Scotch Night: Sampling Premium Scotches with Tasting Parties

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Scotch Night

Every few months, about a dozen friends of mine get together for an event we aptly called Scotch Night. The idea behind scotch night is that it offers us the opportunity to try a variety of premium scotches on the cheap. Rather than paying $60-$100 a bottle on something you may or may not like based on its region, you pay into a pot or bring your own bottle and sample others. You in effect pay $60 – $100 to try as many scotches as there are people; all the while hanging out with friends.

There are really only two rules to our scotch nights. Either you bring your own bottle to share or you chip in about $20 to pay for a communal bottle of something we’ve never had. The point of the Scotch Nights isn’t to save money and get wrecked (a sign we are getting older!), it’s to sample premium Scotches without breaking the bank in doing so.

15-Second Primer on Scotch

If you’re planning your own scotch night and know little about scotch, here’s a quick primer. Scotch is whisky that’s made in Scotland, whisky is a generic term for alcoholic beverages distilled from fermented grain mash and aged in wooden (oak) casks. In order for it to be called a Scotch, it has to be distilled in a Scottish distillery, the grain used has to be malted barley, it must mature in Scotland in oak casks for at least three years and one day, and finally it cannot be bottled at less than 40% alcohol by volume. Scotch can come in four types as well – single malt, vatted/pure malt, blended and single grain. Single means the malt came from one distillery, the blended/vatted/pure designation means the malt came from multiple distilleries.

6 Classic Single Malts

Ok, now you have the chemistry (sort of), where do you start? I think you start with single malts and with some of the “6 Classic Single Malts.” According to the United Distillers and Vintners (which is a subsidiary of a spirits company Diageo and not an independent trade organization), there are 6 Classic Single Malts (their names are preceded by the region they come from and they all appear to be Diageo brands):

  • Islands – Talisker
  • Islay – Lagavulin
  • Highland – Dalwhinnie
  • Lowland – Glenkinchie
  • Speyside – Cragganmore
  • West Highland – Oban

From here, I would find some options from those regions (you don’t have to necessarily go with Lagavulin if you want an Islay, there are several options to chose from (Ardbeg, Bowmore, Caol Ila, Laphroaig). Each region will have different characteristics (Islays are known to have a stronger peaty component and also a bit of salt and iodine).

How important is age? The older a scotch is, the smoother and less “bity” it will be. Younger scotches will seem a bit rougher and the alcohol component will be sharp. If you’ve ever let wine “breathe,” it’s a similar idea. It’s the reason why some prefer their scotch on the rocks (with ice) or with a splash of water, it’s to get that heat to open up a little. Also, the age refers to the time spent in the cask so you’ll get a stronger flavor as the years go by. I think the best option is to try them all in their earliest years (or a few steps up) to get a good basis for comparison. You may find that the flavor components of an 18 year Macallan is too strong for you and you prefer the 8 year; you won’t know unless you try it.

Lessons Learned

Scotches, like wines, have different subtleties and flavors and you often have to sample a few to get a feel for the types you like. I prefer to drink peatier & smokier scotches in the beginning of the night and then transition to smoother, crisper scotch towards the end. My favorites are Islays (Lagavulin) start (smokier and peatier scotches) and transitioning to Macallan and Glenlivit (both are Speyside scotches) towards the end of the night.

Like wine, scotches go well with chocolate. I’m not an expert but I know that darker chocolates work better with smokier, peatier scotches (see this article on chocolate and Laphroaig, another scotch I’m a fan of).

Skip anything cask strength unless you’re going to put it on the rocks or splash some water in it, it just tastes like burning. I bought a bottle of Macallan Cask Strength and while it was pretty good, the high alcohol content pretty much dominated a lot of the flavors. It looks cool (comes in a fancy red box and all), but go with one that’s been pulled down out of the stratosphere.

It helps to keep notes, as dorky as it might sound. The problem with trying a bunch of scotches in one night is that your memory begins to fade. While you might remember broader preferences (you like peatier scotches, don’t like sherry casks, etc.), it’ll be harder to remember specifics. Of the Islays, do you prefer Bowmore, Laphroaig, Lagavulin, or Caol Ila? Did you try Bruichladdich or Bunnahabhain?

When keeping notes, don’t stick to the terms you think fancy schmancy scotch drinkers use to describe scotch. I’ve used the term peaty, smoky, iodine, salty, etc., you don’t have to. While those may be scotch-describing terms, describe them in a way that makes sense to you. Part of the popularity of Gary Vaynerchuk’s Wine Library TV is in how he describes wines in plain English. I’ve seen an episode where a wine was described as having a component of “Hello Kitty eraser.” Snooty wine people don’t know what Hello Kitty eraser smells like. Use whatever terms make sense to you and will evoke the same response. If a scotch tastes like the smell of honey the moment you burn it, then write that down.

If it weren’t for these scotch nights, I wouldn’t have tried as many scotches as I’ve had. I wouldn’t have developed as much of an interest in it either because, frankly, paying $60-$80 a bottle isn’t something that’s in my genes. I recognize that the bottle can last a long time but it’s a significant up-front cost to “try out” something, you know? With these scotch nights, I’ve been able to try out a bunch of different scotches and find the ones I enjoy.

