Before we get into our thumbnail sketch, I’d like to note that you can find a lot of specific information if you click the above link., it will take you to a very comprehensive site, http://tinyurl.com/Scotland-Whisky-Distilleries.
There are five main regions, Highland, Lowland, Islay (pronounce it EYE-lay, please). Speyside, and Campbelltown. As you can see from the map, there are smaller subregions. The Highlands is subdivided by the compass, plus, it includes the “islands”, although Islay is considered its own region.
Let’s talk about the characteristics that you will find in single malt scotches. Some of them will be totally absent in some while some scotches will have many of them in abundance. For instance, if you compare a scotch like Glenkinchie with Taliker, you’ll find that Glenkinchie will be tame in comparison. It’s heathery and light, while Talisker is fiery and bold. while Glenkinchie reflect the heath, Talisker reflects the sea, with salt, smoke and peat. If you compare Talisker with Lagavulin, the differences aren’t nearly as profound, because Lagavulin has smoke in spades, as well as peat and salt. Talisker is an Islay, while Lagavulin is Isle of Skye, so it’s natural that they would share many of the same characteristics. However, they are quite different, as Lagavulin is like a fistful of smoke (a good thing, in my view).
The main flavors that you will encounter are peat, smoke, salt, heather, and malt. As with wine and beer, there are dozens of other notes that fall into these categories.
Peat. This is the fuel that is used to provide the heat for drying the malt. It is cut in squares out of the bogs and moors, dried and then used in the malting houses. When you burn peat, it obviously gives off smoke. Malters control the amount of smoke in order to match the level of smoke desired in the final product. Not to pick on Glenkinchie, but, as a milder “heathery” scotch, you want to minimize the amount of smoke, whereas, if you are distilling a smoky scotch like the king of the smokey monsters, Lagavulin, you’ll let a lot more smoke hit the malt.
So, what do we mean by “peaty”? It’s the smoke that is the key. A scotch can be peaty but not have a lot of smoke. But there needs to be some smoke; otherwise, there’s no peat character. Without the smoke, peat is just a heat source.
Salt. This is a key component of island malts. The salty air that you find on the ocean is naturally incorporated into the distilling. Another component of the ocean is iodine, and this characteristic is often passed along as well. Sometimes you can sense seaweed and other complex ocean aromas.
Malt. This is the food source for yeast; the “engine” of scotch, if you will. Malt provides sweetness and how much sweetness will depend on how the distiller uses the malt. Just as pilsners don’t have a lot of malt character while ales are full of it, you’ll see a wide variety in the amount of malt “flavor” in scotch. I would also group notes like mocha, chocolate, leather and other “earthy” flavors similar to the ones that you might find in a big cabernet.
Heather. These are the grassy notes. Under heathery, I like to add notes like dried fruits, honey, mown hay,violets and other “floral” notes etc. You usually find milder scotches offer these notes as a main feature of their flavor profile. This is to be expected as they are more delicate notes that are easily overwhelmed by peat and smoke.
I didn’t mention “wine” notes initially. I consider this a specialty category. some distillers, like Glenmorangie and Macallen purchase used wine, sherry and port barrels in order to impart those types of notes. When they do this, they include the flavor in the title, such as Glenmorangie Sherry Wood Finish. I think that this is pretty self-explanatory.
As a waiter, you usually only have to deal with a dozen or less of the most popular single malts. If your restaurant has more than just The Glenlivet (and its different ages), Glenfiddich (pronounced Glen-FIDDICK) and Macallen, it would be good to learn the basic characteristics of the ones that you have. If a novice expresses an interest in trying single malt for the first time, it won’t do you much good to offer them Lagavulin because, it’s possible to put them off of single malt forever. It’s a big, powerful scotch that takes some adjustment.
So you need to group your scotches from mild to robust. Since I don’t know your product mix, you should go to the above link and take some notes. For example, you can generally assume that Lowland scotches are going to be milder than Speyside or island malts, but this is a BIG generalization.
I’m a big “big scotch” fan myself.
My favorite scotches are Oban, Talisker, and Lagavulin. So, you can see that I’m biased against the milder scotches. That’s my own particular preference and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with preferring one of the more delicate scotches.
I like Oban. A lot.
Why? Because I find that offers a nice balance of some of the most distinctive scotch flavors. It’s big without being too big or “in your face”.
If you want to give a novice a taste of a nice single malt scotch that isn’t “dumbed down” or mild, might I suggest Oban? It’s sometimes hard to keep in stock because the distillery output is small, but it’s widely available in the US. It’s almost like a super Glenlivet.
How do you drink single malt? A purist will scoff at even the hint of ice. But no less an authority as the late Michael Jackon (the writer, not the singer) says that there’s nothing wrong with placing a single small ice cube in the scotch. He said that it actually stops the scotch from hitting the tongue with a shot of pure alcohol, which can actually mask the flavors. The single cube will “unlock” the flavors by mitigating the “hot” alcohol and it will smooth it out without dilluting it too much. I agree with him on this and that’s how I drink it myself. I think you get a better measure of the scotch by doing this. However, one thing you shouldn’t do (in my opinion) is serve it “on the rocks”. The ice will dilute the scotch too much as it melts. If someone orders a single malt, you can show your wisdom by asking them, “Neat, light ice, or normal ice”? If they say “light ice” only put a couple of small cubes in it, although you might bring a few more cubes on the side. Whenever I’m asked my opinion, I tell them about the one cube thing. but I’ll never look disapprovingly at someone who wants it “on the rocks”. If that’s the way they want it, so be it.
This is only a quick primer. I hope that it encourages you to do your due diligence. Here are a few links to help you out, in no particular order (and don’t forget the link that started this post out):