“Wait, that’s your second one?”
I was at a whisky tasting with my father-in-law in DC for Ardbeg. The location was not quite a hole-in-the-wall bar, but was just far enough above one that it was getting pretensions of being something that it wasn’t. They had blocked off the back room of the bar for the tasting, and you had to be on the list to be let in. I made sure to show up a bit early, had a beer as an opener, and waited.
The crowd was mixed. There were people there that were there for the Ardbeg, who knew their Scotch, and knew what they liked. Then there were the people that were there because Scotch is “cool.” It has this air of class about it, I suppose. It’s exclusive. It’s expensive.
The person asking me the above was a young professional and was definitely a newbie with Scotch. He kept screwing up his face with each sip, as if it physically caused him pain with each small swallow. Fine. Then he saw me, obviously on my second dram while he was barely through his first.
“Sure,” I said. “Why?” I shrugged and went back to talking to my wife’s father who knows much more about Scotland’s native drink than I probably ever will.
Here’s the thing, Scotch isn’t for everyone. More to the point, single malt Scotch (that is, Scotch from a single distillery) is pretty explicitly not for everyone. You’ve got your smoother, lighter malts. You’ve got your somewhat harsher, angrier whiskies. And then you have your bottles when you open them – peaty smoke fills the room and lingers for hours.
Ardbeg is most assuredly on the harsher side of the spectrum, being an Islay malt. If you want a lighter drink, find something from the lowlands like Glenkichie.
My questioner wasn’t quite done with me though. “How’d you get into Scotch?”
Good question. The first bottle I ever bought on my own was Talisker, from Skye, on the recommendation of a friend. That would be the “open the bottle and smoke pours out” kind of Scotch. In retrospect, perhaps not the best Scotch to learn to drink with, given that it has a way of destroying the palate. That’s the key to single malts though, not everyone is going to like every single one. You can say that you are a fan of Scotch, sure, but that’s like saying you are a fan of music. Just like music, there are several styles of Scotch. The lighter, cleaner lowland single malts, the smokier, peatier Islays, or the Speysides which run the gamut from light and crisp to rich and smooth.
My suggestion? Start with blends. Single malts are geared to a particular palate, while blended Scotch marries a variety of singles from distilleries into a single blend. Blends are meant for a wider market, and some are definitely better than others. If you want a nice solid introduction to Scotch you can’t do much better than Johnnie Walker Black.
A few days later, I went to the liquor store that had sponsored the event to pick up a special bottling of the Ardbeg for my father-in-law. I found out they’d run out of Ardbeg around 7:00 that night. We had left at 6:50 pm. I mentioned that they should skip the Scotch cocktails next time.
“Seriously, if you are going to hide the Scotch anyway, you might as well use Johnnie Red,” I told them. “No one is going to be able to tell the difference anyway.”
I mean it, too. A wee dram of water is all that should go into your single malt, and don’t let anyone tell you different.
—Matthew X. Gomez, Contributing Writer
Photo by Jackson Krule for inconnu’s Debut Issue