Gentlemen, we live in the age of vodka. Yes, vodka: the spirit that aspires to be like water. No offense to vodka drinkers, but if you ordered booze that tasted like something, maybe you wouldn’t need to put cranberry juice in it. Meanwhile, the hooch by which all hooch should be measured collects dust. For shame. It’s time to learn to drink like a man, damnit.
Yeah, I’m talking about Scotch whisky. First, it’s not whiskey with an “e” (like we Americans spell it), but whisky. Looks old without that extra vowel, doesn’t it? A holdover from a time of lawless English, when a guy spelled a word any damn way he pleased. Looks manly, too, doesn’t it? Yeah, that’s what she’d be thinking if you had balls enough to order it.
The Scots have been distilling whisky for, oh, a few centuries. Plenty of time to perfect the recipe. There are four different kinds: single malt, vatted or pure malt, single grain, and blended. Still with us? Great! Now we’re getting somewhere.
SINGLE MALT WHISKY
This is the original stuff: 100 percent malted barley. “Single malt whisky is the most complex, most flavorful of all whiskies,” says Bill Lumsden, a master distiller at Glenmorangie, a scotch maker in northern Scotland that traces its roots back to 1843. Lumsden compares single malt whisky to a BMW 7 Series—top-of-the-line luxury. No, he takes that back. An M6, he says, because it has an edge as well.
Anyhow, to make single malt, a barley mash is pumped into copper stills. The stills are heated, boiling off the alcohol. The vapor collects in a condenser, and—voilà!—becomes liquid again. Repeat the process once more and you’ve got the pure, unaged spirit that the Highlanders used to sip right off the still. Of course, this newborn libation must spend at least 3 years in oak before it can be classified as single malt scotch. Oh yeah: “Single” means the whisky comes from a single distillery.
The Singleton of Glendullan, Aged 12 Years
A soft, fragrant malt is the perfect introduction to Scotland’s national spirit. The price is right, too. $35, malts.com
This rich, inviting, creamy-tasting whisky is unforgettable. Unless you drink too much. French roast coffee beans, dark chocolate. Wow, this is living. $150-$210,glenmorangie.com
VATTED MALT WHISKY
A vatted malt (or pure or blended malt) is simply a blend of single malts, usually from different distilleries. A blend of complementary malts can create a test-tube whisky that’s smoother and rounder than any of its parents. However, says Lumsden, vatting also eliminates some of the more distinctive notes found in single malts. It’s a BMW 5 Series, by his estimation.
Johnnie Walker Green Label
Leave the Blue Label to the stockbrokers and order a round of this smooth operator. You’ll taste full notes of tobacco, toffee, and cinnamon. $49-$60, johnniewalker.com
Compass Box The Peat Monster Reserve Edition
With hints of smoked and salted caramels, the flavors are as big as the 1.5-liter magnum bottle it comes in. $150, compassboxwhisky.com
SINGLE GRAIN WHISKY
In single grain distillation, the grain mash (usually wheat) is fed into column stills and drips down, while steam rises and captures some of the alcohol. The resulting spirit is much lighter—a BMW 1 Series on Lumsden’s scotch-to-car conversion table. Roughly 95 percent of the grain whisky distilled in Scotland goes into blended scotch, which means that if you land a decent bottle of single grain, you have a rare thing indeed. The proof is in the pricing.
Scott’s North of Scotland 1964 Single Grain
A wizened grain comes from a defunct distillery that’s been hanging on to a few last casks. The whisky inside the casks keeps getting better and better—and delivers a nice flavor and a Gobstopper-long finish once it’s past the lips. $150, Scottsselection.nl
Duncan Taylor’s Invergordon Single Grain, Aged 40 Years
This whisky is packaged exclusively for Park Avenue Liquor Shop in New York City, making it literally one of a kind. You’ll love the vanilla, maple, sugar, and spice notes. $225, DuncanTaylor.com
Blended scotches rule the market, and iconic brands crowd this category. Most blends contain two or three grain whiskies and as many as 40 malts. Blends are generally smoother than single malts. Lumsden compares them to a 3 Series. Jesus, somebody get this guy a BMW already.
The Famous Grouse
This unpretentious, completely satisfying whisky is everything Dewar’s wishes it could be. $20, thefamousgrouse.com
Ballantine’s 17 Years Old
A masterful example of what blended whiskies can achieve. Silky, spicy, and just frickin’ delicious. $85, ballantines.com