Although I wouldn't have called myself an aficionado until the last few years, bourbon has long been my go-to spirit of choice. Its warm sweetness is both comforting and relatively easy on the senses. In recent years, I've become more interested in discerning flavors among bourbons, sampling any number of boutique, small-batch and single-barrel bourbons, and other peculiar or unique whiskeys, in an attempt to develop my palate. While many drinkers will have their whiskey on the rocks or with a bit of water, by this time I'd decided I would taste everything neat, so as to get the maximum experience of each spirit's flavor.
I'd always preferred bourbon to Scotch, although I'd never had much in the way of serious Scotch (I don't think a brief period of Chivas-and-water as a go-to drink in my early twenties counts). That continued as I tried to seriously study bourbon, preferring its smoothness and sweetness, not to mention having the recent explosion in craft distilleries to give me a number of new bourbons to try. It wasn't until I covered the Houston Whiskey Festival that I started to seriously reconsider Scotch. That's thanks to two tastings I attended.
The first wasn't a Scotch at all, but it quickly became my favorite American whiskey. Balcones Distillery's Baby Blue blue corn whiskey is exactly what it says on the bottle-- 100 percent blue corn, unlike most bourbons which use a mix of (almost always yellow dent) corn and either rye or wheat-- and the blue corn gives it a complexity of flavor I didn't realize corn whiskeys could have. Having since sampled some with a few different people, one of the most common impressions they have of it is that it "smells like tequila, finishes like Scotch." Blue corn has an earthiness of flavor that yellow corn doesn't, and the result is a whiskey that starts sweet but finishes with bitter, smoky notes, black coffee in particular. Experiencing this opened my mind to the possibilities of what whiskey could be, and primed me to start valuing a complex finish over a smooth one.
Not much later in the night, I sat in on one of the whiskey seminars. This one happened to be given by Macallan, who explained the differences between their Fine Oak and Sherry Oak lines, and offered samples of the 10- and 12-year Fine Oak Scotches for everyone in the room.
I was surprised to find they tasted unlike the Scotch I had remembered. They weren't smoky in the same way at all; I almost feel, for lack of a better description, that they tasted "cleaner" than other whiskies, much in the same way the Reinheitsgebot gives German beer a "cleaner" taste than most. The Fine Oak series is aged in both bourbon and sherry casks, and thus it comes without the full sweetness from the sherry, or the heavy smokiness from the peat present in some Scotches. I felt like this allowed the most basic flavor of the malted barley to come through. And I quite liked it.
I decided to follow up on this experience with a little more Scotch sampling over the next few weeks, which is how I discovered I quite liked The Macallan 12 in Sherry Oak casks (the traditional Macallan, by far the more commonly found one), and even now it is a staple of my liquor cabinet.
The only thing I knew about the regions where Scotch is produced was that those from Islay tended to be the heaviest on peat smoke-- I recognized names like Laphroaig and Lagavulin even before I started tasting Scotch. Though The Macallan was recently reclassified as a Highland Scotch when Scotland redefined regional borders in 2009, it is still traditionally considered a Speyside by Scotch drinkers. With that in mind, the next couple of times I went out, I sampled a few other major-brand Speyside single malts, but they didn't leave me satisfied. Most bars that only carry a few single malts tend to have these, so I decided to go whole hog on this new fascination and plan a Scotch tasting somewhere I knew we could find variety.
I went with my friend Marc, a fellow whiskey enthusiast and frequent partner in drinking adventures, to Reserve 101, to watch a basketball game and sample their wide range of Scotches. Here, I thought, we would learn more about the variety Scotch had to offer, and hopefully drink some selections off the beaten path.
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We decided to start with the Balcones Baby Blue, even though it wasn't a Scotch, as a general baseline for comparison purposes. I'd taken some recommendations from other friends recently for whiskeys to try, and so I geared my sample list toward those while preparing to adjust for what I liked and didn't like. All in all, we sampled nine single malts, in an attempt to get a wider range of flavors and perhaps try some unique spirits.
After the Balcones, we continued to dip our toes into the pool by easing into something more familiar, ordering a Macallan 15 Fine Oak and a Balcones Single Malt. These were solid, but didn't particularly distinguish themselves-- but then, that's what we wanted. The Macallan had more citrus notes up front; the Balcones had the smokier finish.
The two distilleries most frequently recommended by friends were Balvenie and Yamazaki. (While the Yamazaki is from Japan, not Scotland, it is still a single-malt whiskey smoked with peat, so it is effectively a Scotch. I'll use the term to refer to any single malt.) With that in mind, we decided to give three different twelve-years a sample: The Yamazaki 12 and two Balvenies, a Single Barrel and a Double Wood. We quite liked the Yamazaki, with its subtle fruity notes, and the Balvenies were very smooth, especially the Double Wood.
Too smooth, in fact. They were easy drinkers, but now being a few Scotches in, we decided we wanted something more pronounced than that. So we headed into flavor country; i.e. to sample an Islay Scotch. Next we compared a Scotch that was a popular recommendation from my friends with one specifically recommended as a high-quality, boldly peat-smoked Scotch, and ordered, respectively, an Oban 14-year and an Isle of Jura 16-year. (Technically it is an Islands Scotch-- only the Isle of Islay receives its own classification-- but the Islands Scotches tend to be heavily peat-smoked as well.) The Oban was flavorful, but the Isle of Jura was what I'd been looking for at that point, a pungent Scotch that still managed to be relatively easy to drink.
Emboldened by our enjoyment of the strength and richness of the peat flavors as they unfolded from the Jura, we decided to try another Islay for comparison.
We ordered the Caol Ila 12-year-- an Islay, but not one of the more intense ones-- and decided to order something less peaty to sip alongside it. Reserve 101's selections include a handful from distilleries that have since closed, so we thought to try something we wouldn't be able to elsewhere, ordering a Littlemill 12-year.
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Unfortunately, I think the Isle of Jura ruined my palate a bit, since it was so strong that now the flavors of other Scotches felt faint by comparison. This ended up being our final order of the night as a result, as sampling fine Scotch can get expensive, and there's no point to doing it if you can't even tell what you're tasting.
What I most concluded from this is that I was starting to develop an appreciation for the peatiness of Scotch. As we went through our list, I found myself wanting more and more different flavors from my Scotches, and a solid amount of peat was the best way to achieve that. Peat smoke gives Scotch a rich and unique flavor profile, where a small sip can unveil worlds of flavor.
It is possible to go overboard on the peat: not long afterward I tried a Laphroaig 10 year and it was simply too much, leaving me feeling heavy and greasy afterward. The best Scotches I had weren't simply overwhelming with smoke at the nose; they opened up with long and rich finishes. My new goal was balance, to find something with the rich fruitiness of, say, a Macallan's nose, while having some smoky peatiness to it as well, without being overwhelming on either. My mission would continue.
Coming up in Part Two: An unexpected look into a private collection, and the best whiskey I've had to date.