Scotch Whisky Primer

This page serves as a primer for those interested in whiskies. This edition is only ‘101-level’ and I will elaborate over time.

Buying scotch can be intimidating because of the multiple styles, regions and sometimes strong flavor profiles. Scotch whiskies vary from those sporting a subtle array of delicate aromas to whiskies with a pugilistic nose. They range from sweet confections to repellent smoke bombs.

The basics: single malt vs. blend

In my blog, I focus mostly on ‘single malt’ scotches, as these have the most character, and the vast variety opens up years of tasty exploration. The term ‘single malt’ refers to a whisky that is made from a single distillery’s production. The wort must have been fermented from 100% barley malt, yeast and water and then distilled in series of a pot stills. The pot still is a very large pot with a swan neck, made of copper to neutralize sulphur. A pot still differentiates from the column—aka continuous—stills used to make industrial quantities of alcohol. Note: single malts are actually a ‘marry’ (mix) of casks from the distillery, often from several years of production.

Being from a single distillery, and designed by the malt master, single malts will display characteristics of the barley, water, still design, distillation process, casks selected, even the weather experienced during aging in their flavor. All these factors are considered by the malt master, whose goal is to reproduce a style of spirit unique to that distillery.

Blends are a different animal, and focus mainly on consistency and a smooth delivery. A blend is a mix of casks from multiple distilleries—sometimes more than 40!—as well as grain alcohol, fermented from any cereal grain and distilled in a column still. The grain alcohol can be a large majority of the blend. Common blends are well-known, like Johnnie Walker, Chivas, Dewars, Whyte and MacKay. These are typically the province of the casual scotch drinker. Note: if there is an age statement on the blend, you are likely getting a much higher percentage of malt (pot still) whiskies. (Lots of detail about blends here for the curious.)

Less comon are blended malts, like Compass Box and Monkey Shoulder. These are blends of malt whiskies from different distilleries. There is no grain whisky these spirits, and they often aim at unique, even quirky flavor profiles. These can be cheaper than some premium blends, while others are more expensive than some single malts. Even more adventure!

Aging

To be labeled a Scotch whisky, by law the spirit must be aged at least 3 years in oak casks. Most single malts are aged longer than 8 years, due to the cold, damp climate (in contrast, 2-3 years is typical for US whiskies due to the warm climate where they are produced.) If it is noted for example as a ’12-year’ then the youngest whiskies are at least 12 years aged in oaken cask.

The age of the whisky is known as the ‘age statement.’ There are single malts with no age statements; they are known, unsurprisingly, as ‘No Age Statement’ (‘NAS’) single malts and range from barely decent to outstanding. All you know is that they are from barrels aged at least 3 years. Check the reviews before buying. Some are great. Some, not so much.

There is a bit more to learn, so let’s do this in steps. We’ll gather some intelligence, align that to some facts, and send you shopping with a budget and some suggestions.

A few commonly encountered terms

Glencairn (glass) – The Glencairn is a common type of snifter for Scotch.

Peat – A common fuel source in tree-scarce areas of Scotland, it also flavors the water (as in peat bog, of which Scotland has many). A ‘peat monster’ whisky will have either a lot of smoke (defined below) and/or phenolics (defined below). Many whiskies have the inoffensive mineral, stony taste from peat’s influence on the water. But when we speak of peat we usually mean the stronger flavors from peat-fired kilns which dry the malted barley. Some whiskies have smoke and phenolic flavors that are strong, even repellent. Most of the peaty whiskies are from Islay and other islands, but you can get peated expressions from any distiller, sometimes as a special run.

Phenolics – Aromas of tar, Band-aids and diesel from peated barley used in the wort. Those uninitiated/unused to peaty whiskies tend to react negatively to phenolics. “Yuck” is often heard. at my tastings from certain quarters.

PPM – Some distilleries are in competition to out-peat the others and state the parts per million of phenolics in their whisky. 40 used to be a lot. Now you can find whiskies with over 180 ppm.

