Adventures in Scotch Tasting

On Saturday I had an unexpected opportunity to go to a scotch tasting class at the LCBO (an Ontario owned and operated liquor store). My experience with scotch is pretty limited to nipping into my dad’s stash and really enjoying whatever he happens to have and one great night at a scotch bar called L'Ile Noire in Montreal. My roommate at the time had a friend who was really knowledgeable about scotch. He ordered for the table and taught us a bit. His passion about it definitely sparked my interest. So I was pretty excited about being able to take a class.

As soon as I walked into the small event room, the warm scent of scotch that perfumed the air greeted me. Two long tables were set up beautifully with a box of barley, some clear bottles with sherry and bourbon, bread, chocolate, water, 8 glasses with small pours of scotch, and personal spittoons. (Spittoon is just a fantastic word isn’t it? Perfectly onomatopoeic.)

I sat at the very front like the keener that I am and always will be. If you brown-nose in school you might get better grades. But if you brown-nose at a scotch tasting you might get more scotch. Strategy. (Note: I didn't. Failed strategy.)

I will confess that I did confuse my spittoon for a milkshake cup for a second. The thought of boozy milkshakes made me a little giddy.

My table ended up being full of really nice people and the other table was for a birthday party, so the room had a happy, friendly atmosphere.

As a cherry on top, our instructor was actually Scottish.

She started the class off with this video:

It made me want book a trip to Scotland immediately, drink Johnnie Walker with/possibly marry Robert Carlyle, and buy a cow with Scottish bangs.

After that, we then learned all about the history of scotch from the strong aqua vitae created by monks for medicinal purposes to the importance green grocers had in creating the finely blended scotch we drink today.

Here’s a video I found about the history:

We also learned about the distilling process. I figure Charles MacLean here will do a much better job at explaining than I could, so here’s another video.

So much work goes into creating the unique flavor of each whisky. There’s the scientific side: germinating the grain, the use of peat smoke, the actual distillation, the types of casks used, the aging process, etc.

But then there is the effect of the character of the land, the sea, and the climate. Our instructor, for example, told us how much the location of the distillery impacted the flavor of each whisky. How the briny quality of the sea air can penetrate the casks. And the water from the highlands may roll over 800 year old rocks, which imparts its own character and flavor. Or the distillery might be near fields of heather that farmers burn to plant them for grazers. So when you are drinking scotch whisky, you are taking in just a little bit of Scotland itself.

I’m certainly not skilled enough to tell you if that’s all just a nice story, but I found it so incredibly romantic that she sold me on scotch right then and there. It was a perfect time for the tasting to begin.

Like wine, she told us to note the color and give it a swirl to check out the legs. Then we held the glass about chest level for an introductory sniff so we didn’t burn our noses on the first go-round. Sound advice, I think. After bringing it closer and taking more of the scent in, we noted whatever we smelled and then took a taste.

Here’s what we tried:

  • Longrow CV Single Malt
  • Benriach Dark Rum Wood Finish (15 years)
  • Aberlour 12 Year Highland Single Malt
  • Dalwhinnie 15 Year Highland Single Malt
  • Glenfiddich 21 Year Single Malt
  • Bruichladdich Islay Single Malt Peat
  • And a wild card that was hidden from us ended up being Crown Royal Black. An example of a Canadian whiskey.

My favorites were a tie between the Glenfiddich 21 Year Old and the Bruichladdich Peat.

My notes for Glenfiddich are: “Delicious! Brown Sugar. Warmth in the chest.” Before the tasting our instructor told us that scotch tends to hit your tongue in the front if it’s younger, in the middle around 15 years old, and in your chest around 20. I thought she was probably full of it, but the Glenfiddich really did bring this nice, cozy, warm sensation to my chest. Confirmation bias? Maybe. I don’t care. I loved this one.

The Bruichladdich Peat was also great. It’s completely different from the Glenfiddich. My notes sheet has: “Very peaty. Iodine. Brine. Salt.” It’s bold and smoky. I tend to like smoky stuff anyway: meats, cheeses, even teas (I’m actually drinking a smoked tea as I write this: Upton Tea Imports’ Baker Street Afternoon Blend). I felt like Peat was something I would want every once and awhile. It would be perfect for those damp, rainy nights when all you want is a book and a roaring fire.

I had to look it up as soon as I got home because I didn’t see it on the shelves at the LCBO. I found this video. I love Jim McEwan’s passion for the product.

My runners up were: Dalwhinnie because it’s nice, smooth, and easy to drink. She recommended it as a perfect beginner's/all around good scotch. I’ve had many a sip of my dad’s stash before. And Benriach Dark Rum Wood Finish because the rum influence was so lovely. It was warm, sweet honey molasses.

All in all, it was a really wonderful experience for me. I definitely developed an appreciation for the diversity of flavors and scents and the overall craftsmanship that goes into making scotch.

Now that I have this new appreciation, do you have any of you scotch drinkers out there have any recommendations?