Cigars. Leather couches. Wood-paneled club rooms. Cut crystal. Old money. Privilege.
If there’s one thing single-malt Scotches can’t be accused of being associated with, it’s cheapness. There’s a prestige and classicism to the spirit and with good reason: Off-the-shelf bottles generally run between $50 and $100. Rare and exceptionally aged bottles can fetch thousands.
The record? A more than 50-year-old Glenfiddich Janet Sheed Roberts Reserve (named after the distillery founder’s granddaughter) fetched a staggering $94,000 at a charity auction.
So why does Scotch inspire such devotion, indeed fanaticism, among its followers?
“Single-malt Scotch offers a sense of place,” says John Keife, co-owner of Keife and Co., a wine and spirits shop in the Warehouse District. “It’s about pedigree and prestige, heritage and tradition.”
Keife explains that the oldest operating distilleries in the world are Scottish, some of which pre-date the United States.
Not surprisingly, the British crown wanted to profit from the spirit’s popularity. Glenlivet, the first recipient of a distillery license, received that permission in 1824.
Not just any whisky can call itself single-malt Scotch, standards that add to the spirit’s cache. Much like champagne, strict labeling laws limit what can pass itself off as the real deal. According to the Scotch Whisky Regulations of 2009, a whisky calling itself single-malt Scotch must meet several requirements: the spirit must be pot-stilled at a single distillery in Scotland and made from malted barley. Blended Scotch refers to spirits produced by more than one Scottish distillery while whisk(e)y is the term for like spirits produced outside the country, as in French or Tennessee whiskey.
Japan’s Suntory, of Bill Murray fame in “Lost in Translation,” is a huge whiskey producer. Unlike Scotch, whiskey isn’t restricted to barley, but can be made from other grains such as corn, rye or wheat.
A final requirement for single-malt Scotch and one that furthers its genteel reputation is age: spirits must be casked in oak for a minimum of three years.
However, as Chris Riesbeck, brand ambassador for the independent bottler Gordon and MacPhail, notes, some Scotches are later re-racked, a shift that adds dimension to the taste. Former Sherry casks and Bourbon barrels are fairly common. Most off-the-shelf single-malt Scotches are aged from 10-20 years with the figure generally displayed prominently on the bottle.
And just how important is that number? Is older necessarily better?
“There’s still an impression that it’s an age competition,” says Nick Detrich, bartender and co-owner of Cane and Table in the French Quarter. Dietrich notes that age isn’t necessarily an indicator of excellence. Indeed some of the smaller volume distilleries that can’t afford to keep their bottles off the market for a decade are now choosing to leave age information off the label.
For Riesbeck, age isn’t about excellence but about flavor. He explains that drinkers can expect more “juicy” notes such as apple, pear or even vanilla from bottles aged a decade or less whereas older bottles at 15-20 years tend to take on earthier, more leathery tones.
But how to choose? While flavor profiles vary widely between regions and distilleries, single-malt Scotch divides itself into two basic categories: “classic” peated Scotches and more accessible, nonpeated styles.
Dietrich describes how U.S. soldiers stationed in Europe during the World Wars returned with an affinity for the spirit, and with the post-war boom of the 1950s and 1960s, American demand for Scotch increased. The spirit became synonymous with sophistication and style.
Detrich also comments that it was during this era that some distilleries moved away from smokey, peated flavors toward lighter styles in order to appeal to a wider audience. Speyside, on the northern coast and a powerhouse among Scotland’s five whisky producing regions, is known for these more elegant, often fruitier, perfumed notes, and Speyside single malts are sometimes compared with cognac. In contrast, the eight distilleries on the island of Islay are known as stalwarts for the heavily peated approach.
John Keife of Keife and Co.
Cardhu 12 Year: Smooth, light, delicate. “A gateway Scotch.”
Oban 14 Year: Slightly richer than the Cardhu, but still approachable.
Ardberg 10 Year: Smokey, oiley, leathery.
Lagavulin 16 Year: Heavily peated, top of the line classic.
Nick Detrich of Cane and Table
Aberlour 12 Year: Finished in sherry casks, nutty, lush and briney; from the Speyside region.
Balvenie: Recasked in rum barrels that lend molasses, black-strap tones.
Laphroaig Quarter Cask: Serious smoke and leather; from the isle of Islay.
Highland Park 12 Year: Reasonably priced; peppery; from the Kirkwall region at northern tip of Scotland.
Chris Riesbeck of Gordon and MacPhail
Smith’s Glenlivet 15 Year: Fruit, nut and spice notes; re-racked in sherry casks.
Glen Grant 10 Year: Reracked in bourbon casks; creamy and fruity, slightly dry.
Mortlach 15 Year: Rich with hints of orange, significant smoke; Mortlach is often found in Johnnie Walker blends.
Benromach 10 Year: Award-winning; fruit-forward with peat and smoke; sherry cask aged for its final year.