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Wednesday 28 June 2017
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Point of Brew: Single Malt Scotch

As you may know, I write a beer column in a wine magazine. I enjoy a wide range of foods and beverages, and would taste almost anything if I thought it would help me establish a benchmark of quality. If I were less busy and could afford to take a ‘food-poisoning vacation’ more often, I’d be far more adventurous.

Once, I was in a wine tasting room enjoying a glass of wine when a group came in. One man in the group, when asked if he would like to taste wine, announced proudly for all to hear, “I’m more of a single malt Scotch guy!” He made it clear that this would preclude the notion of tasting this other oak-aged alcoholic beverage.

While I respect a person’s right to confine himself to a certain category of taste, I don’t always understand it. I wondered, would this man drink brandy—which is essentially a whiskey made of grapes? Would he drink beer—which is a whisk(e)y that has not yet been distilled?

Pondering on this forced me to realize that I’ve never properly presented my thoughts on distilled beer. For the record, I think it’s great… but I’ll go into more detail with some notes on a few of my favorite single malt Scotches.

Single Malt Scotch

Laphroaig is a delightfully smoky Scotch that somehow exhibits a perfect balance amidst seemingly chaotic oceanic notes. As with most single malt Scotches, the 10- to 12-year range shows the best balance between the power of youth and the restraint of age.

Ten-year-old Talisker is a peat and pepper giant. The color is a clean, vibrant deep gold/faint rust. The smell is alcohol-driven and huge, with a display of pepper, smoke and tropical fruit. An older Talisker offering like the 18-year-old, shows a deeper orange/bronze color. On the nose are candied fruit, vanilla and oak, soft spices and just a hint of iodine.

Twelve-year-old Balvenie DoubleWood is a whisky aged in bourbon and sherry oak. I’ve always loved 18-year-old Macallan matured in sherry oak, but this Balvenie was the first I had ever tried that found a perfect balance between bourbon and sherry accents. The finish goes on and on.

The heavy-hitting, 16-year-old Lagavulin is an all-time favorite. The nose shows sweetness guiding big peat smoke. This isn’t a hyper-complex Scotch, but it is a big, bold, beautiful classic.

Fourteen-year-old Oban is a truly unique malt that I consider a staple. It is a clear, rusty gold, and the smell is of perfume and fresh rain on the seashore. The nose doesn’t really prepare one for its taste. It has enough complexity to change my perception every time I try it.

I thought 12-year-old Cragganmore should naturally follow Oban in this list. The color is a pale orange. Aromatics of fresh flowers and tropical fruit dominate the nose. Taste is primarily herbal with hints of lavender, sage and lemon thyme intermingled with fresh hay and with a long finish showing hints of oaky vanilla and tea leaves.

Ten-year-old Ardbeg—A single malt I don’t think I can live without. On the surface it shows a ‘battle royale’ between peat and ocean that is plenty exciting. But when you peek below the fray, you discover waves of complex beauty. The appearance is the pale yellow of a light white wine with a hint of green. The nose is like gasping for air after climbing out of a turbid ocean, only to find that your head is buried in a burning peat bog.

After all of this talk about whisky, some may feel the need for a chaser. Water would be a good chaser and it would dilute the alcohol-rich deliciousness you’ve imbibed to a more natural beer-like state. Another option would be to bring it all the way back to beer.

I’ve always loved the softly caramelized sweetness and malt-forward balance of a traditional Scotch Ale. Four Peaks Kilt Lifter is a long-time favorite of mine in Arizona that draws from the tradition of the ales of Scotland. Drink it near a bottle of Aberlour a’bunadh and thank me later.


Article by Thomas Ale Johnson

Originally published in the Winter 2013 issue of AZ Wine Lifestyle.