Although this column is three days late for Robbie Burns Day, it’s still acceptable to uncork a bottle of scotch, pour yourself a glass and lift a dram or a cocktail to the belated birthday of the celebrated poet. Whether you’re new to whisky or a seasoned scotch-drinking, haggis-slicing Highlander, Scotland’s national spirit surely has a place in any good bartender’s arsenal.
To start off, scotch requires a brief introduction to navigate some of its tricky terminology. Firstly, every scotch is stamped with an indicator of how “pure,” or focused, its production is. Single malts, the highest quality, are made entirely from malted barley at a single distillery, whereas blended scotches are the result of multiple combined whiskies which often vary in quality. The term “grain whisky” is also used to refer to a product not purely made from barley; alternative grains may include corn, wheat or rye. Finally, an age statement usually indicates how long the whisky was mellowed in oak barrels, ranging from three to 18 or even 25 years.
To me, the most fascinating thing about scotch – and any liquor, in fact – is that the land and water from which a whisky is made, as well as the climate in which it is matured, both have direct and measureable impacts upon its flavour. For example, the salt-tinged air and peat-rich earth of the archipelagic Islay region helps produce rich, smoky whiskies like Ardbeg and Laphroaig, whereas the rushing rivers and sweet soil of the northern Speyside region lend mellow, floral flavours to whiskies like Glenfiddich, Glenlivet and Dalwhinnie. In other words, even if you’ve never set foot in the fabled highlands, you can still smell and taste a bottled version of what the landscape has to offer.
It is usually best to avoid smothering the complex and well-matured flavours of a single malt in a cocktail, so reach instead for a blended scotch – such as Teacher’s, Ballantine’s, Dewar’s or Black Grouse – when experimenting with the characteristic smokiness of the base spirit. Because different scotch blends can vary widely in peatiness and sweetness, be sure to play around a bit with proportions until the drink suits your palate. Start off by mixing a classic Rob Roy, a variation of the Manhattan which features two measures of blended scotch alongside a measure(ish) of red vermouth and a drizzle of maraschino syrup.
Scotch whiskies, especially those derived from the highlands or the Speyside region, pair especially well with honey, cherry, anise and herbal liqueurs. If this sounds appealing, try immersing yourself in the murky, licorice-infused depths of a Mary, Queen of Scots: one-and-one-half ounces of scotch tempered with a half-ounce each of green Chartreuse and Drambuie. Or, if you can get your hands on a bottle of the monastic marvel that is Bénédictine, try adding a half measure of this to a simple mixture of scotch and Angostura to craft a variation of a cocktail named after Burns himself.