Weekly Scotch Tastings

By Fritz Hahn
washingtonpost.com Bars and Clubs Editor
February 2001


Connoisseurs of Scotch whisky, much like those of wines and microbrews, can talk your ear off about their favorite drink: the tastes, the regions, the blends, how the 30-year-old compares with the 12-year-old. All of this ritualized snobbery reinforces the fact that, served neat or with water, Scotch is fundamentally a drinker's drink.

If you're curious to learn the hallmarks of good and great Scotches, head to the Royal Mile in Wheaton on a Thursday night for a tasting. This Scottish pub invites beginners to sample any of the 70-plus single malts, plus a few Irish single malts and various blends. Certainly owner Ray Morrison has assembled one of the largest collections in our area.

Don't expect to find name tags, weekly guest speakers or bottles laid out on the tables. Occasionally the bar brings in experts from Scotch distilleries, but weekly tastings are informal affairs. Any novice can expect friendly assistance from one of the regulars. The bartenders point us to Dan Welch, wearing his Royal Mile Pub shirt, as the resident expert of the night. "I'm not an expert, I'm an aficionado," he corrects them. It turns out that Welch is one of the founders of the Royal Mile Vatting Society, the in-house Scotch blending and appreciation club. He guided us through the whisky menu, boasting he could identify most of them blindfolded. We didn't bet against him.

In Scotland, most whisky is made only with water, malted barley and yeast. "It's amazing – you get such a broad range of tastes, mouth-feels and aftertastes from just three ingredients," Morrison says. Indeed, each distillery has a taste all its own, depending on the region's water supply or method of heating the still pot.

If it's your first time drinking Scotch (or if you have no idea what you'd like), the Vatting Society has a number of prearranged "tasting samplers," with themes like "Highlands," "Peat Malts" or "The McClellands." If you're still not sure, just ask Dan Welch or Ray Morrison.

Welch picked a broad range of samples for me:
Highland Park: Sherry casks lend this Scotch a sweet taste, which does not disappear when it is smoked by peat fires.
Laphroig: Has a smoky taste thanks to heavy peating. The result, as warming as a fireplace.
Auchentoshan: The only triple-distilled Scotch on the list, this variety tasted smooth and floral with no peatiness.

The half-ounce samples are served in hand-blown tasting glasses, designed to accentuate the aroma. Almost all samples are $1.95 or $2.95, except for Johnny Walker Blue, a 25-year-old Macallan and the 30-year-old Laphroig, which all cost $7.95 a taste. If that sounds steep, consider this: A bottle of any of those will set you back about $230. So go ahead and taste one; I recommend the Laphroig. Then, when talking to your Scotch-smart friends, you can casually mention its ripe peatiness. You'll be golden.

© Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company