While signing books at a whisky exhibition in Chicago a couple of years back, I remember hearing the conversation of two men who were standing in line at my table. They were yakking about what they perceived to be the rigors of attaining intimate Scotch single malt whisky knowledge.
“You hear that guy back at the Macallan table?” asked one. “He was saying to me that it takes only a few years to develop a good palate for single malts. So I say to him, ‘My friend was in Scotland and he claimed that some whisky expert told him it takes fifteen, maybe twenty years to get good.’ A few years! I don’t think so.”
I’ve been struck over the last decade how wine geeks have nothing on single malt Scotch geeks in terms of broad misconceptions, in particular, when it comes to the cultivation and ownership of expertise. Too many entry-level whisky enthusiasts talk themselves into believing that they’ll never be adept at discerning the nuances of a multifaceted spirit like single malt Scotch. The misleading conventional wisdom supports this view.
I’m here to tell you that becoming Scotch malt whisky savvy is not on-par with acing the MENSA entrance exam. While single malt Scotch whiskies are this planet’s most complex and engaging spirit, acquiring the skills to understand and appreciate them on a deep sensory level is a relatively straightforward process.
In the end here’s the deal: Tasting like a professional begins with: understanding the primary flavors of single malt and how they relate to the category; creating a personal tasting format in which one’s senses of smell and taste learn to work in coordination in order to mine the most information for your library/archive; learning how to recognize what I term “thumbprint” experiences, meaning becoming adept at identifying a single malt’s individual characteristics that make it stand out from the pack; and remembering your impressions to compile an experiential library. Ultimately, it’s the thumbprints, or benchmarks, that determine the breadth and depth of our comprehension and, by extension, our degree of enjoyment over time.
Enough with the pep rally. Let’s do it.
Single Malt Scotch Tasting 101: The Indispensible “Hows”
· Always taste single malts with friends for the purpose of sharing impressions and, thereby, learning from each other. Your growth as a taster will expand significantly faster if you taste as part of a regular group. Aside: Helps to keep costs down, as well.
· Start out by tasting at least four but no more than six single malts from anywhere within Scotland just to become accustomed to the wide array of smells, tastes and textures of single malts. As you get more experienced, begin to focus your flights more on individual whisky-making areas, like Islay, Speyside, the Lowlands, etc. Next, start to examine the various malt whisky expressions of individual distilleries. The key to steadfast learning is to continue to narrow your focus, so that pivotal differences of individual whiskies become glaringly apparent after you’ve established the ground floor of your mental archive.
· Taste single malts blind. This means taste the malts without knowing what they are in order to challenge your senses. By heightening your awareness due to dealing with the unknown, your senses of smell and taste sharpen tenfold. People who suffer from poor or no sight cultivate other senses to compensate. Trust your nose and your 10,000 taste buds. Aside: Blind tasting, of course, requires somebody to organize the tasting for the group.
· Never use plastic glasses or paper cups. Do not use squat Double Old-Fashioned tumblers. The best glass by a wide margin is a 5 to 6-ounce, short-stemmed, tulip-shaped, tapered wine glass with a narrow rim, called the copita. The idea is to funnel the aroma into the nasal cavity to give the olfactory sense the best chance to form clear impressions, impressions that will assist you with forming opinions about styles and types of single malts. Aside: Copitas are the traditional glass of Spanish Sherry producers and the most widely employed glass type in the Scotch whisky industry. Quality whiskies, like Scotch single malts, deserve quality glassware in order to showcase their virtues in the most advantageous vessel.
· Arrange the flight in order of lowest in alcohol by volume (abv) to highest in abv. If all single malts chosen are the same abv, arrange from youngest to oldest.
· Pre-pour all the single malts in your test flight, numbered one, two, three, etc. Pour two ounces of room temperature single malt whisky into the glass of each participant. I suggest measuring so that you get used to seeing what two ounces look like. Everyone gets the identical amount. You need enough liquid in order to smell it twice, taste it at least twice, and then add water to it for the final round of sniffing and tasting.
· Smell and sample the single malt whisky two times before adding one-half ounce of room temperature mineral water to it. It’s better to form first impressions without dilution. Aside: Why add water? The mineral water helps to release the aroma.
· Make certain to employ spittoons (use opaque 16-ounce plastic cups) during blind tasting sessions. Consumption of alcohol impairs anyone’s ability to keenly taste, recognize, gather data and learn. Save the imbibing for afterward.
· As a matter of routine, have plenty of mineral water, bland cheeses (mild cheddar, Muenster, Monterey jack are all good) and neutral-tasting crackers close at hand to counter the alcohol as well as to cleanse the palate between tastes.
· Last, it’s preferable to emulate Scotland’s master distillers who relate what they smell and taste to commonplace items, such as fruits (tropical, red, yellow, dried) and nuts; spices (baking or cooking) and mint (peppermint, spearmint); citric, tannic acids; flowers; candies; baked goods like breads, cookies, pastries, yeast, dough, pie crust; smoke, tobacco, ashes, soot; coffee, cocoa, tea; and, naturally, the big four of sweet, sour, bitter, salty.
Presently, there are around 90 operating single malt distilleries spread out over Scotland’s islands and mainland. The paramount pleasures of single malt appreciation accelerate when you begin to recognize regional and, the ultimate kick in the head, individual distillery characteristics. Initially, I suggest that you put aside anything that you’ve read or heard about Scotland’s so-called whisky districts. These loose definitions (I myself have classified nine districts) do not assist the average punter in becoming more astute in the early days.
Ignore the districts concept in favor of learning how first to determine whether or not a whisky comes from a malt distillery that’s positioned near the sea, what I call “maritime malts,” or from a distillery that’s located in the Highlands away from the coast, or what I term “inland malts.” By starting with these two basic areas, you’ll gradually learn how to identify more specific locations.
Reduce the possibilities of a single malt’s place of origin by using the deduction method: figure out what the single malt is not and work backwards from there. If the whisky’s an inland, non-coastal single malt, it’s highly unlikely that there will be evidence in the aroma or taste of saltiness, sea air, seaweed, brine or dill. Maritime malts, on the other hand, won’t typically emit scents or flavors of cereal grain, flowers, minerals or fruit without some indication of saltiness or brininess.
Many single malts from Scotland have a smoky quality from peat. Peat is vegetation that’s halfway to becoming coal and is commonly employed in Scotland’s whisky industry to dry dampened barley in kilns. The smokiness from peat can appear in either maritime or inland malts. Peat gives off smoky, ash-like qualities in single malts that vary in degree from light and sweet to heavy and medicinal. Amount of peatiness is not a quality factor, but more a stylistic aspect.
About More Than Age
Younger single malts (15 years old and younger) will taste fresh, intensely grainy and vibrant while older malts (older than 15) will feature stronger flavors that can seem woody, resiny, honey-like or spicy. Age is not a determination of quality. In fact, many single malt Scotches are at their peak in the 12- to 20-year-old range.
Finally, as you are savoring the single malts in your tasting, take note of the one characteristic of each that speaks the loudest to you and file that trait away in your private archive for future reference. It’s usually that attribute that will be the all-important thumbprint. Each single malt whisky has a distinct benchmark virtue that has occurred for a variety of reasons: how the whisky was distilled; the type of oak barrel that it was stored in; where the distillery sits; or the water that was used. Any number of environmental or production influences can form the thumbprint that will stick with you. It’s these inherent peculiarities that will form the foundation of your personal single malt Scotch whisky library, brick by brick by brick.