Region – The Scotch regions are Highland, Lowland, Speyside, Islay/ Island, Campbeltown. Each have historical styles associated with them but you will find exceptions to the rule.

Sherry/Sherried – In addition to the almost universal ex-Bourbon barrels, many Scotches are aged ex-sherry barrels, used to impart fruity flavors. The use of sherry casks differs, ranging from a short time spent in sherry casks (1 or 2 years) to the entire maturation, which results in a heavily-sherried whisky (aka ‘sherry bomb’).

Smoke – The most noticeable part of peat’s contribution, due to literal smoking of the barley with burning peat during the drying process. I note the smokiness in my reviews.

Wine/Port cask: You will see some special or ‘Distiller’s Edition’ whiskies that note the use of various wine and port casks for all or some of the aging. Casks from the sweeter wines like Sauternes result in sweet, delicate malts. Port makes for a sturdy, drier, very interesting flavor. Such special releases can make for a nice flavor excursion as the malt master is usually putting their best casks towards such releases. Hence they can be pricey. Examples are Glenmorangie Astar, Cragganmore Distiller’s Edition.

Regions

Various regions are known for their predominant flavor profiles and the region is often noted on the bottle. But, like pirate laws, the regional tendency towards a style is no more than a guideline. Bunnahabhain, for example, is an Islay single malt that does not use peated barley in their main line. And Caol Isla releases some non-peated expressions. Some Highland whiskies releases peated expressions.

Note: you can search for whiskies I’ve reviewed on my Whiskies by Region page for more insight.

  • Campbeltown: More distilleries in this region are shuttered than thriving, but the Campbeltown region has become a focus for re-igniting interest in ‘craft’ whiskies. These are distillers who go for smaller batches and a high degree of attention to the particulars. Springbank is a notable whisky from this region.
  • Highland: Clean, classic scotches—crisp malt flavor with a touch of citrus is common. Rarely smoky or phenolic, a few have a touch of peat but nothing like the peat monsters of the Islands. If they’re sherried, they’ll usually say so on the bottle or will have a modest sherry influence. Exception to the rule: Ardmore is a smoky, peaty Highland whisky. Some distillers will release special peated versions (Like Glenglassaugh Torfa), and they’ll note that on the bottle. A classic Highland sure to please: Oban 14.
  • Island/Islay: Islay is famous for its peaty, smoky, medicinal and phenolic whiskies (like Laphroaig). Other islands (Skye, Orkney) whiskies tend also to be peaty and a little smoky. Not all of them. Exception to the rule: Bunnahabhain—an Islay whisky but has the barest touch of smoke and is moderately sherried.
  • Speyside: Distillers along the River Spey are noted for fruitier, often herbal  flavors. These are all about aroma and subtlety. There are a few peated Speysiders but they’ll warn you, like BenRiach Curiositas and Benromach Peat Smoke. The classics are very well known, like The Macallan, but you’ll also get great product from Balvenie, for example.
  • Lowland: The lowland is mostly the provenance of malts used for blends but you will find a few single malt offerings from there as well. Auchentoshan is my lone Lowland review.

Note, in the Whiskies by Region page, you can obviously search for region but I also call out the style (Peated or not) and casking used (Sherry, Port, etc.).

How much will it cost?

Johnny Walker Green. Hard to find
Johnnie Walker Black. Reliable, rewarding.

It’s not always what you pay…some of the more heavily-advertised and ubiquitous brands are not on this list as you can get a better experience for the same coin, or less. Why? Someone has to pay for the marketing budget, and that someone is you. I do note in my reviews which whiskies are heavily marketed, and in my ‘Bottom line’ section I’ll note whether I think the dram is worth the coin.

For a good solid performer which will probably be a ‘daily driver’ for your Scotch lover, you’ll pay around $50. The picks in this range are vast, so I’ll note below the ones that are reliably good, in my experience. The $75 range gets you some interesting picks that the recipient will savor and $90-$100 get some really outstanding selections that your recipient will save for special occasions.

