Ask the bartender: Whisky without the "e," from A to Z
Sean Kenyon knows how to pour out both drinks and advice. A third-generation bar man with almost 25 years behind the bar, he is a student of cocktail history, a United States Bartenders Guild-certified Spirits Professional and a BAR Ready graduate of the prestigious Beverage Alcohol Resource Program. You can find him behind the bar at Squeaky Bean -- and here every week, where he'll answer your questions. This round, it's whisky -- without the "e."
I'll take my whisky without the "e."
I grew up in a scotch-drinking family. Though they were proud of their Irish Catholic heritage, my father and grandfather generally ignored Irish whiskey (except on St. Patrick's Day) in favor of Scotch whisky (no "e"). My dad was fond of Johnny Walker Black, while Grandpa touched nothing but Dewar's White Label (eeeeewwww).
My own first sip of alcohol at age eleven was from a bottle of Johnny Walker stolen from my father's plentiful cabinet. My friend, Dave, and I listened to Led Zeppelin on the 8-track (yes, 8-track -- it only played one way, no rewind) in his room and polished off the bottle. I got so drunk that I crashed my ten-speed on the way home, destroyed the bike and cut my head open. It was nothing a few stitches couldn't fix, but it was eleven years before I was brave enough to try scotch again, and coincidentally, it was Johnny Walker Black. After a while, it became my drink of choice (on the rocks).
Over the years I moved on from Johnny Walker (though I still love it) and have become a scotch connoisseur of sorts, collecting my favorite bottles and sharing them with friends when they come to my home. There are many misconceptions about the scotch category in general, so this round I'd like to unravel the mysteries a bit...
There are four major types of whisky that fall under the category of scotch:
Single Malt Whisky: Must be produced in a single distillery, distilled in a single season and made from 100 percent malted barley. Single malts can only be produced in pot stills. Examples: Lagavulin, Balvenie, Glenlivet.
Blended Malt Whiskey: Must be 100 percent malted barley, but a blend from at least two different single malt distilleries. Examples: Johnny Walker Green Label, Monkey Shoulder (new to the United States and amazing), Compass Box.
Blended Scotch Whisky: Single malt whiskies (can be from several sources) blended with grain spirits (see below) and brought to proof with distilled water. The single malts and grain spirits are aged separately, then blended and aged together. Blended scotch whiskey can be distilled in pot or column stills. Examples: Johnny Walker Red and Black, Chivas Regal, Dewar's.
Grain Whisky: Mainly used as an ingredient in blended scotch whisky. Grain whisky can be made with corn, wheat or barley and is distilled predominantly in column stills.
All scotch whiskies must be aged for at least three years. While there is no specific regulation concerning barrels, used bourbon barrels are the most common choice for aging the spirit.
Misconception #1: Single malt whisky is better than blended whisky. The craze for single malts in the U.S. started sometime in the '80s and was a brilliant marketing ploy for the Scots. At the time, cognac was huge and single malt scotches appealed to that "refined" palate that had turned to cognac. For sure, there are amazing single malts (Ardbeg comes to mind...). But, there are also fantastic blends. Johnny Walker Gold is an incredible blended scotch, Monkey Shoulder an exemplary blended malt. There is truly an art to being a Master Blender of Scotch, and the whiskies are crafted to create complex and harmonious spirit.
Like great wines, scotch (maybe more than most spirits) reflects the characteristics of Scotland's terroir. The spirits of each region reflect the land in the bottle.
Maritime scotches: Include Islay, Isle of Skye, Mull, Arran, Orkney and Campbelltown. These scotches are intense and well-known for the elements of the seas and smoke in their flavor profiles. When I drink Islay scotches, I always think of building a fire (maybe with damp wood from an old boat) on a rocky shoreline in blustery weather. Like the fire, the scotch is smoky and warming with notes of brine, iodine and peat. Peat is compressed vegetable matter that lays beneath the ground all over Scotland; it is dug out in logs that are burned to dry the grains used for making whiskey. Peat is responsible for the scotch category's distinctive flavor.
Highlands, Speyside and Lowlands: In general, the whiskies of the inland regions are less intense and smoky than their coastal cousins. Highlands scotches may have floral notes and slightly sweet notes, like heather and honey. The Speyside region is home to some of the world's most famous whisky distilleries -- Glenlivet, Glenfiddich and Balvenie just to name a few.
Misconception #2: Scotch is meant to be consumed in the colder months. Wrong. I do enjoy a great smoky Islay whisky when the temperature dips into the teens. But I'm a year-round Scotch consumer. During the warmer season, I like a lighter blended whisky on the rocks or with some water. To me, it's never out of season.
Misconception #3: You should only drink Scotch neat or on the rocks; it doesn't work in cocktails. Wrong again. Scotch can be excellent in cocktails. It brings a lot to the table from a flavor perspective and is actually great to work with. I'lll leave you with two excellent examples: