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Scotch whisky: it’s a neat story



My first lesson in single malt Scotch whisky appreciation was delivered 15 years ago by an indignant bartender at a Chicago pub called The Duke of Perth.

After considering the extensive menu of Scotch offerings there, I settled on an unfamiliar but affordable Highland malt, the 10-year-old Talisker.

“I’ll have that on the rocks,” I told the young barman.

“No,” he said matter-of-factly.

Fairly certain I wanted my Scotch on ice, I insisted on having it my way.

“Fine,” he said with more than a hint of snarkiness. “But I’m charging you an extra dollar for (expletive) up a good Scotch.”

It wasn’t so much the financial threat that got me as it was his passion for how a single malt ought to be enjoyed.

So I agreed to have it his way.

And I have been ever since.

Each autumn, as surely as triple-digit temperatures finally give way to cool desert nights, the chilled spirits of summer give way to the amber warmth of whiskies.

“Gin and vodka are for martinis and summertime drinks while whiskies are something you generally drink at room temperature,” says Ralph Avella, general manager at Bluefin Seafood Bistro, 7053 N. Oracle Road.

“Generally” wouldn’t cut it with that Chicago fellow or myself when it comes to the venerable single malt Scotch.

In the 15th century, Scots began distilling local barley into what they called uisge beatha, “water of life.”

In English, the first part of that label morphed into the word “whisky,” which refers only to Scotch whisky when the “e” is absent.

The spirit must be produced in Scotland to be called Scotch, and a single malt must be the product of just one of that country’s many distilleries.

When mingled with other malts or grain alcohol, it becomes a blended Scotch.

But those ancient restrictions on Scotland’s most prized product don’t come close to limiting the scope of taste or characteristics of the malts produced by different distilleries and in different regions of the country.

Some aficionados say a few drops of water bring out the character of a single malt. Others like to cut the edge with a few chips of ice.

Cheers to those folks. I’ll take mine neat.


Scotch distilleries are categorized, based on location, as Highland, Lowland, Islay (pronounced EYE-luh) or Campbletown. Malts produced within each region vary greatly in taste, depending on various factors in their production, including water, climate and the wood – often former wine or spirit barrels – in which they are aged.

HIGHLANDS: The largest region with the most distilleries by far features a wide variety of malts that range from smoky to spicy to sweet. These include such popular distilleries as Glenlivet, Macallan, Oban, Balvenie, Dalwhinnie and Glenmorangie.

LOWLANDS: feature a few surviving distilleries around Glasgow known for lighter, less smoky malts that include Auchentoshan, Glengoyne and Glenkinchnie.

CAMPBLETOWN: Features just two remaining distilleries, Springbank and Glen Scotia, unique for the salty seawater flavor created by their coastal locale.

ISLAY: The region is known for producing strong, distinctive malts with heavy smoke or peatiness and includes Laphroaig, Bowmore and Lagavulin.

Source: Based on personal experience with a little help from epicurious.com and whisky.com

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