Scotch is an amazing product. It can elicit so many reactions – ranging from the enthusiasts’ passionate debate of minute details through to the baulk of a whisky novice sampling its hallmark flavours for the first time. It’s incredibly diverse and can be taken neat, with ice, chilled, mixed in cocktails and downed with cola, dry or other soft drinks. So what is this mysterious elixir and how do we engage it correctly? That’s a question often asked yet rarely well answered.
In its barest essence, Scotch is grain tricked into germination to create sugar, which is then fermented by yeast in water. The funky result is akin to flat, strong beer called wash, which is then distilled (a clear liquid at this point), stuck in a barrel and left for many a year (hopefully).
If you’re in Scotland making whisky then you have to follow the government’s legislation for production, which is designed to protect Scotch’s inherent ‘Scotchiness’ – that flavour which defines it from the other mob, such as Bourbon, Irish, Canadian and international whiskies. Folk from Japan to Sweden are distilling very well in the same model as the Scots; the only problem is that they can’t call it Scotch.
By law only whisky made in Scotland can be called Scotch (much like only sparkling wine made in Champagne can be called Champagne), and with the first written reference for distillation coming from 1494 they’ve got a pretty solid claim on the stuff (if you want to be technical, you might find it was actually the Irish who did whisky first). Back in the heady early days of Scottish history, Scotch was a great by–product of grain surplus and was largely under the dominion of monks. Its character was forged by the national identity growing up and its peculiarities can be attributed largely to the Scots’ checkered and lively beef with the English. What began as a crude local moonshine has arrived in modern times as a stylish product.
Now, to clarify one of the biggest fallacies, not all Scotch is the same. There are four families to consider: grain whisky, blended whisky, single malt whisky and blended malt whisky. It’d be easy to throw them all under the ‘Scotch’ banner if they weren’t so damn different. Grain whisky is rarely seen here, and is produced from 100% wheat. Blended whisky comprises more than 80% of all Scotch consumed worldwide and, importantly, is a blend of grain whiskies and single malt whiskies. The two are used together in a similar dynamic to cordial, with grain providing the body and single malt providing the flavour; this yields a soft, sweet and approachable result. Single malt is made using 100% malted barley which, coupled with traditional pot distillation (from the one distillery only), delivers much more robust flavour and complexity. Blended malt is a mixture of different single malts, which we see few of in Australia yet of which Johnnie Walker Green Label is a fine example. Phew! Now we can actually get talking about drinking the stuff…
When it comes to consumption, forget everything you’ve heard. There are no rules for drinking Scotch. True, blends are suited to mixing and many are designed for that market but they can be taken neat or on ice too. Single malt has a bigger, ballsier flavour but can also be used in delicious cocktails. As there’s no right or wrong, it’s up to each of us to embark on our own personal mission. David Baker, from Mt Dandenong’s Bakery Hill Distillery makes cracking single malts yet is quick to point out that he believes “it’s up to personal taste about how to enjoy your whisky, and it’s my job to show people the way so they can discover their own journey”.
For folk just discovering Scotch there’s an industry template which suggests that a novice begin with blended Scotch, perhaps mixed, then move into the lighter bodied single malts on ice or neat. It makes sense to break people in gently and as Baker suggests, “new drinkers into the category really need to find a great guide, a bartender or professional who can educate their palate”.
If this is the case Greg Sanderson, Victoria’s ambassador for The Classic Malts range, submits a good formula for finding out how you like to take it: “Smell it and gently sip it first, to sample its original character, then add a little water at a time, smelling and tasting as you go to discover its subtler flavours.” This is a great system for tasting whisky, because (without talking chemistry) water releases hidden layers in a whisky. What you may find garish, spicy and hot may become aromatised, floral and perfumed with water added. From there, if you’re into the water thing, try it with ice for a different experience again, one that lends a constricting chill to your palate.
Attitudes everywhere are changing, and with them single malt consumption, in Baker’s words, is “going ballistic!” The idea that Scotch is free for us to discover at our own pace is refreshing, and perhaps, as Sanderson notes, “it doesn’t need to be talked about too much, just enjoyed with friends”. We might take a leaf out of his book.