When I was 22 and working in a fine-wine shop, I was asked to work the table at the company’s yearly scotch tasting. That night, I tried Balvenie 12 year DoubleWood and knew that, forevermore, I would be a scotch drinker. Scotch combines complex oak notes, elegantly earthy peat, and balanced floral and spice qualities. It’s no wonder my scotch sales spike during the holidays; scotch makes a great gift. However, I have a lot of customers who say, “I need to buy a gift. They like scotch, but I have no idea what to get!” So, do you buy single malt or blended? Islay or Highland? Smokey/peaty or floral/smooth? Though there are many different styles of scotch, I will focus on the most common styles and make it easier to pick the right one for your recipient.
Single-malt scotches make very popular gifts, but there are many good-quality blended scotches, too. Chivas, Johnny Walker, and Dewar’s are our best sellers, but I’ve really fallen for Monkey Shoulder. It’s bold, flavorful and has a long, rich finish. Unlike most blended scotches, Monkey Shoulder does not use any grain whisky in its blend. Instead, it uses three different Speyside malt whiskies. These three whiskies are blended together and then aged in used Bourbon barrels for 3 to 6 months to impart a rich, smooth finish with notes of vanilla. With three brass monkeys–representing the three malts–resting on the shoulder of the bottle, this is a super-stylish bottle any whisky aficionado will be proud to show off on his or her bar.
When picking a single-malt scotch, knowing the region is important since the styles can be radically different. If we start with the region known for having the lightest whisky, it would be the Lowlands. Scotches from this region are typically fresh and fragrant with little to no peat used in the drying process. Delicate and lightly sweet, Auchentoshan and Glenkinchie are excellent examples of Lowland scotches.
A note about Peat: Peat is decomposed plant and vegetable matter that, when dried, is used as fuel. Distilleries in Scotland use peat in the malt-drying process to impart a smoky character to their whiskies.
The Highlands are notably floral and richly textured. They’re also the origin of some of my favorite scotches, including GlenMorangie and Dalmore. To say much more about the category would be difficult since the region is so vast that the individual distilleries impart unique flavors from their surroundings and techniques. Other standouts include Oban, with its maritime influences of sea air, heather and notes of honey, and Dalwhinnie for its grassy, gently smoked finish.
Speyside, on the northeast side of Scotland, is the most concentrated area of distilleries in the country. It boasts over 50 distilleries, including the world’s most popular brands, GlenLivet and Glenfiddich. The smoky character of peat becomes more prevalent in these styles of scotches as does the concentration of spiced nuances. The aforementioned Balvenie generally stands out due to its aging processes. Whether it’s aged in sherry casks, rum barrels, or charred oak, this is a scotch no one will turn his nose up to.
The biggest and most robust of the scotches come from the region of Islay. Whenever I hear, “That’ll put hair on your chest,” I automatically assume they are drinking Lagavulin, the whisky most synonymous with Islay. Densely layered and heavily peated, these whiskies are like double IPAs for beer drinkers. At one point in their lives, it may have been a dare that got them to try it, but once they did, they were hooked! Laphroaig is full of character but light in style with spicy medicinal notes. Ardbeg is rich and sleek with rounded iodine tones, and Lagavulin is bold and intense, featuring bacon fat, smoke and sweet spices with remarkable balance.
I hope this blog has cleared the misty fog over which scotch to buy for the VIPs in your life! Hopefully, they will have the same eye-opening, pulse-quickening experience I had.
Which is your favorite scotch? Tweet me at @Ninoswineexpert