Because of the cold, the darkness. Because of microbial gloom. Because of Hogmanay, or haggis, or heather – or a lad or a lassie, coming strolling into your life. Because of a gift of tartan, or the accident of a surname … like McDonald … or any of a thousand other reasons, there may come a time when every wine lover decides to acquaint themselves with whisky. It can be shocking; you may flounder. Here are a few tips from one who has passed this way before.
Let’s start with the physical challenge: raw spirit. Every drop of Scotch (though this point applies to spirits in general) must, by law, be bottled at 40% abv; cask-strength whiskies routinely exceed 50% abv or more. And there you were, thinking that a glass of Châteauneuf at 15.5% threatens exhaustion, violence and headache. There’s only one solution here: adding water (bottled Scottish for sentiment and luxury; tap to combat climate change). Fifty/fifty is simple enough to measure, which in the case of a standard bottling makes an unforbidding and accessible 20% abv: aim for that.
Whisky’s total lack of acidity, and relative lack of tannin and sugar, means that a 20% dram feels gentler in the mouth than a 20% fortified wine or a 15% Châteauneuf ever will: the balance is very different. Nothing, be assured, is lost, though whisky is always worth nosing unwatered first; but if you want to taste whisky more than feel it, it’s essential to get used to drinking it watered.
So: which Scotch? I’m not a conspiracy theorist. Normally — but there is a kind of informal ‘conspiracy of the cognoscenti’ at work in the Scotch whisky world. Resist!
And then a baroque fandango of single-cask versions, multitudinous finishes and aged rarities, all sanctified by the magi
Wine folk are curious, so you will learn a little about whisky as you make your way in. Notably you’ll be taught that malt whisky is double-distilled in pot stills from malted barley only, while grain whisky is produced in continuous stills from barley and other grains. That makes it cheaper to produce – so, the Tutorial Force may suggest, a kind of inferior. Blended whisky, like the ‘big brands’, is mostly grain whisky pepped up with malt; while the greatest Scotch in existence, it will be averred, comes from the nation’s band of braveheart malt distilleries, scattered alluringly around the country in remote and bonnie glens. These are the ‘single malts’, the summum of Scotch whisky pleasure, predicated (in rising price order) on young distillery versions, then their older siblings, and then a baroque fandango of single-cask versions and multitudinous finishes and aged rarities from an assortment of sources, all sanctified by the magi. It is here you find whisky beatitude.
Except that if you’re a wine lover, and if you have a wine-trained palate, it isn’t. This is all wrong; it’s a conspiracy, and a con.
Attention: if you’re a wine ‘collector’ or a wine geek, you’ll probably buy into the conspiracy: they’re fishing for you, and they’ll bring you up wriggling on the hook without too much trouble. Before you know it, your house will be half-full of half-empty, gently oxidizing bottles of ‘rare’ malt with great stories to tell but very little else to commend them. But if you are looking for the whisky equivalent of a beautifully aged 1990 Cheval Blanc, you need to look elsewhere.
Think about the flavour and shape of great wines in full maturity for a moment. Harmony, subtlety and softness is all, combined with exquisite aromatic finesse and an overall sense of refinement and poise within a profile of powerful intrinsic appeal. Nothing sticks out; nothing obtrudes; nothing jars. There’s a silken weight on the tongue, but balance and lift, too; all these things create a kind of irresistible drinkability. The greatest bottles are those which are gone before you know it.
In a way I’m sorry to say this, because it’s way off-message for wine’s culture of individuation, but the Scotch whiskies that can most readily furnish this kind of experience are the greatest blends. If you want three names to begin with, seek out Johnnie Walker Black Label, Johnnie Walker Gold Label Reserve and Chivas Regal 18. There are others, of course – though note that the most expensive luxury blends are often no better than their less ambitiously priced peers, just rarer, older and more ludicrously packaged. Experiment with serious blends; no one will struggle with a glassful; the bottles will empty on their own.
It’s a mistake to assume that grain whisky is inferior to malt; it’s just different, and its lightness and grace are what coarser, more thumping, rasping, driving malts often require. There is no useful analogy from the wine world here, other than to point out that the wines made from the lowest yields, with the most extraction, the highest acidity or the most oak are not always the finest. The best way to create wine-like levels of aromatic complexity and finesse in whisky is through blending. Always. You can also do it through ageing, but that’s second best.
This is also true for single malts, by the way, where distillery versions blended from as large a reserve of casks as possible are almost always better than single casks or small-run bottlings on their own (remember that all Scotch is aged in second-hand wood of often shockingly variable quality). Blenders can still exercise their skills on single malts – and they do.
I’m not, to be clear, suggesting that malts are congenitally inferior to blends. At their rare best, the 10 or 20 greatest malts may be as good or better than great blends: pinnacles indeed. But they are usually more individuated, more singular, less orchestral and more confronting– and most wine lovers prize aesthetic subtlety more than they relish confrontation.
Blends, of course, bear non-geographical fantasy names, and can be assigned no regional or local identity. But that doesn’t make them any the less Scottish, nor any the less typical of their place. The wine world’s definition of terroir, remember, has no ready application to whisky production – but that’s a discussion for another day.
Andrew Jefford is a wine writer and the author of Whisky Island (pic by John Jefford)