by Jenny Benzie, Advanced Sommelier + Certified Wine Educator, Proprietress of Épernay Wine & Spirits
The month of June gives us much to celebrate and a perfect time to focus on the milestones of the gentlemen in our lives. It has often been a rite of passage for a young man making his way into adulthood to share some sort of “stiff drink” with his old man. Whether it is to celebrate the achievement of completing their educational degree, marrying the love of their life, or becoming a dad himself, this informal initiation into the next chapter of the young man’s life is one that won’t soon be forgotten.
It begins when you hear the cracking of an ice cube tray, the soft pop of the cork when your father opens a bottle of his finest, and then you hear the slight guzzle while a dram is poured into a fine crystal glass. Enter your first taste of Scotch and the memories created around the occasion, along with whatever wise words are shared and the feelings that arise as you bring the warm, musty brown spirit to your lips.
Sipping scotch is a lot like sipping wine. Take a few moments to observe the tawny rich color, inhale the lofty aromas, and allow the liquid to roll across your tongue before making a final analysis. You will discover a sense of place in regards to the location of the distillery where it is produced, along with the nuances that come from different distilling recipes and lastly the proper ageing of a Scotch whisky. Below is a brief lesson on the differences between a Blend versus Single Malt, age specific compared to no-age statement, cask focus driven and why whiskies from other regions cannot be considered Scotch.
BLENDED MALT SCOTCH WHISKY
First and foremost, while whisky can be made anywhere, it must come from and be matured in barrels in Scotland in order for it to be called “Scotch.” If it is not from Scotland, it is not Scotch (hence the venerable local Triple Eight Distillery whisky is called… NOTCH). The most common offering available is a blended malt Scotch whisky. This comprises a blend of two or more whiskies, which can be a combination of malt and or grain whiskies sourced from numerous different distilleries, that are then aged for a minimum of three years in oak, bottled and sold as one final blended product.
Deciding which whiskies to blend together, what kind of oak to age them in and for how long is very reminiscent of creating a consistent entry-level house style of non-vintage Champagne. The combination of creates a blend in which the sum of the final product in much greater than its individual parts. Sheep Dip is a perfect example of this a blended malt Scotch whisky. The label reads that it is ‘woven from 16 single malt Scotch whiskies.’ This blend of malt whiskies is aged on average between 8 and 12 years, well more than double of the ageing minimum requirements. They are sourced mainly from the Highland region of Scotland, blended with the more delicate Speyside malts and smoky (read:peaty) Islay malts. Unlike most Scotch, this blend one is married in fresh American oak barrels to add uniqueness to its finished character. Hints of toffee, clove and oak are present on the nose and the palate. While many Scotch brands pay homage to the name of their original founder, the whimsical name of this brand comes from when farmers would hide their home-made whisky in barrels marked “Sheep Dip” so not to have to pay taxes on it to excise officers.
SINGLE MALT SCOTCH
This type of Scotch comes from a single, individual distillery from one specific area or region in Scotland. There are six main regions that each has distinctions based on their climate variations, how close they are to the sea, the type of water that may be used and even the soil in the area. The output of the distillery is also influenced by many other variable factors determined by the master distiller who is looking to make a consistent product for each of the whiskies that they produce, even with a single malt Scotch. The length of fermentation, the style and size of the stills used or the combination of grain and malt whiskies can all play a role in the outcome of the final product.
The Macallan 12 hails from the Speyside region and is matured in sherry oak casks from Jerez, Spain, for minimum of 12 years. It has a rich, golden color and is deliciously smooth with a sweet finish that lingers for an extended period of time. Rich dried fruits and slightly oxidative sherry aromas are balanced with wood smoke and hint of exotic spice. What makes this brand unique is that they ferment in smaller than average stills, allowing them to better concentrate their spirit by making the best possible single malt blend from smaller batches.
SINGLE MALT/CASK FOCUSED PROGRAM:
It is no doubt that the decisions made around the oak casks used for maturation are a main contributor to the quality, natural color and distinctive aromas and flavors that create a Scotch’s house style. This would include the quality or type of oak used to make the barrels, how many times the barrel has been used, where the barrel is stored in the distillery and how often it is topped off to keep the barrel full. The barrel program at each distillery is unique to what the Master Distiller is trying to achieve.
The Balvenie 12 Doublewood is aged 12 years as the age-statement reflects, bt is unique in that it is matured in two distinct casks, not just one or a combination of casks then blended together. The first cask is a result of several years of maturation in traditional oak casks to mellow the maturing spirit and impart gentle layers of vanilla spiciness. The second cask maturation is in European oak sherry casks that increase the fruity, honeyed depths of complexity. The Balvenie is an independent family company for five generations and manage their production in a more artisan manner. Not only do they grow their own barley, they also have their own coppers to tend to the casks and also a coppersmith to tend the stills.
As you allow time to ponder and remember what the occasion may have been that led to such a celebration that you enjoy a dram of Scotch with your friends and family, savor every moment of the experience. Sitting down for a special moment with dear old dad, honoring your favorite lads who are standing up for you at your wedding or just celebrating life in general, cheers to honoring the occasion with your favorite sips from Scotland. Kilts and bagpipes optional.