposed to our 3 or 4 percent loss — sometimes more.”
When a bourbon barrel ages in a Kentucky rick house, the distillate is pushed in and out of the wood throughout the year. During the hot summers, it expands into the barrel’s charred layers, and during the cold winters, it contracts.
That process often causes evaporation, also known as the angel’s share. The older a bourbon barrel is, the less bourbon you’re likely going to get out of it.
But in Scotland, there are no mood swings. It’s like the climate took a Xanax — there is no up, there is no down, there just is. So not much distillate is lost over the years, and Scottish angels must be dying of thirst.
There are two types of Scotch Whisky — single malt and single grain — and three types of blended Scotch — blended malt Scotch, blended grain Scotch and blended Scotch. The “single” just means it was produced at a single distillery, and a blended Scotch is a mix of whisky from different distilleries.
Caramel coloring also can be used in the final product.
Finally, there are five main regions of Scotland where Scotch is produced: The Lowlands, The Highlands, Speyside, Campbeltown and Islay. And each region produces a different-tasting Scotch, which has to do with its water source, use of peat and other environmental factors.
Sippin’ Scotch with Stewart Buchanan
When Brown-Forman set me up with their Scotch global ambassador Stewart Buchanan, I was thrilled to be talking to the expert on Scotch. Buchanan has more than 15 years of whisky expertise under his kilt, having previously worked many jobs at the BenRiach Distillery (in the Speyside region), including production manager.
But what Buchanan also had was a thick Scottish brogue, and we had a bad phone connection, so I tried my best to scribble down what I thought he was saying.
Earlier I said Scotch was complicated, but Buchanan said just the opposite.
“It’s more basic production-wise than American whiskey — we only have barley to work with,” he pointed out. “A lot of people think it’s this big scary drink. I think it’s one of the most sweetest, open, pretty, lucious character spirit out there.”
He said there are about 125 operating distilleries in Scotland, and which region the distillery is in says a lot about what kind of spirit it produces. Also, although you can use coloring with Scotch, all three Brown-Forman brands choose not to.
“If you have a good single malt, it shouldn’t need coloring,” said Buchanan. “And just because it’s light whisky does not mean it’s not an old whisky in Scotland.”
That, again, has to do with the used oak barrels and the mild climate, he confirmed.
We sampled the BenRiach 20 Year Single Malt, which was not peated, and the BenRiach Curiositas, a 10-year peated Scotch. Out of the two, I’m sure you can guess which I preferred — the un-peated, although I swear I still tasted shoe polish.
Buchanan also stressed there are plenty of Scotch Whiskys that are not peated and are much sweeter and lighter in flavor. And the more I sipped the 20-year-old, the more I could detect some apple, pear and apricot notes.
But then came the Curiositas, which he said didn’t use much peat. I sipped, I gagged, I tasted moth balls.
“Sometimes you get all that peat as a punch in the face,” he said, and I did. “But if you go back, you can taste the roasted apples. The smoke surrounds all these characters, but sip after sip, the tastes keep changing.”
I’ll have to take his word on that. I kept sipping, and I kept cringing. Must be an acquired taste, like Brussels sprouts or benedictine.
Although Buchanan was bound and determined to change my palate and perception of Scotch, it still would not be my whiskey of choice when sitting at a bar. I can respect it, though, and I appreciate its nuances.
“If you just hold onto that glass through the day, keep your nose in it and keep a little sip on it, I think we can convert you to a Scotch drinker,” he said.
I’ll leave it at that.
This is Part 3 of a four-part series. The others will be linked below as they are published.