With fewer than a hundred distilleries left in Scotland supplying a vast global market, it could be argued that there is no slack in the competition to allow for a bad Scotch. However, while all Scotch whisky must be entirely produced in Scotland and aged for at least three years with a minimum 40 percent alcohol, there is sufficient breadth in flavor and blend across the board to stimulate analysis for the serious connoisseur. Ultimately, choosing a good Scotch depends on the specific character you require, as well as your position on single malt versus blended whiskies.
Arguably the most distinctive Scotch whiskies are the single malts, which are made from 100 percent malted barley from a single distillery. However, even a single malt can be a blend, although it must come from barrels within the same distillery. Those whiskies that come from a unique source are called single barrel Scotches, favored by the Balvenie distillery, for example, but can vary enormously in character. Single malts are worth choosing if they offer a specific attribute, such as the creamy, fruity Glenlivet or Macallan malts, which are notable for aging in sherry casks. Similarly, respected vintages such as the Old Particular Craigellachie Speyside 17-year-old are interesting for the collector. Otherwise, single malts lack the consistency of blended whiskies and, like fine wine, fluctuate between outstanding vintages and less remarkable editions.
Blended Scotches account for 90 percent of the whisky market and the best-known brands, but by no means does this imply a compromise in quality. On the contrary, blends, which can comprise anything from 15 to 30 single whiskies, showcase the skill of the distillery’s master blender in creating a consistent character over a longer period. Unlike single malts, blends can incorporate grain whisky such as maize or wheat, so they are not as pure. However, blended whiskies are ideal for those who find a brand that they like and want to stick with it. Johnnie Walker, Ballantine’s and Chivas Regal constitute the big three blended whisky brands, and range from Johnnie Walker’s dependable mixers such as Red and Black Label to Chivas’s impressive 12-year-old vintages for a special occasion.
Purists will argue that the region a Scotch comes from defines its character, based on fine details such as local water sources. In modern production, however, house style is the better guideline, and it can be misleading to talk of regional character, with the possible exception of whiskies from Islay. Scotch comes from five defined regions. Lowlands whiskies such as Glenkinchie are triple-distilled and will appeal to the whisky novice, while the Speyside malts, such as Glenlivet and Macallan, offer plenty of nose. Campbeltown has only two remaining distilleries, while the Highlands region accounts for 80 percent of Scotch production, with some complex young malts including Glenmorangie, the most popular whisky within Scotland. Choose an Islay region whisky such as Laphroaig for a characteristic peaty, smoky aroma that manages to enrapture and repel whisky drinkers in equal measure.
The Age Factor
Whisky does not mature once it is in the bottle, but the year of production or age listed on the label can still serve as a valuable indicator of quality. All Scotch must be at least 3 years old, but the better brands are at least 5; the more illustrious single malts come in ages from 10 to 21 years at least. Bear in mind that the age for blends is pegged at the age of the youngest whisky. The International Wine and Spirit Competition named just 30 gold outstanding award-winners in 2014, a list spanning the 10-year-old Talisker to Jura vintages from the 1970s, so it’s worth seeking shortlisted vintages for a sublime experience.
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- Scotch Whisky Association: Scotch Whisky Categories
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- Business Insider: The 18 Best Bottles of Scotch in the World
- International Wine and Spirit Competition: 2014 Gold Outstanding Award Winners
- Serious Eats: The Serious Eats Guide to Single Malt Scotch
- Serious Eats: What Is the Difference between Single Malt and Blended Whisky
- Photo Credit Jag_cz/iStock/Getty Images
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