(Photo: batcave13)

{ 10 comments, please add your thoughts now! }

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10 Responses to “Scotch Night: Sampling Premium Scotches with Tasting Parties”

  1. Jon says:

    My favoriites:

    Laphroig (Islay)
    Macallan 12 y.o.

  2. Tim Hawkins says:

    Macallan 18 for my money. Smoother than the 12, not expensive as the 25. Cask strength is ok, you just use less of it. You can infer from the name that this is what the scotch is like in the barrel, and so all they do is water it down for your consumption. I really don’t the the peaty flavor, overpowers the other senses and is too smokey.

    Wikipedia says: “With so many whiskies, there are few similarities across the region, though some of the whiskies which are considered to be the most refined and elegant are in Speyside The two best-selling single malt whiskies in the world, The Glenlivet & Glenfiddich, come from Speyside. Strathspey has the greatest number of distilleries of any of the whisky producing areas of Scotland.

    So, I’m thinking your list of “6 classic malts” should include Glenlivet & Glenfiddich, and probably not Cragganmore which is somewhat difficult to find over here in the states by comparison. The “Glen’s” are common at bars, but then they probably just have good marketing techniques (or at least pay off the distributors).

  3. Tim Hawkins says:

    My comment “I really don’t the the peaty flavor, overpowers the other senses and is too smokey.” was in reference to some of the other scotches, not Macallan of course.

  4. mjmcinto says:

    My favorites:

    Macallan 25 y.o. (pricey but good….don’t have it very often)
    Balvenie 21 y.o. port wood (finished off in casks or pipes that have held port wine)
    Glenmorangie Qunita Ruban it’s a 12 y.o. that has been finished off in port casks or pipes.

    My “usual” is the Glenmorangie. I say usual b/c I don’t drink it that often (a bottle usually lasts a year). On special occasions I have the Balvenie, and on really special occasions I have the Macallan (so rare I haven’t bought a bottle yet, just a glass at a time)

  5. jim says:

    Tim: I only listed the “classics” because they come from that listed provided by the subsidiary, it lists all the regions though so that’s what I work from. You’re right though, Glenlivet and Glenfiddich are certainly easier to find though I see Cragganmore from time to time.

    One thing my friends and I have found is that prices vary widely because liquor stores are unsure how to price them. They probably sit on shelves for a while and they start dropping the price on an otherwise very fine Scotch.

  6. miller says:

    Silly Jim, Macallan doesn’t make an 8 year! =)

    Favorites: Lagavulin (16 year), Macallan 18

    Which is a more expensive hobby — Scotch tasting or wine tasting?

  7. MoneyLint says:

    I hear the best Scotch, like all alcohols, comes in plastic bottles… any event, what time should I come over? I’m a tequilla man myself but this is a good idea to start up with my friends. I’m a little worried though because they’re a cheap lot.

  8. fred@opc says:

    We just traveled to Scotland in June. While there, we toured the GlenKinchie distillery, about 60 minutes outside of Edinburgh (by bus). What a fantastic experience! Scotland is absolutely beautiful. If you’re a traveler, it’s one place on earth you shouldn’t miss. If you go, make the distillery tour a priority.

    Here’s an interesting fact for everyone who’s become a Scotch fan: A major component of the flavor of Scotch is tied to the shape of the still that it’s processed through. Our tour guide at GlenKinchie told us a story of a distillery that had a challenging still replacement. At original installation, the first still was damaged badly on one side (e.g. it was caved in). The distillery installed the still anyway, because they didn’t have funds for a new one at the time. Years later, when they had to replace the original still, they had to have the new one custom manufactured to retain the caved-in defect to match the original, for fear that a change in shape would alter their distinct flavor in future bottles.

    Great post, Jim.

  9. Andrew says:

    Single-malt Scotch and $200 bikes?

    Why not a tasting of lower-priced whiskey, you know, to find that best bang-for-buck bottle? Most $60+ bottles of whiskey taste great, but what’s the best $20 scotch? There are some great blended Scotch brands.

    I like Isle of Jura single-malts, which are on the smokey side.

    Tastes may vary!

  10. Jeremy says:

    Just as an aside, I traveled throughout Scotland about 8 years ago, and it was a spontaneous adventure while studying abroad in college. But I remember being unable to find a hotel room because I happened to arrive in Edinburgh right when some major rugby tournament was going on.

    So, I was forced to sleep on a bench in the train station. Anyway, one morning after waking up early I walked down to a far bench in order to catch the next train out, and while sitting there, I noticed a box sitting under the bench.

    I looked around, and I was the only person in sight, and it was before the regular lines began running, so I just assumed someone had left something behind the night before. Well, I opened it, and it was a bottle of scotch. For the life of me, I can’t remember the name of it, but I’ll say it was one of the best tasting drinks I’ve ever had. When I got back to London, I shared it with all of my classmates, and the bottle was long gone.

    The only thing I remember about it was that it was in a green bottle and had a cork top, and I think the label was tan in color. But who knows, that was a long time ago.

    While I still enjoy a fine Scotch, I actually prefer the pot still whiskeys of Ireland. Redbreast 12 year would be my casual drink of choice if it wasn’t so hard to find. But I usually have to settle for Jameson’s or Bushmills while on a budget.

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