Fall is officially here, just as the seasons change, so do drinking habits. White wine drinkers are turning to reds, beer drinkers are reaching for darker, stronger beers, and spirits drinkers are making the remarkable switch to single malt scotch.
I know you all anticipated an article on…well…beer! But I’d be remiss to leave out the mention of single malt scotches for the autumn.
Spirits can be a confusing market to follow, and when you’re standing in the liquor store staring at a wall of beautifully decorated bottles marked Scotch, Rye, Blended and so on it can be difficult to discern which one contains the libation best suited to your personal taste.
Let’s begin with the most basic question: What is a single malt scotch? According to our friend, The Internet: “Single Malt Scotch is single malt whisky made in Scotland using a pot still distillation process at a single distillery, with malted barley [yes, the same as beer!] as the only grain ingredient. As with any Scotch whisky, a single malt Scotch must be distilled in Scotland and matured in oak casks for at least three years (most single malts are matured longer).
‘Malt’ indicates that the whisky is distilled from a ‘malted’ grain. Several types of grains can be malted (for example, barley, rye and wheat are all grains which can be malted); however, in the case of single malt Scotch, barley is always the only grain used.
‘Single’ indicates that all the malts in the bottle come from a single distillery. Bottlings containing malt whisky from multiple distilleries are called ‘blended malt’.
And why are single malts popular during the cooler seasons? Quite simply it’s a heavy spirit that is enjoyed for its substantial body and warming effect. Not something suited for hotter weather when you typically want something cool, light and refreshing.
One of the most distinctive qualities of a single malt scotch is the region of origin. Each region in Scotland produces a product that has its own unique flavor, aroma and finish. There are four primary regions in Scotland: Islay, Lowland, Campbeltown and Highland (which also contains the two subdivisions: Island and Speyside.)
The next time you’re in a liquor store take a moment to look at the single malt labels. You’ll notice that the region of origin is prominently displayed. Some of these regions produce more of a peat flavor, while others bring an intense aroma to their scotch.
The amount of time a single malt spends aging in its respective barrel also lends to its characteristics. When you read a label like “Glenlivet 12” or “Macallan 18” the number after the name of the distillery indicates the number of years that scotch has been aged. The more time a scotch spends in the barrel, the smoother it becomes and the more characteristics of the oak are imparted onto the drink. Naturally more time put into the production comes with a higher cost for the final product.
Some single malts are finished in different casks to impart various notes onto the Scotch. Sauternes, sherry or port casks can be used to deliver some sweetness, while rum casks are used to accent the vanilla notes in the final product.
When it comes time to enjoy a single malt scotch there are many different characteristics which add to the experience. The water and barley from each Scottish region imparts its own unique characteristics while the creative use of varying casks will alter the flavor in countless other ways.
Your best bet is to sample single malt scotches from various regions to find the flavor best suited for you. And most importantly, have fun with it.
Brian “The Beer Guy” handles the Craft Beer selection at Brickyard Wine & Spirits in Barrington and organizes the new East Bay Homebrewers Club. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.