There are pretty much 5 major categories of whisk(e)ys that waiters need to be familiar with – Scotch whisky, Irish whiskey, Bourbon whiskey, Tennessee whiskey, and Canadian whisky.
Note that the spelling of whiskey is different. this isn’t a typo, just a result of the vagaries of language.
Here are some examples:
Bourbon – Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, Wild Turkey, Buffalo Trace, Evan Williams, Old Charter, Blanton’s, Woodford Reserve, Baker’s, etc.
Tennessee Whiskey – there are really only two – Jack Daniel’s (the worlds best selling whiskey) and George Dickel.
Irish Whiskey – Bushmill’s, Jameson’s and Tullamore Dew are the three that you are likely to see.
Canadian whisky – Crown Royal, Canadian Club (also called CC), Seagrams, Seagrams VO (usually only called VO), Hiram Walker and Barton’s (this is about 99% of what you are likely to find in any restaurant).
And now we come to our subject – scotch.
Scotch has a checkered history. As with most whiskeys with any history, it really started partially as a bootlegger’s product; perhaps bootlegger is too harsh of a word since laws were sketchy back then. Originally, it was mainly a product produced by monasteries, although surely, there were small distillers working in their own communities. It was enjoyed by patients and, presumably, doctors and barbers (who acted as doctors at times) but it got its first real break when it was embraced by the Scottish King, James IV. After this, the Scottish Parliament got greedy and started taxing the product which caused no end of distress to the distillers of the product. Much like the bootleggers of the US Appalachians, some of them went to ground rather than pay the excessive taxes. This trend accelerated as England decided to clamp down on Scotland in the first decade of the 1700s. Smuggling was rampant and tax collectors were often met with violence.
In 1823, after years of battling bootleggers in almost warlike conditions, the British Government passed the Excise Act, which legitimized the making, bottling and sale of Scotch whisky. This ultimately made it possible to commercialize the product and the foundation of the current industry was born.
As the 19th century progressed, refinements in both ingredients and equipment made it possible for Scotch whisky to be accepted by a wider audience. When the Phylloxera louse virtually wiped out the French wine and cognac trade in the late 1800s, Scotch got another boost.
What does all of this mean to the waiter? Not much.
But it gives you a context.
The main things to know about scotch are the idea that there are two main categories of scotch that most waiters need to know about – blended scotches and single malt scotches.
Blended scotches include Johnnie Walker, Cutty Sark, J&B (which incidentally stands for Justerini and Brooks), Chivas Regal, Dewars, Grant’s and the very common well brand Vat 69. For my money, the best of the blended scotches, and the one which comes closest to the depth of flavor of many of the single malt scotches is Famous Grouse. Perhaps it’s because it’s blended from some of the most distinguished single malters like Macallan. It’s a good Scotch to offer to someone who wants to experience single malt for less cost or someone curious about Single Malts but isn’t sure they’d like the more robust flavor profiles often found in them. It’s still a premium brand, so it’s a good upsell. Chivas is also considered on the best of the blended scotches because it has a certain amount of “snob appeal”.
Keep in mind that blended scotches are blended for consistency from many different sources (even some of the most famous names in single malt as noted above). They tend to be smoother and milder than some single malts. This means that they tend to be blander as well.
An interesting fact is that many of the barrels that are used to age blending casks are the discarded barrels of bourbon and Tennessee whisky makers, barrels which are only used once by those makers. Those whiskies get their character more from the charred barrels than they get from aging. Scotch is more dependent to aging than it is to the barrel itself, although the barrel character imparts character and color as it does with American whiskies. Old wine barrels are used as well. Barrel character is more important in single malt bottlings and we’ll address that in a separate piece on single malts.
As a waiter, make sure you know your brands and which ones have higher end bottlings such as the various colors of Johnnie Walker (Red, Black, Green, Blue, etc.). Some of the more “generic” brands such as Dewars have followed the single malt trend and offer “aged” versions such as Dewars 12 year. If your bar has them, they should be a routine offer, just as you routinely offer Grey Goose or Absolut. For example, if someone orders Dewars, simply ask “Dewars or Dewars 12?”. You won’t upsell them nearly as often as you upsell vodka, but that shouldn’t stop you from offering them.
There are a lot of scotch drinkers out there and so it’s important as a waiter to be knowledgeable about the product. Stick around in the next couple of days to learn about the wonderful world of single malts. Speaking as an occasional scotch drinker, once you go single malt, it’s hard to go back. Of course, this is hard on the pocketbook, but great on the income possibility of us waiters.
Here’s to the heath, the hill and the heather, the bonnet, the plaid, the kilt and the feather!
The image comes from http://artofmanliness.com/2009/04/05/the-art-of-manliness-guide-to-scotch-whisky/
This page has a good description of the distilling process that you should find informative. There is also some great information on the enjoyment of scotch. I hope that my distaff readers will go there as well, even though it’s a “manly site”.