Scotch Whisky: Unraveling the mystery…
If Bourbon and Rye are like the captains of the sports teams who are outgoing all-stars seemingly destined to go on to be something big, then Scotch Whisky is the brooding intellectual you’re secretly dying to get to know. Deep and mysterious, and then there’s that accent… But much like that same intellectual, Scotch is often a bit of a loner and can be somewhat difficult to get to know. It can be tricky to use in cocktails and because it has so many different flavor profiles, the task of learning about it can seem truly daunting. I’m going to provide a basic introduction today, but the best way to learn is by tasting; that’s the only way to figure out which flavor profile you’re going to prefer. So drink up!
There are 3 different categories of Scotch whisky: blended malt, blended whisky, and single malt. A blended malt is made from whiskies from more than one distillery that are all made from barley, and a blended whisky is made with a single malt that is combined with whiskies made from other grains. In order for a Scotch to be considered a single malt, it must meet the following criteria:
- It must be made from 100% malted barley and be produced at a single distillery.
- It must be distilled using a pot still, a very old method of distillation that has remained unchanged for many years.
- Only 2 ingredients are allowed to be added in. One is water and the other is E150A caramel coloring which must be disclosed on the label.
- It must be aged for at least 3 years in oak casks that are no bigger than 180 US gallons.
The process of making Scotch whiskey begins with malting the barley by adding water to the grain and soaking it for 2-3 days. This causes the grain to germinate and release enzymes. This germination is then stopped by heating the wet grains. At this point, peat smoke is either allowed into the kiln or the grains are dried over a peat heated fire. The amount of smoke varies, and sometimes there is none at all with some of the lighter and more delicate varieties, but this step of the process is what gives most Scotch whiskey the smoky aroma and flavor for which it is known. The grain mash is then fermented and distilled, after which the whisky is placed into oak barrels to be aged for at least 3 years, but most are aged for much longer than that. The barrels are reused and may have contained American whiskey, Sherry, Port wine, Madeira, rum, or Cognac, each of which infuses the whisky with different flavors and changes its body and color.
There is an incredible amount of detail in the breakdown of the different flavor profiles of Scotch. I’m going to keep it very simple and stick with just 4 categories and make some recommendations for each:
- Light flavor: fruits, nuts, light grassy notes. Glenfiddich 12-year-old.
- Delicate flavor: nuts and floral aromas, sweet grains. Dalwhinnie 15-year-old and Glenlivet 15-year-old.
- Rich flavor: bolder, with chocolate and spiced fruits. Balvenie DoubleWood 12-year-old.
- Smoky flavor: ginger spice and smoke. Talisker 10-year-old and Laphroaig 10-year-old.
For blended Scotch whisky, Famous Grouse and Dewar’s are excellent choices.
For today’s cocktail recipe, I’ve chosen to go with a classic called Blood and Sand, often the bartender’s recommendation for non-Scotch drinkers who want to give Scotch a try. The original recipe (which called for equal amounts of everything and no lemon juice) first appeared in the 1930 Savoy Cocktail Book and was named after Rudolph Valentino’s 1922 movie about bullfighting. I chose to go with the Death & Co recipe because I thought the original was just a bit too sweet. The original also uses a blended Scotch, but you can substitute a single malt if you’d like. I tried it with both ways and ended up preferring the single malt version more. I used the Balvenie DoubleWood 12 year old. Finally, you have some options with your sweet vermouth here too. You can use Martini & Rossi which is the lightest option, Carpano Antica which is heavier and a bit more bitter, or Punt E Mes (my personal favorite) which is the richest and most bitter of the 3. Feel free to experiment!
Blood and Sand
1 oz Scotch Whisky, blended or Single Malt
1/2 oz Cherry Heering
1/2 oz Punt E Mes sweet vermouth
3/4 oz orange juice
1/2 tsp lemon juice
Brandied cherry for garnish
Place all the ingredients in the bottom half of a shaker and then add your 1 large cube and 2 small. Shake for 15—20 seconds or until cold. If you don’t have any large format cubes on hand, then fill the shaker 2/3 full with regular ice. Double strain using a Hawthorne and a mesh strainer and pour into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with the cherry on a cocktail pick. Enjoy!
Check back tomorrow for the Penicillin, a modern cocktail made with both blended Scotch and single malt!