For most people who enjoy spirits, Scotch whisky isn’t among the first drinks they’ll try. There are a number of preconceptions about the national drink of Scotland, and they all contribute to the idea that Scotch isn’t an approachable spirit.
Scotch has an aura about it that can suggest a sort of male, bourgeois culture. “Even the smell of it is something you might associate with cigars and old men,” says Kala Brooks of Top of the Monk. “It was sort of an old boys club kind of thing, something of days past.” But that’s rapidly changing, she says. “I’m starting to see a lot of young people come in and ask for Scotch.”
Another popular misconception is that an older Scotch is automatically better than one that doesn’t even note its age. “Don’t be blinded by age statements,” says Brooks. Scarcity paired with increased demand means many Scotch distillers are moving away from displaying the age of their bottled spirits.
Also, there’s the idea that a single-malt Scotch is by definition superior to a blended whisky. “Single malt means it’s made from malted barley from a single distillery,” says Chall Gray, co-owner of Little Jumbo. A blended Scotch is a combination of various single malts. “It might come from different distilleries, even different regions,” Gray says.
While it’s true that many of the most expensive brands are single malts and that all bottom-shelf varieties are blends, “Which is better?” isn’t a simple question to answer. Distillers’ blends have often been carefully refined over time to deliver a specific flavor profile. “And they’re generally pretty secretive about what those blends are,” Gray says.
The process of making Scotch gives the spirit its unique character, often described as peaty or earthy. “Barley is harvested. It’s wet, and it’s germinating; it’s still trying to grow,” Brooks says, describing one part of the complex and involved process. Distillers “roast the peat underneath the barley malt, and as they do, an oily vapor is released. It attaches to the malt itself, and then that [liquid] is distilled.”
She adds that while the ingredients and end products are very different, the process of distilling Scotch is similar to that used to make corn-based bourbon in America. “It’s literally the fuel and the grain itself that make the big difference.”
Even though Scotland is a relatively small country — roughly the same size as South Carolina — it’s home to five distinct whisky regions: Highland, Lowland, Speyside, Campeltown and Islay. And each imparts its own terroir — the component of a beverage’s character that derives from environmental factors — to whiskies distilled there.
“A lot of that is due to the weather,” Gray explains. “Islay Scotch — like Talisker, one of my favorites — is very salty and oily, because the distillery is out on the Isle of Skye. So they have salty wind whipping through all the time. A lot of the terroir comes from the geographic placement of the distillery.” Peat dug from bogs closer to the seaside will have more of an ocean water character; Campbeltown and Lowland Scotches tend to be “grassier.”
The growing popularity of Scotch is evidenced by the wide variety of choices available in Asheville bars. Several — including Little Jumbo, the Crow & Quill and Post 70 — feature dozens of Scotches on their shelves. Top of the Monk even offers flights, custom-built from among its extensive Scotch cabinet.
Gray and Brooks agree that Monkey Shoulder — a smooth blend of five Islay Scotches, selling locally for under $40 — is an excellent entry point into the world of Scotch whisky. It’s great straight-up and mixes well in cocktails (see sidebars). “And any of the ‘Glens’ [Glemorangie, Glenfiddich, The Glenlivet and more than 30 other brands] are going to be safe, not overwhelming, good-quality whiskies,” Brooks says.
When it comes to food, Scotch is often paired with assertive dishes like steak, but Brooks notes that it works with other foods as well. “Two of my favorite things pair with Scotch,” she says. “One is chocolate, the other is stone fruit.”
Because of the complex and rich taste of Scotch whisky, both Brooks and Gray discourage adding much water to a sipping Scotch. Gray says, “I recommend tasting Scotch neat and then tasting it with a little bit of water. Because many Scotches will demonstrably change and open up when they have water added.” He also strongly suggests using filtered rather than chlorinated tap water.
“I wouldn’t add more than three or four drops of water,” Brooks says. She recommends that when tasting Scotch, drinkers do the Kentucky Chew: Take a sip and then swish it around in the mouth, letting the spirit contact all parts of the tongue. “Lightly deadening your palate to the actual alcohol means that when you take the second sip, you’re really going to get the flavor on the back palate.”