What's in a Name?
Firstly, don’t call it ‘Scotch’. Beef can be Scotch, and so can eggs wrapped in sausage meat—but in Scotland the word is only used with ‘whisky’ straight after it.
Secondly, don’t spell it ‘whiskey’. The Scots have much to thank their Irish cousins for, not least for inventing whisk(e)y; then the Scots refined it. But when the secret of making the water of life crossed the sea to Scotland, it lost its ‘e’, as the Hibernian and Caledonian forms of Gaelic are not the same. The Irish also took their whiskey methods to the Americas, which is why North Americans also use the ‘e’. The different spellings are now a useful way for connoisseurs to distinguish which producers are Irish or American, and which are Scottish.
Breaking the Rules
Thirdly, and most importantly, there are no rules. If you like to drink your whisky with cola, add soda water, or make it into a cocktail, go ahead. But if you’re interested in how the experts drink it, here are a few pointers from someone who has downed drams with experts, professional and amateur.
Don’t just stick to a favourite whisky; explore whisky types and regions. Single malt whiskies are the ones that enthusiasts seek out. There are around 90 working distilleries in Scotland, each making a number of ‘expressions’ of their product varying in age and style, from the iconic and recognisable to limited editions. Add the shrinking stock from distilleries that have closed, plus vanishingly rare bottlings from single casks, and the choice can be bewildering—but a little knowledge will take you a long way.
The name ‘single malt’ simply means that it has been made in one single distillery from a fermented mash of malted barley. Malt is germinated barley grains, which have the germination stopped by drying them with hot air; the process turns the grains’ starches into sugars. The malt is then steeped in warm water to allow the fermentation to create alcohol, which is then evaporated and condensed using pot stills.
Connoisseurs believe the type of spring water, the shape of the still, the wooden barrels used for ageing and many more factors determine the flavours and aromas, which is why single malt whiskies are diverse, but recognisably regional.
Get to Know Whisky Regions and Styles
There are six distinct regions and styles. Speyside, on the northeastern shoulder of the Highlands, is perhaps the best known, with whiskies that are well-balanced and usefully easy to find in bars from Banff to Brisbane. Many big names, including Glenfiddich, Macallan and Aberlour, offer guided tours of the distilling process as well as tutored tastings.
In the first week of May, the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival (2-6 May) adds many extra events, including the chance to watch a cooperage (barrel-makers) at work, listen to talks and gain special access to some small distilleries. While you are in Speyside, pay a visit to the Quaich bar at The Craigellachie Hotel. It’s open from 5pm ‘until late’.
May is also Whisky Month throughout Scotland, with events in the Highlands, Lowlands, Campbeltown, Islands and Islay. Islay (pronounced ‘Eye-lah’) is the second best-known region after Speyside, because the Hebridean island’s pungent whiskies are distinctive and widely available. The smoky, peaty aromas of Islay are caused by tar-like phenolic compounds—an acquired taste.
Raising the Bar
If you want to savour good whiskies without braving island ferries or Highland weather, help is at hand. The Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS), based in Edinburgh, is the best place in the entire universe to start. Founded by enthusiasts, the original in Leith (Edinburgh’s port) is for members only, but the Queen Street restaurant is open to all.
If you’re not a member of SMWS (or are unable to twist a member’s arm to sign you in), The Bow Bar in Edinburgh’s Old Town is great. Its new branch in London’s Battersea is open to all.
Just so you look the part: experts drink malt whiskies neat, or perhaps with a tiny dash of the mineral water provided at the bar, but never with ice. Speaking to your neighbours is encouraged, and talking about the whiskies is an icebreaker (pun intended). Being offered a drink by a new friend who is buying a round means you’ve become one of the clan; it’s customary to return the favour.