Spirits: Scotch Enlightenment, but With No 'E'

Blood and Sand
Blood and Sand (Julia Ewan - The Washington Post)
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By Jason Wilson
Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Scotch whisky is spelled without the letter "e." If you don't know that -- or even if you do know that, but you wrote a column for a large metropolitan newspaper in which you accidentally left in the dreaded "e" -- do not worry: Plenty of super-helpful people will correct your spelling.

For instance, if you type a line that reads, "All the world's dictionaries should place a photo of a White Horse bottle next to the words 'Blended Scotch Whiskey,' " some Scotch enthusiast will leave a nice comment online that reads, "But they'd spell it Whisky, wouldn't they?" That comment will be below the one that calls you "so uninformed i wonder how much actual knowledge you have" but goes on to spell both "Cointreau" and "liqueur" wrong.

Or maybe someone will send a friendly e-mail: "Jason, here on the West Coast, we spell Blended Scotch Whisky without an e."

Scotch aficionados are always giving me advice. A year ago, I admitted my dirty little secret as a spirits writer: I didn't love Scotch as much as some think I should. Ever since, Scotch people have gone out of their way to send tips on what to try, fueling my quest to find the right Scotch for me.

Then, over the holidays, I received a sampler of the six Scotch whiskies that make up the Classic Malts Selection, an assortment of prized bottles from the portfolio of beverage giant Diageo. The collection included a helpful Flavor Map with the words Smoky, Delicate, Rich and Light arranged on four sides of a grid. Each Scotch in the sampler fell into one of four quadrants.

As I tasted, I found that I still wasn't a huge fan of the whiskies that inhabited the Smoky/Rich quadrant. I understand that the Talisker and Laguvulin "Distiller's Editions" are very well made. But they just don't grab me the way other fine spirits do. I've long chalked that up to the fact that I have never been a smoker, and most everyone I know who loves really peaty Scotches has been.

I did, however, very much enjoy the 12-year Glenkinchie and the 15-year Dalwhinnie, and I found them squarely in the Light/Delicate quadrant on the Flavor Map. That raised a flag: In addition to their spell-checking, Scotch enthusiasts also very carefully monitor your manliness quotient. That was reinforced days later when one of them helpfully informed me that Glenkinchie and Dalwhinnie are "girl Scotches." But how then to explain the smooth, deep and wonderful Oban 18-year-old, which also falls into the Light/Delicate quadrant? I doubt that even the most macho Scotch enthusiast would sniff at Oban's 91 rating from Malt Advocate magazine. I decided to continue my Scotch journey without the Flavor Map.

Then, a few weeks ago, I heard that the Round Robin bar at the Willard hotel had opened a new Scotch bar, and I figured that should be the next stop on my quest. I knew that Jim Hewes, bartender at the Round Robin, was a straight talker and a longtime whisky (and whiskey, which is how all others besides Scotch and Canadian are spelled) aficionado and, most important, not a "brand ambassador" beholden to any particular bottle. So I spent a recent afternoon there, with Hewes as my whisky Sherpa.

The Round Robin offers more than 120 types of Scotch, but Hewes led me through a well-edited tasting of just 15, leaping around the various regions of Scotland: from Highlands to Lowlands, Islay to Islands, Campbeltown to Speyside. You can order by the ounce or the quarter-ounce (the latter not much more than a sip), an affordable way to taste several expensive whiskies normally out of reach. We ranged from crazy-expensive, the Glen Ord 30-year-old that sells for $16 per quarter-ounce, to relatively inexpensive, the Rosebank 16-year, which goes for $4 per quarter-ounce.

We began with the least expensive, Arran 10-year, which Hewes called "almost aperitif-like" and "something a bourbon drinker would like." I'd told him I wanted to steer away from the heavy peat bombs and discover other styles. "You're looking for a drinking Scotch," Hewes assessed.

Though I did appreciate higher-octane offerings such as the Glenfarclas 105 (120 proof), the Arran Napoleon (115.4 proof) and the Port Charlotte six-year (123.2 proof), their burn-your-nose-hair quality was not what I would call enjoyable. In almost all cases, I appreciated the lower-proof ones more. And let's be clear: In Scotch-speak, "low" means something below 100 proof. I very much enjoyed the younger, 5-year Port Charlotte (92 proof), the Dallas Dhu 24-year (80 proof) and the Isle of Jura 16-year (96 proof).

The highlight of the tasting was Bunnahabhain, both the 12-year and the 25-year. Hewes poured those two next to the famed Caol Ila 25-year because the distilleries are close neighbors on Islay. But what unbelievably different styles they present. The Caol Ila was very nice and lighter than the typical smoky Islay style. But both Bunnahabhains were revelations. Fresh, rich, nutty, with hints of berries and raisins, and a pleasant oiliness on the tongue: I had no idea Scotch could be like that. Though the 25-year might be a tad pricey (over $200), the 12-year was an outstanding value at around $40 a bottle.

"Scotch is the most eclectic, most erudite, most electrifying distilled spirit made," Hewes said. "Just when you think you've got a bead on a style or technique, you get a curveball."

Which means my long and winding path toward Scotch enlightenment surely will continue.

Jason Wilson can be reached at jason@tablematters.com or food@washpost.com.

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