Golf in Scotland doesn’t end when the final putt drops. the royal and ancient tradition concludes with a warming glass of whisky at the 19th hole. But many Americans bogey the 19th, baffled by the number of Scotches on offer. Names like Bruichladdich (BROOK-laddie) and Bunnahabhain (boona-HAW-ven) can intimidate rather than intoxicate, and timid stool dwellers settle for pints of Budweiser or Bass. Even opting for a Glenlivet or Macallan isn’t the easy answer — there are several varieties of each, with prices and tastes as different as grape juice and Champagne. Which to call for?
Find a way of drinking whisky that suits your taste buds. Here’s my advice: Most single malts don’t welcome ice but benefit from water to calm the harshness of alcohol. Ask for single malts neat, with water on the side. Give your snifter a few splashes — around 2-to-1 whisky — swirl the mixture and stick your nose in there like a pro.
Why don’t most single malts like ice? Imagine the different flavors in them crammed together in a bottle. When poured, each flavor ventures out on its own. Ice ruins the effect; the flavors huddle together in a perverse attempt at group body heat. You’ll still taste Scotch, but not the way you were meant to.
The exception is blends, which combine malt whiskies with firmer, more ice-friendly grain whiskies, usually produced from corn or wheat. We’ll get to blends, but for now let’s leave the ice in the freezer and cozy up to a single malt or three.
Three ingredients make up a single-malt Scotch: barley, yeast and water. The provenance of these ingredients and the way they’re processed determine the taste of the finished product.
For many novice drinkers, Scotch calls to mind ashtrays and cigar butts. But the flavors of whisky range from smoky to silky sweet. Veteran tasters often refer to traces of caramel, chocolate or even gingersnaps, but don’t let the lingo fool you. Your whisky wasn’t made in a bakery, and the master distiller didn’t drop cocoa powder or vanilla into his casks. It’s the fruitful chemistry of barley, yeast and water and their lengthy contact with oak casks during maturation that create hints of other flavors.
Expect to pay between $5 and $20 per drink. A good single malt may go for about $8; less-frequent finds like Springbank and Glengoyne follow a higher road, entering the game around $10 for their 10-year-olds, as much as $30 for older editions, which can retail for more than $500 a bottle. (As with wine, older often means more complex.)
Most smoky whiskies come from the islands off Scotland’s west coast. The first two come from Islay (EYE-la); the third is from the sole distillery on the isle of Skye.
Ardbeg You’re most likely to encounter the 10-year-old, though the 17-year-old sometimes rears its meaty head. Ardbeg isn’t delicate. The primordial sludge the Ileachs (Islay natives) call peat — the same stuff they use to fuel the distillery fires — announces itself like a town crier.
Laphroaig During cold winter pub crawls in St. Andrews, I used to carry around a pint of Laphroaig 10-year-old. The effect is powerful, like swallowing a radiator. Add a finger of water and its peatyness gives way to more gentle flavors like pear and vanilla.
Talisker Though pungent, the Talisker 10-year-old is less seaweedy and more syrupy than the oily Laphroaig and Ardbeg.
If the name starts with glen — Gaelic for “valley” — it’s from mainland Scotland and won’t be as smoky as island whiskies.
Glengoyne You’ll be hard-pressed to find this one, but try it if you do. Distilled just north of Glasgow, Glengoyne is one of the few single malts produced without any peat. The 10- and 17-year-olds hint richly of nuts and honey.
The Glenlivet Seek the 12- and 18-year-olds. You’ll sniff out the oak and flowers right away, followed by the sticky taste of butter. Although it would be a mistake to turn down a 12, cough up a few bucks more for the heavyweight 18 when you find it.
Glenmorangie Ask for “glen-MOR-angey,” which rhymes with “orangey.” The 10-year-old you’ll find in almost any bar is the epitome of sweet, though not in a girly way. (Scotch never goes there.) You’ll notice vanilla, both in smell and taste, as well as raisins and apricots.
In Between Clubs
Defined by unique location or distillation, these are the straddlers on the whisky spectrum.
The Macallan The Macallan distillery is known for its exclusive use of sherry casks. Other distilleries age most of their whiskies in used bourbon casks (see “Scotch Facts,” page 196). The 12- and 18-year-olds are standards, but try anything else at the more upscale 19th holes. (Be careful, though — a bottle of rare Macallan recently sold at auction for almost $40,000.) You’ll taste sherry along with spices and a touch of peat.
Oban Another coastal beauty. Many bars carry the 14-year-old. It has a bit of peat that is overshadowed by salt and butter.
Springbank Distilled in Camp-beltown, Springbank is a scarce commodity in U.S. bars. If your 19th does carry it, let me introduce you to a new friend. You’ll sense the sea in the 10-year-old, but the flavors that surprise are coconut and toffee.
On average, blended whiskies contain 30 percent to 60 percent grain whisky; the rest is malt whisky. Until the mid-20th century, consumers were offered little else.
Chivas Regal A friend of mine loves Chivas 12 mixed with ginger ale. I’m not one to judge, but this is appalling. Chivas is both sweet and smoky — too precious to be mixed with soda.
Dewars Look for the White Label and the less-common 12-year-old. Like Johnnie’s Black to Red, the 12 runs circles around the White, but it’s damn hard to find.
Johnnie Walker All self-respecting publicans stock the Red and Black Labels. Red is harsh, but Black is beautiful — smokier than other blends, yet smoother than Ernie Els in velour.