• Two Thumbs Way Up
• Delicate aromas of brown sugar, honey, orange rind, bell pepper, cream soda, and bananas with a distinct mineral quality. It offered lots of spicy, white pepper notes along with flavors similar to its aromas. It had a long finish with plenty of citrus, orange and ginger.
A Wine Lover Looks At Scotch
Scotch—the revered and ballyhooed firewater from Scotland—is something I’ve never really enjoyed. Whiskies, in general, whether they are from the Emerald Isles of Ireland or the rolling hills of Kentucky, have never really been “my thing.”
This is not for lack of trying. Numerous friends and colleagues sing rapturously about the delicate, floral nuances from Scotland’s northern Speyside or the smoky, earthy notes found in Islay in the southwest. On two separate occasions, I’ve been honored to sit next to a master distiller, who patiently took me step by step on how to appreciate and sip their creations.
Floral nuances? Really? Frankly, they just gave me “the willies” (the whiskies, not the distillers, who surely wrote me off as a lost cause).
And while I can’t quite get my palate around the stuff, I have tried to understand and appreciate these spirits academically. At the tail end of last year, I read the gloriously illustrated The World Atlas of Whisky by Dave Broom. It was a wonderfully enlightening book that made the lands, the people and the whiskies seem so beguiling that I wonder if I have a recessive spirits gene.
This all sets up my invitation from Ricky Crawford, the national brand manager for The Glenlivet Single Malt Scotch Whisky. Crawford’s job, in part, is to conduct Scotch tastings, sometimes as many as four a day. He wanted to know if I would like to sit in on one of those tastings.
“Oh, brother!” I thought to myself. “Another one of those spirits evangelists coming to convert the unwashed. Could I really endure another lesson on Scotch?” Perhaps the only reason I said, “Sure,” was that I was not doing anything else that evening.
Crawford is a cheerful man from Paisley, Scotland, and surprisingly fit for a guy who tastes Scotch all day long. I met Crawford at Hal’s On Old Ivy, the Buckhead steak landmark. It didn’t take too long after I sat down in front of my six samples to figure out that this would be a Scotch-only dinner, with no chance of a cabernet sauvignon for my bone-in filet mignon.
After pleasantries, I flat out told Crawford I don’t like Scotch, harboring the vague hope that he might insist I go home. Rather than dismissing me, he wanted to know what Scotches I’ve tried. I explained I had a tastings with a blended Scotch maker and one with a distillery from the Islay region.
Little did I know that Islay single-malt Scotches are generally regarded as the last stop on your train ride to whisky appreciation. They have a mushroom-like, sulfur, burnt-earth quality that can take a lifetime to appreciate, let alone come to love. “That’s not a good place to start,” Crawford laughed. Many Scotch lovers avoid them at all costs, he said. He also explained away issues I’ve had with blended whiskies and certain bourbons.
“Hmmm, maybe I’ve just had a bad run of luck,” I thought. “But this guy is a salesman…”
We got down to the business of smelling, tasting and evaluating the contents of the glasses. Crawford said he was glad I could make the tasting. He enjoys tasting with wine guys like me because even when we’re a little skeptical we are thoughtful in our evaluations.
More than anything, I am put off by the aroma of spirits, which I describe as harshly medicinal, the smell of an electrical fire and something akin to a rotten egg. So as I stuck my nose in these glasses of Scotch, I was surprised to find green apple, orange peel, bacon fat, honey comb, toasted coconut, vanilla and, yes, flowers. Where was the electrical fire?
An amused Crawford explained that, like wines, all spirits don’t smell or taste the same. The Scotches from the Speyside region, home to The Glenlivet, are known for their delicacy and are a better place to begin a lifelong journey of whisky appreciation.
Able to get past the nose of the spirit, tasting The Glenlivet 12-Year was as pleasurable as it was surprising. This was the first Scotch I have ever truly enjoyed. The night was looking up.
OK, so single-malt Scotch is not so bad after all, but Scotch and food?
Well, I’d still have to pick wine every time for my food pairings, but the 18-Year and the 21-Year versions of The Glenlivet brought a little smoky goodness to the steak and the 25-Year seemed like it had potential with chocolaty or molasses-based desserts, although I didn’t exactly have a dessert this night.
What exactly did I have at the end of the meal? Well, I’ve long subscribed to the concept that nice glass of vintage-class port, which at one time I did not enjoy either, makes for a fine dessert in and of itself. So, as politely (and humbly) as I could, I stretched out my snifter and asked Crawford if he could please pour me two fingers of the 21 Year. I’m certain it won’t be the last time for this new Scotch lover.
Gil Kulers is a certified wine educator with the Society of Wine Educators. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Note: Wines (and Scotch) are rated on a scale ranging up from Thumbs Down, One Thumb Mostly Up, One Thumb Up, Two Thumbs Up, Two Thumbs Way Up and Golden Thumb Award. Prices are suggested retail prices as provided by the winery, one of its agents, a local distributor or retailer.