The first true royal and celebrity to fall in love with Scotch was Scotland’s greatest king, James IV. He kicked off the popularity of the strong spirit, and it has been growing ever since. The English parliament tried to tax it heavily at the beginning of the 18th century, and it went underground. People still had no problem getting it (and not paying the tax on it). After one hundred and fifty years, the British came to their senses and realized that they were losing tons of revenue. They lifted the tax and charged for a more modest license. It was a timely move. A few decades later, the phylloxera beetle destroyed the grapes in France, nearly wiping out the wine and brandy industries. During that time Scotch rose back to the palate of the nobility and elite, who were looking for something new to fill their liquor closets with.
It became a mark of distinction to enjoy a good scotch, and we have seen that in our stars and culture. Prohibition was good to the Scotch community. Since bourbon was no longer available in America, people looked across the pond to find good whisky to drink. Scotch, while usually watered down, was a perfect replacement for it, and relatively safe compared to some of the other “liquor” that was available. Hollywood rose not long after, and many of the stars at the time commented on the benefits of, and how much they enjoyed drinking, Scotch. George Burns once remarked “I love to sing, and I love to drink scotch. Most people would rather hear me drink Scotch.” Humphrey Bogart and W.C. Fields also commented on the delights of drinking Scotch. It has been mentioned most recently on sitcoms like “How I Met Your Mother” (Barney loves it), by comedians like Ron White, and of course is the favorite on air drink of Ron Burgundy. Mr. Burgundy told us that is why he started National Scotch Day on July 27th. (It is as good of a reason as I have found yet…)
One of the reasons it became so popular is its complexity. There is a wide variety to Scotch, which makes it one of the more varied members of the whisky family. To begin with, there are two major types of Scotch, single malt and blended. Single malt Scotch is created with malted barley from a single distillery, made only in copper pot stills. They are blended together from different casks to create the distinct flavor of the Scotch. The youngest Scotch used in the blend is the age you find on the front of the bottle. Single malts you may be familiar with are Glenmorangie, Ardbeg, Laphroaig, Talisker, The Macallan, Glenfiddich, and The Glenlivet. Blended Scotch can be created through the combination of malted whisky from barley, as well as grain whisky. The blends have an advantage of creating a distinct flavor you cannot get from only malted barley. They are usually a little smoother, and are the bulk of what people drink when they have Scotch. Blends you may be familiar with are Dewars, Johnnie Walker, Chivas Regal, and J&B. Other categories of Scotches exist, such as blended malt (blended malt from separate distilleries), single grain (grain whiskey and malt whiskey from the same distillery), and single cask (all from one cask, 100 to 120 proof), but are very hard to find.
Scotches are also identified by the area they are from. Traditionally, there have been four areas that Scotch production has been broken into, but now number five. The Highlands have a wide variety of Scotches in it, but that is because it encompasses over half of the area of Scotland. You may also see a Scotch refer to itself as Island or Isle of Man. That too is part of the Highlands. Lowland, where there are only three distilleries creating sinlge malts, are usually triple distilled and have a lighter flavor than other Scotches. Speyside, which was once considered part of the Highlands, has nearly half the total distilleries in Scotland. With such a high number, it is very hard to categorize on defining characteristic. It is a safe bet that most of the Scotches you have heard of come from this region. Islay Scotches are the advanced class of Scotch; they have a heavy smoky, peated flavor to them, and tend to put off new Scotch drinkers. The smallest is Campbeltown, with only three active distilleries. It used to be the largest producer of whisky in the world, but collapsed through overproduction, then finished off by Prohibition and the Great Depression.
Scotch has rules, like most all other alcohols today. The latest incarnation of these rules, the Scotch Whisky Regulations 2009, lay out what it takes to be called a Scotch. First, it must be produced in Scotland, of barley and other whole cereal grains. Second, when it is turned into mash, only yeast may be used to convert the sugar into alcohol. Third, it has to be matured in Scotland, in oak casks, for a period of no less than three years (though most Scotches are matured for five or more). And finally, nothing other than water or plan caramel color can be added to the final product. As of November of this year, the rules will also state that single malts will have to be bottled and labeled in Scotland. You will also see many Scotches with a year on them. Blends can still be bottled anywhere in the world.
If you are looking for a good place to try out some Scotch in Dayton, The Pub at the Greene has a good selection of Scotches, as well as flights to try them in. Side Bar also has a lovely selection of Scotch for you to try out, but no flights. For those of you just starting your Scotch journey, let the bartender know what your tastes are, and they can recommend the right one for you. You will want to begin with some of the sweeter, maltier Scotches, moving through the various complexities of the spirit until you begin to enjoy the peaty richness of the Islays. Scotch is not used in very many cocktails, but the two you will find most often mentioned most at bars are the Rob Roy (a variation on the Manhattan) and Rusty Nail (Scotch with a hint of sweet Drambuie).
If Scotch whisky is good enough for Humphrey Bogart, George Burns, and Ron Burgundy, it should be something that you try a few times in your life. Tonight is a great time to sit back and relax with a fine dram of Scotch and good friends, and just chat the night away. Preferably on a patio. Cheers!