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Savoring Scotch

The alcoholic beverage most associated with “the art of drinking” and collectors who are willing to pay hefty sums for a bottle of a particular brand and year is wine. But there is another alcoholic beverage that has as many aficionados: single malt scotch.

Scotch, as the name suggests, is mainly associated with Scotland. It is also made in Ireland and Northern Ireland, but is not made in the United States. Most of the brands are found in north Scotland, and that is where the art of distilling has the most tradition.

The earliest documented distillery in Scotland was already producing 1,500 bottles around 1494 but is not producing today. According to legend, St. Patrick introduced the art of making whiskey to Ireland around A.D. 500. By 1200 there were many established distilleries in Ireland, all of them run by monks.

The greatest boost for the production of scotch came around 1500 as the King of Scotland, James IV, was fond of the drink, so a guild was formed to produce it. Through this monopoly, smuggling became a big business, and creative ways had to be found under the the watch of the English. Such methods included, among others, smuggling scotch in coffins.

Often bloody wars and feuds arose over the royal licenses to distill. To end the feuds and smuggling, an act was passed in 1823 that allowed the distilling of whiskey if a license was officially requested and a fee of £10 was paid. This act, called the Excise Act, laid the foundations for the whiskey industry as it still exists today. The final boost that established scotch as an appreciated drink throughout the world was a plague of beetles that wiped out most of the wine production in France in the 1880s. Scotch was exported to the continent, and it remained popular even after the wine production was up and running again.

How to drink scotch is a heavily-debated topic. The most common way of drinking it is in a small glass (not a shot glass) in which the whiskey can spread out. Some people prefer to drink it diluted with water. The glass has to allow for a big surface area though, which is done for the most part to enjoy the particular smell of each brand. This may seem awkward, but because of the high alcohol content (43 to 50 percent Vol, 86 to 100 proof) it actually works as an anesthetic on the taste buds. This means that after the first swallow, one does not taste the drink anymore. For this reason, the first swig is drawn out as long as possible to appreciate it more, and the particular smell of each brand figures heavily into the enjoyment of the drink.

Although the smell is very important, the particular brands are also differentiated by their taste, which is often more of a subtle aftertaste, and coloration. The taste and smell are majorly influenced through the location of the distillery, which is actually more important than the ingredients, which are often the same in separate distilleries. Because the scotch is aged in old oak barrels, the drink takes the smell of the surroundings, which is why distilleries that are located on or near the coast have a distinctly different taste than distilleries that are located in the Highlands. Some brands located near the coast actually describe their taste as “salty and tangy.” Since the oak barrels are so important in the making of scotch, they are a sought-after commodity. Most of them have been used for as long as the distillery has been producing, which can be hundreds of years.

To be classified as a single malt scotch the beverage has to be aged for at least eight years. Most brands age for longer periods of time, ranging from 14 years, which is considered average for a good brand, to 21 years or longer. Because of the time it takes to age these older brands – and a lot of the liquid is actually lost over the time they are aged – the longer aged brands naturally cost more. It is important to know that once the beverage is bottled, the taste does not change any more because there is no contact with the surroundings. If somebody claims he has 20-year-old scotch but it actually only aged eight years in the barrels and spent the rest in the bottle, the scotch remains classified as eight years old.

As a rule of thumb, it can be said that the older the scotch, the smoother it will taste.

Prices of the brands that are exported to the United States are interestingly enough not much higher than the prices in Scotland.

A good brand will cost around $30 or more and can be found at most well-stocked liquor stores. For the price reasons alone, they are something to be savored over time.

Contact Sebastian Meyerat