A note on age, as this has a huge effect on price. The unofficial standard for aging of single malts is 10 to 12 years. There are some at 8 but they tend to be a bit raw. Stepping up from the 12-years, which range $50-$60, to a 15 or 18 year whisky from the same distillery will cost you about twice as much. This is not just due to yearly loss to evaporation (the famous ‘angel’s share’) but because malt masters will save their tastier barrels for the older vintages. Very often, a distiller with a run-of-the mill 12 will have an excellent 15, like The Glenlivet. The 25-year whiskies can be blindingly expensive but have an extra magic. Keep an eye out for the brands you don’t see heavily advertised, as you will bet a better deal for that magic.

Some ‘no age statement’ (NAS) whiskies from craft-oriented distillers are even more expensive than the 15-year malts from mainline distillers, as they have some older casks mixed in. Others are just ‘meh.’ That’s where the reviews come in handy.

Suggestions

If you don’t know where to start, but have a budget, this is your section.

Blends (under $50): You can get some tasty and reliable blends in this range. Johnnie Walker Black (12-year) is a classic for a reason—good light peat and structure, it is a sippin’ blend. But you can get a bit more interesting with Monkey Shoulder, which is a vatted malt (all malt, no grain alcohol).

Daily driver ($50-$70): Glenmorangie 10 (Highland) is a remarkably drinkable Scotch for this price range, and the most popular single malt in Scotland. Glenfarclas and Aberlour both produce classic Speyside drams, with Glenfarclas a bit more sherried than Aberlour. An Island that is non-peated, Highland-ish and very interesting is Bruichladdich’s Classic Laddie. It has a cool modern aesthetic, in case that’s important.

For the Island drinking target, start with Laphroaig 10. Big, powerful, and smoky. If you want to dial it back a hair, Bowmore 12 is a good choice for the Islay style that’s not over-the-top.  Talisker Storm is also a worthy dram, from Skye, and as it sounds, pretty robust. Not for the delicate!

Interesting and intriguing ($75-$85) A good Highland pick here is the excellent Oban 14. In Speyside, buying The Macallan 12 (the real 12-year, not the ‘cask’ series) is like buying IBM. Balvenie Double Wood is a great (lightly) sherried offering in this price range. For a very delicate nose, try Cragganmore 12 or better yet the Tomintoul 16. Or for something a bit different, one of the Aberlour A’Bunadh series of small-batch bottlings. Cask-strength and strongly sherried, they look like dragon’s blood.

Moving on to the rough and ready Island crowd, Talisker 10 is my favorite non-Islay Island whisky; it is more medicinal than smoky or phenolic (as is Islay’s Caol Isla 12). But in this range, for the Islay peat lover, you have to go with Bruichladdich Distillery’s Port Charlotte series, as their 10-year is out of this world. Campbeltown’s Springbank 10 is the quintessential craft whisky, very complex, detailed and perfectly balanced.

Outstanding ($100): Glenmorangie 18 (Highland) is a souped-up version of the regular expression, and as that, it’s a damn fine whisky and won’t offend anyone’s delicate nose. Along the River Spey (Speyside), I tried Balvenie 15 at the source, and it impressed, but if you can find the Balvenie Tun 1509 series, that ‘broke’ one of my whisky friends it was so good. Moving on to the Islands, Ardbeg Corryvreckan is remarkably complex and though peaty, not phenolic. Lagavulin 16 is a classic: smoky but refined, like a really good cigar. If you have a peat lover, and want to blow the doors off, it’s a toss-up between two very powerful yet tasty-as-hell offerings, Laphroaig Lore and Bruichladdich’s Octomore series. I have tried the Octomore 8.1 and the 8.2. Both kick butt. Less peaty and very refined is Highland Park’s 18-year (review coming soon).