Wednesday, August 20, 2008

On Scotch.

I wrote this a year ago on my former blog. To all new readers, enjoy; to all old readers, well, you could use the refresher! I know I needed it! :-P


Young people do not drink Scotch. It's a sad fact, but it comes from the irrefutable truth: Scotch is harsh. When you sip Laphroaig, a Scotch made on the island of Islay (pronounced "eye-luh"), you may think you're drinking a concoction made for medicinal purposes. It is not pleasant. But thankfully the world of Scotch is not limited just to the burning flavors of Talisker or the peppery notes of Caol Illa. With the work of great blenders such as Johnie Walker, the world of Scotch has been transformed into one of Scotland's greatest production as well as one of their major economical resource.

Scotch, first off, is a whisky made exclusively in Scotland. Notice that Americans write whisky, such as Bourbon whiskey, with a letter E: "whiskey". Not important, but still a fun fact. There are a few legal requirements in order to be considered and marketed as a Scotch: it must be distilled from water and Barley, it must be no more than 94% alcohol, and it must be in oak casks for a minimum of three years, although typically Scotch sits anywhere from 10-25 years in oak. From here, there are four types of Scotch: Single-Malt, Vatted Malt, Blended and Single-Grain. Each is entirely different and produces noticeable distinctions.

Single-Malts are made exclusively from one distiller, in the same way that most wines are harvested from a single vineyard. An example of this would be Glenfiddich or Glenlivet. This is the purest form of Scotch; you are not bombarded with an array of flavors, but rather a somewhat aggressive and toasty spirit. Single-grain is just how the name implies--Scotch distilled from a single grain, such as 100% barley or rye Scotch. Vatted-malts, a more uncommon Scotch, are made entirely with malt whiskey. You will never find a grain whiskey used in vatted-malts.

Blended Scotches are what I would recommend to any young person interested in learning more about Scotch. In even the most basic of Blended Scotches, you will see anywhere between 20-40 different scotches blended to reach a unique and perfect appeal. Since Johnnie Walker is the number one selling Scotch (and spirit) in the world, that's what I have decided to highlight: the Five Labels of J.W. But first, a brief history.

Johnnie Walker was an actual person, a Scottish man who bought a grocery store in 1820 that specialized in distilling Scotch. The history of J.W. is very interesting, as the major reason for its success and global acceptance is the downfall of others. In the early 20th century France had a catastrophe to their treasured vineyards, leaving the drinkers of the time lonely and looking for something new. The Scotches of Johnnie Walker (now deceased) filled this gap. As well, with prohibition in United States, JW was smuggled into the country through both Canada and Latin America--and now you almost immediately have a world-wide known spirit. They are best known for the 5 major blended scotches, which use Scotch from both the highlands and the lowlands (two vital parts of Scotland, but I guess that will have to wait), as well as many different islands.

Johnnie Walker Red

The simplest way to remember this is by the color: red, the color of fire. This Scotch is a burning and smoky one with plenty of character. It is not easy to drink straight, so it's best on the rocks with a splash of water. Even though it is notably coarse, it still is the best selling Scotch in the world. It is important to know that there really isn't an age associated with it, since the blend has 35 different Scotches with anywhere from 3-10 years of aging in oak casks.

Johnnie Walker Black

Black is the color of elegance, and what a perfect descriptor for JW Black Label. This recipe has been around since 1909 and has the round texture of smooth ice. It can be sipped neat or on the rocks, but I enjoy it with a bit of orange. The blend contains a minimum of 12 year-old Scotch, although there are a few single-malts included in this blend that are aged longer. Tasting note wise, the texture is the main observation. As previously described, it is as smooth as ice and as subtle as a breeze. It also does have a hint of orange. A fun fact, this was the choice of drink for Winston Churchill.

Johnnie Walker Green

A blended Scotch with a minimum of 15 years of aging. This beautiful Scotch has a bouquet of floral and herbal flavors, mint being the dominant. Drinks easy, though the texture is not as elegant as the JW Black. It's interesting that the red has a blend of 35 single-malts, while the green only contains four: Caol Illa, Talisker, Craggan Moore and Linkwood.

Johnnie Walker Gold

My personal affordable favorite! Being that the blue is around $200 a bottle, I'm quite satisfied with Gold, which is around $70. It is a Scotch Blend that is aged for a minimum of 18 years, displaying a bold conglomeration of palatable flavors. The most apparent flavor is dark chocolate, a unique flavor for a Scotch. It also has hints of vanilla and pineapple, leaving the drinker with a feeling redolent of a dessert course. Personally I think a splash of Godiva Dark Chocolate Liquor does wonders to this, accentuating the decadent qualities in this luscious Scotch. (Though purists would scream at even the suggestion.)

Johnnie Walker Blue

The magnum opus of Blended Scotches, Johnnie Walker Blue Label has a variety of Scotches between 40 and 60 years of aging in oak. When you sip this masterpiece, you are sipping Scotch that began development in the 1930's and 1940's. A major reason I am such a wine and spirit fan is the fact that when I drink a collectible such as a 1909 Georges D'Latour, I'm not only drinking a craft nearly 100 years in the making...I'm drinking a piece of history. I wonder, "What was going on as these grapes were being cultivated?" The development of a new nation, the battle for acceptance of slaves now as free people, the debate over if women can vote or not, the division between the North and South parts of America...that was all going on as these grapes were planted!

The same concept applies to this Scotch, and it only further multiples the beauty of it. The tasting notes I read once stated that, "Johnnie Walker Blue is an unparalleled symphony of notes including smoke, dried fruit, cream, polished floors and lanolin." I agree. This Scotch has been around since 1888 and it seems it will not be going away. At around $200 a 750 mL, this is only to be saved for the most rare and celebratory occasions.


After this brief lesson you should at least know to identify the major components of Single-Malts and Blended Scotch. Remember, when tasting Scotch, it's first best to swirl the Scotch in a snifter to coat all edges of the glass, giving the most noticable aromas. Now nose the Scotch (not too close, unlike wine, since this has a higher alcohol percentage and that can mute your senses), but do so keeping your mouth open! (Robert Sickler, the only Master of Whisky in the state of Ohio, pointed this out to me, and it's amazing how many more flavors you can sense when your mouth is left open! Try this for wine and food, too!). After experiencing the aroma, sip a small portion and make sure to allow the liquid to hit all corners of your mouth. Remember that your mouth has different taste buds that sense different things, so if you immediately swallow you will miss out on a good portion of the flavors. Then, after allowing the Scotch to rest in your palate for a moment, swallow and enjoy the burning rush that Scotch gives. And now, you will have properly tasted a Scotch.