A Primer on Whisky: A True Man’s Drink.

Now, I have contended that masculinity is neither improved nor impeded by the ability to drink the divine elixir: whisky. However, I will say whisky (otherwise known as Scotch) is a truly manly drink with a number of wonderful notes, flavors, and bouquets. So grab some.

Whisky, as apart from Whiskey, comes from the Gaelic word “Uisce” which means water. If that doesn’t tell you something about the Scottish little else will. Whisky in its current form was developed in the 16th century. If you define it as an aged wheat distillate aged in wood container then whisky is about 3-4 centuries older than that. Whiskey (with an “e”) is what is called Irish or American continental whiskeys.

To be Whisky the elixir must be made in Scotland, with Scottish water, and aged at least 6 years in an oak barrel. The water is actually quite important. The heavy granite composition of Scotland makes the water slightly basic, which compared to the mostly limestone composition of the eastern North American continent, and the peaty marshlands of Ireland, cannot be replicated elsewhere.

The wheat, barley in this case, must be malted (letting the grain sit in water until it just begins to germinate to release the sugars). Then the germinated germ is roasted, mashed, mixed with water and allowed to ferment. After reaching relatively low alcohol content the distillation process begins to increase the alcohol content and remove water. Storing the whisky distillate in an oak barrel ages the whisky. The flavors are mostly created in this process. The longer the aging the more oxidation occurs, drawing out bitter acidic flavors and adding flavors from the oak. This is why it is generally better to age a whisky longer, as well as use a variety of different types of oak barrels, such as ones that have been used to distill sherry, wine, brandy, are new oak, charred, or many other options.

There are at least six different whisky-producing regions in Scotland depending on the definitions. All whiskies start off as single-malts and after that are sometimes blended to highlight certain tones, or cover-up bad ones as the case for cheaper mixed whiskies are.

First and most well known of the whisky-producing regions are Speysides, which is a subset of highland scotches that sit in the delta of the River Spey. Some famous names are Glenlivet, MacAllan, Glenfiddich, Balviene and McClelland. The notes on these scotches tend to be lighter and sweeter—or at least as light and sweet as scotch can be.

Secondly there are “Highland Scotches” which tend to be abrasive, smoky and strong, but have their characteristic notes from scotch to scotch. Often the producers include citrusy notes to balance the strength of the scotch. Some well know brands are Oban, Glenmorangie, and Dalmore.

Lowland scotches are defined by the southern half of Scotland’s, whose major cultural center is Glasgow. This area is much marshier than the Highland, so the scotches tend to be light and smoky. However, it is interesting to note that ale culture permeates this area, which is why there are less notable brands. The brands of this area are not poor, but they are just not as celebrated.

To the northwest and northeast of Scotland there are a variety of islands such as the Hebrides and Orkneys that have their own highly varied scotch brands. They tend to use a little more peat than usual, which makes the scotches pleasingly smoky, but these are also harsh to keep up the preservation in the historically impoverished island areas. Well known brands include Talisker and Orkneys.

Finally the Islay and Campbletown scotches are the two densest whisky-producing regions. Because the Islay is between Scotland and Ireland as well as Campbletown being a small peninsula jutting into the Irish Sea these scotches seem to pick-up the saltiness of the sea into their flavor and bouquet. They almost all use peat and when combined with the saltiness are smoky and savory without being overly bitter. Ardberg, Bowmore, Lagavulin, and Laphroaig are the best-known names.

Now, as a scotch connoisseur I am in the habit of never criticizing any whisky, although I do have my favorites and some of which I am not so fond. However, I am not the final authority on scotch and I recommend you sample many to find your favorites.

A final note on how to drink scotch, you may see this video for a demonstration. Most first timers should probably start with an oldy-but-goody like Glenlivet. There is a general apprehension about watering down whiskey either with ice or water. To water it down too much destroys the point of drinking the whisky, but whisky should definitely be cool, which is why it is appropriate to use a whisky stone: a soap-stone cube that is cooled in the freezer. It is even appropriate to water scotch down by 5-10% with a small amount of distilled water so as not to interfere with the flavor. However, as you develop into a true Scotsman you will eventually learn this isn’t strictly speaking necessary, especially as the bite subsides.

I fully hope at HQ Atlanta’s eventual location that we can have a wide variety of scotches to satisfy our manly customer bases great yearning for a good, relaxing scotch. Hope you can be there!

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