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Scotch Night: Sampling Premium Scotches with Tasting Parties

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):

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 [3], 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 [4] 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 [5])