How to: Learn to Love Scotch
Here’s the problem: you know scotch is the ne plus ultra of spirits, and you’re supposed to be a connoisseur. But you have a shameful little secret: you just don’t like the stuff.
You’re not alone, according to Ian Millar, global brand ambassador and master distiller for Glenfiddich and Balvenie distilleries in Scotland. The problem, he says, is that an appreciation for Scotch is an ongoing process, and that most people start off with the wrong one.
“If your first introduction is a young blend, it can be harsh,” he says. “It’s a tough flavour. I try to get people in through a safe entrance, and that’s a mature, smooth, single-malt whisky, a typical Speyside, not heavily peated or heavily sherried, but right in the middle.”
Single-malt whiskies are made from malted barley (a process that turns the starch into sugar, necessary for fermentation) by a single distillery; the label will tell you which one, and how old the whisky is. Blended Scotch, on the other hand, uses cornor wheat-based whisky mixed with malt whisky. “The grain whiskies dominate the volume, as much as 60 to 70 percent,” Millar says. “It doesn’t have to say on the label where the whiskies come from or what the ratio is, and while everything in it has to be more than three years old, it doesn’t have to say exactly how old the blend is. But they’re considerably cheaper, and the pocket defines the volume of sales.”
Millar suggests starting with a single malt about 12 to 15 years old, which will have smoothed out and lost much of its strong alcohol bite. It should be served “with a wee drop of water” (spring, of course) to open the flavour (“Anyone who thinks it doesn’t need the water seriously needs to come and talk to me,” he says) and without ice, necessary to dampen the impact of more fiery spirits like rye or bourbon but which can overwhelm a single malt.
From this lighter start, you can gradually work your way into older, smokier malts. “As you get older, your palate changes, and you’ll start to get into whiskies you couldn’t take a couple of years ago,” Millar says. “The most important thing is to push back against peer pressure. Don’t just drink what your friends are drinking. Try them all, and then drink the one you like.” JM