A primer on Scotch whiskey, er, whisky

Our resident Dionysus, Wine & Dine columnist Doug Paulding, gets creative with an exploration of malt whiskeys at Total Wines in Nowalk.

Yes, it’s a strange time to be alive and odd to be tasked with writing about wine and spirits. In this endeavor I, and most of my colleagues, will attend luncheons or dinners with winemakers or spirit distillers and/or their employers. We will taste through the inventory on hand and hear stories of the creation and evolution of the subject.  We are often invited to seminars, where regional consortio staff members might give us the history and bottom line and, of course, offer up a taste of a series of representative styles. And then there are the media trips to other lands, where we are flown to distant places, sometimes with a few journalists; sometimes with many from around the world. After any of these events, it is fairly simple to compose an engaging story. We hear, we taste, we question, we compare. But today all of those options are on hold so we have to get creative.

     I visited the local Total Wines store in Norwalk, Connecticut, where the inventory is second to none in the area. I randomly walked around, a bit lost, looking for inspiration. I ambled aisle to aisle, picking up bottle after bottle until I found myself in the spirits section and was immediately drawn to the Scotch whiskey area. (Note: Scotland drops the “e,” but the preferred American spelling is with it.) For reasons unknown, Scotch whiskey has always held a particular attraction for me. Perhaps because my maternal grandfather was born in Glasgow, Scotland. Perhaps because it was my first drink in an adult setting in a restaurant.  Perhaps because I have bonded with a few friends over an attractive dram or two of Scotch, while discussing life and solving the world’s problems. Sadly, some of these friends are no longer here, so in my mind there is a permanence and a certain “holiness” to these sacred, or profane, memories.

     Single malt whiskey may be the gold standard of whiskeys worldwide. Scotland and Ireland both lay claim to being the originator of this fermented, distilled and aged product, but the single malts of Scotland all have their unique flavors and personalities. The Highland region employs smoked peat moss to dry the malted (sprouted) grain. Each distillery has its own peaty preferences of flavor and concentration. Some like a hint of smokiness for accent, while others are so peaty and smoky it will take multiple tastes to appreciate them. And then there are all the styles in between.

     So I was wandering in the Scotch aisle looking for an angle. Some of these Scotches are wildly expensive, reaching into the tens of thousands of dollars. Many are in the typical price range of $45 to $100 dollars or so. But I stumbled across Grangestone, an affordable and interesting Highland single malt Scotch whiskey. I bought three bottles, each for about $26. Each of these bottles begin the same way, aged in traditional American oak casks. They are then transferred into casks that have matured other products to their happy place. One was finished in premium Madeira casks, one was in premium rum casks and the third in premium sherry casks. Each bottle was clearly of the same lineage, but there were subtle flavor differences from these finishing casks.

     Madeira is an island off the coast of northwest Africa belonging to Portugal where Madeira is exclusively made. It is a fortified wine, shocked during the fermentation process with high alcohol brandy to arrest it, thus maintaining some of the natural sugars of the grape. It is then aged in wood for years or sometimes for many decades. Sherry is made in southwest Spain and is also a fortified wine. Sherry has many styles from bone dry to extra sweet. And rum, of course, is derived from sugar or cane juice or molasses and is typically produced throughout the Caribbean. Because it’s made in so many different countries, there are no universal rules or laws for its production. But success sells and producers pay attention to what sells and may try to emulate a style with their own grace note of flavor.

     The Madeira cask contributed hints of a dark Port softly carried by the whiskey. The rum cask is much more aromatic, showing clean whiskey flavors tempered by a slight touch of molasses. The sherry cask whiskey was considerably dryer, probably made with a cask that previously matured dry Amontillado or Oloroso sherry. These whiskeys all come in at 40% alcohol by volume, or at 80 proof. Each of them had a distinct personality and any of them could become a personal favorite, which could change with the day or night temperatures, food available or current company. Grangestone Highland Single Malt Whisky —affordable, delicious and educational. What could be better?

Write me at doug@dougpaulding.com.

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