Scotch whisky may be the single most luxurious item from a country known for its thrift. The silky, smokey amber liquid has become an aspirational beverage, signaling luxury and affluence. Most assume that it’s best aged, expensive and savored in a pure, undiluted form by those with enough age and experience to appreciate such a fine spirit.
The demographics of Scotch drinkers are changing—growing younger and more diverse. Although formal market research indicates that Scotch drinkers are largely male and 50-plus years of age, there is plenty of evidence to suggest otherwise. Sam Simmons, a brand ambassador for The Balvenie, pegs the average Scotch drinker he sees now at a mere 35 years of age. Everyone interviewed for this article marveled at how many women are embracing Scotch, and not just for the delicate flavors either.
Here’s what’s going on in Scotch right now.
Single malts still rule the roost.
It wasn’t so long ago that single malts were nearly impossible to find. But the category has come roaring to life over the past couple of decades, and still continues to grow. According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, sales of single-malt Scotch rose 2.5% in 2009, while blended Scotch fell 5.1%.
In addition to single malts prominently featured on the back bar or a display shelf, a growing number of bars also offer Bible-sized whisky menus showcasing a “library” of rare Scotches. New York’s Brandy Library is perhaps the most extreme example, offering 270 single-malt selections.
According to Simmons (also known to some as “Dr. Whisky”), the driving factors behind the single-malt boom are the romance and nostalgia associated with Scotch, as well as the sheer status symbol power single malts have in some circles. Single malts to try: The Balvenie Doublewood; The Dalmore Gran Reserva; Glenkinchie 12-year.
Blends are getting more respect. Fast.
Blended Scotches have long been a mainstay of the industry—in fact, over 90% of whisky produced goes into blended whiskies. And though single malts have garnered all the recent glory, interest in blends is increasing. Much of that energy can be attributed to Compass Box, a 10-year-old brand known for its memorable names (“Peat Monster,” “Hedonism”) and modern stylish packaging. But it’s what’s inside the bottle that has drawn a cult-like following.
Compass Box whiskymaker John Glaser says that blended whiskies have the luxury of ignoring age and the constraints of working within a single distillery. “Scotland is my distillery,” he quips.
Instead, the challenge of a blend is to identify and draw on the Scotches with the best characteristics, creating a Best in Breed. “Blending is a platform for creativity,” Glaser says. “You can create things that no single distillery can produce.”
However, Glaser also concedes that “the line is starting to blur between single malt and blended,” as distilleries like Glenmorangie blend together Scotches aged for different periods of time, and in casks with different finishes, to create a singledistillery “recipe” that resembles the blend process. Blended whiskies to try: Compass Box Spice Tree; Compass Box Oak Cross; The Singleton of Glendullan 12-year; Johnnie Walker Blue.
In terms of flavor profiles, smokey and peaty Scotches also have developed a significant following. Compass Box’s Glaser likens the distinctiveness of a smokey profile to hot sauce: “Once you get used to it, everything else will be boring forevermore. Once you get there, you don’t go back.”
Some distillers have noticed the enthusiasm, and have deliberately amped up the smoke quotient. But some say it’s possible to have too much of a good thing.
“Distilleries are making a pretty big push for heavy peat,” notes Ethan Kelley, owner of Drink Straight.com, an online educational resource, and formerly “spirits sommelier” at New York’s Brandy Library. “But there’s heavy peat, and then there’s ‘good lord!’” Smokey/Peaty Scotches to try: Laphroaig Quar ter Cask; Talisker 10-year; Oban 14-year.
A lighter touch.
At the other end of the spectrum, Scotches with lighter flavors— honey, floral heather, roasted nuts—have gained popularity. “Scotch doesn’t have to massacre your palate,” insists Elli Benchimol, beverage director at Againn, a British-inspired restaurant in Washington, D.C. with a substantial Scotch program. “It can be very delicate and beautiful.”
She notes that lighter, sweeter, un-peated Scotches appeal particularly to younger drinkers accustomed to fruity vodka drinks. Some experts liken these to smooth Japanese whiskies, which also have found favor with drinkers who prefer a gentler tipple.
Lighter Scotches to try: Glenmorangie’s Nectar D’Or; Wemyss Malts Single Highland Scotch Whisky (“The Hive”); Glenfiddich 15-year
Scotch cocktails are getting interesting.
In the cocktail world, the depth and complexity of smokey flavors are very much in vogue, and peated Scotches are one way bartenders are coaxing ethereal smoke into liquid form. Classics like the Blood & Sand or Rusty Nail as well as innovative new drinks are appearing on cocktail menus.
Kelley advises against burying expensive, super-premium spirits in a cocktail. As a bartender, “using some $50 bottle in a cocktail is not a very bright business move,” he grumbles. On the other hand, quality ingredients make a quality cocktail, so….your move.
The Terroir of Scotch
The taste of Scotch, much like that of wine, depends on where it is produced. Flavor may change based on factors including the water from which the Scotch is made; the peat (a type of moss over which the water flows); the air surrounding the cask during maturation; even the presence of heather or seaweed in the peat. Some say even the color of the distiller’s tartan makes a difference!
Here are the major regions where single-malt Scotch is made, and the (very general) flavor characteristics of each area:
The Highlands: The largest of the distilling areas, and often broken down further into distinct areas, including the famed Speyside. Scotch flavors vary widely over the region, from light to smokey.
The Lowlands: Soft, sweetish, fruity malts relying less on peat and more on the flavor of the malt itself.
Islay: Pronounced EYE-la, Islay Scotches are renowned as distinctive, full-bodied smoke bombs, full of peat and a bracing touch of sea-air brine.
Cambeltown: Only three distilleries remain in this relatively isolated region, but they are known for light peatiness, freshness, and an intriguing cross between sea-air saltiness and sweet flavors.
Water or Ice?
Is a dram of Scotch always best served straight up? Not necessarily. In fact, a growing number of mixologists encourage patrons to experiment. Some automatically serve two additional glasses, one with water and one with ice, alongside an order of Scotch.
Even a few drops of water can play a surprising role, “opening up” latent flavors in the whisky. “In every pub in Scotland, there’s a wee pitcher of water on the bar, because people add water to their whisky there,” explains Laphroaig/Ardmore Global Ambassador Simon Brooking. “As you add water, you find more sweetness and vanilla. Like a rose, it opens a bouquet.” However, he notes that American drinkers often balk at adding water, concerned about “diluting” an expensive brand.
And what of ice? Of course, the chill of ice helps take down the heat of alcohol in the spirit; Brooking cautions that adding ice will also cut down on the flavor and aroma. Drinkers in damp, rainy Scotland are unlikely to add ice to their whisky, while warmer-clime Americans will happily reach for a cube.