Whisk(e)y 101 - Part 1: An entry level guide to Scotch...

Selecting a brown spirit at The Firehouse - and in many other establishments - can be a bit daunting if you're new to this genre of adult libations. For example: Do I want Scotch or Bourbon? What's the difference? What do you mean Whistle Pig is neither of those? We have over 50 selections to choose from here. But fear not dear reader, in this short overview we're going to give you the basics and a few names to drop for the next time you belly-up to the bar, starting with Scotch.

Let's start with the spelling. In Scotland, they leave out the "e" so it's spelled whisky. In America, we leave the "e" in there. The Irish keep the "e" in there as well, so it's just for Scotch that you'll need to ignore your spellcheck.

This entry will focus on the spirits produced by our kilt-wearing-compatriots primarily because it also happens to be the first grouping on our menu. The initial sub-heading reads "SINGLE MALT," which is basically, what it sounds like. This method of whisky (again, no "e") production is made from only water, malted barley, and yeast in a pot still at a single distillery.

There are dozens of well-known single malt Scotch producers including Balvenie, Glenfiddich, Glenlivet, Laphroaig, Macallan, Oban and Talisker. However, if you've tried some of these verities, you may have noticed that all of these products taste different and some taste VERY different.

If they're all made out of the same stuff (barley, water, yeast) in the same type of still, why do they taste so different? The main reason is where they're produced, and what is done with the malt, or the mash, before distillation as well as differences in aging techniques and types of barrels used in the aging process. The regions in Scotland that produce Scotch are (north to south); Islands (this category actually comes from several geographies as seen here in orange), Speyside, Highlands, Campbeltown, Islay, and Lowlands.

The differences imparted by these regions are often noticeable, especially Islay where many of the well-known distilleries use a unique process known as "peating." This process imparts a smokey flavor to the whisky, which on the recent packaging of a Laphroig bottle we saw, described it as tasting: "Like kissing a mermaid who had barbecue for dinner."

This flavor comes from using a peat (bog moss) induced fire to halt the germination of the malt as described above. It actually smokes the malt, which then goes into the mash and is later distilled, meaning the smokey, seaweed-ish, flavor is actually in the alcohol itself and only intensifies once you put it in a wood barrel to age. For more on regional tastes, please see the diagram below, which provides a great visual summary of some of the nuances that you'll experience from brand to brand.

"Single malts" are often synonymous with "expensive," but that's not really because they're special in any particular way from other whisk(e)y. It's primarily because most of them are aged for a long time.

The minimum age for a single malt on our list is ten years. So just think about where you were ten years ago, because that's when that whiskey was going into a barrel to start the aging process. In addition to it being generally agreed upon that whisk(e)y that has been aged for longer is usually better, lending what most would call a "smoothness" to the tipple - it also creates scarcity, which in turn of course, creates equity. The less of something there is - or in some cases even if there is a perceived shortage rather than an actual one - the more people want it, and the more you can charge for it. This is of course true of most luxury products.

At least there's free shipping...

Onward now to blended Scotch. We carry three of the well-known blended Scotches but there are many more. Several are household names, but none are quite as household as Johnnie Walker. Certainly not the first blender but definitely the most famous. The number one Scotch brand in the world sells nearly triple the booze of its closest competitor (which is

.Ballantine’s by the way). Annually, there is enough Johnnie Walker product sold in the world to fill approximately 1,928 Olympic-sized swimming pools. If you want to know more about Johnnie Walker, we'll let Robert Carlyle tell you.

Chivas and Dewar's round out our blended Scotches here at The Firehouse and of course they're quite good. Their videos just aren't as cool.

A blended Scotch blends one or more single malt Scotch whisky with one or more single grain Scotch whisky. The grain whisky is added to the malt and the co-mingling are either aged together or separately to be blended at a later time. The age of the whiskey on a blend means that the youngest whiskey in the blend is at least that old. For Johnnie Walker Blue Label, the Scotch juggernaut does not specify a minimum age but instead calls it "a blend of our rarest whiskies." They're not lying, it's fantastic. Of course at $48 per glass, it should be.

The last category on our list is our Japanese (or Japanese style) whisky offerings. They have emulated the Scottish, so they spell it the same way.

This was a relatively recent development in the whisky space when Shinjiro Torii of Japan started the Suntory whisky company around 1918. The history of the Suntory products is fascinating and their portfolio now includes several of the best known Japanese single malts and other whisky products. Their first distillery was in the Yamazaki district near Kyoto, and arguably the best known Japanese single malt in the world bears the name Yamazaki as a result. It comes aged at 12, 18, and 25 years but good luck finding the 25 year, especially in the United States. The 18 year is even becoming increasingly rare (see above, rare = expensive) but we do have it available currently, at the time of this posting, for $40/pour.

The only non-Suntory product we carry is Baller which is made by St. George Spirits in Alameda, CA. It is a California take on Japanese whisky made from 100% American barley. It is finished in casks that previously held house-made umeshu; a plum liqueur made from California-grown ume plums. At $14/pour, in our humble opinion, this is a great whisky. It's also got a very cool bottle, so give it a shot next time you visit.

We will continue this series soon with a Part 2, which will give a general overview of American whiskey. If you have any questions, feel free to ask us in the comments!