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DRINKS: Great Scotch! A Primer
Dale DeGroff
 
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Traditionally, New York and San Francisco are the two biggest scotch-drinking towns. New Yorkers have always been big fans of blended scotch whereas San Franciscans seem to prefer the malt versions. In between lies Las Vegas, where people from both coasts come to play, so both traditions are strong. The draw for scotch drinkers is quality, the best of the best. So when it comes to scotch, that means showing the colors of Johnnie Walker, the undisputed champions in a very tough division: Red, Black, Gold, Blue and Green!

The Origins of the Big Brands
In 1819, Granddaddy John Walker was a grocer in the town of Kilmarnock in Ayrshire, Scotland (where Johnnie Walker is bottled today). And you ask what a grocery has to do with scotch? Well, let me name a few other grocers: John Dewar’s grocery opened in Perth in 1846; George Ballantine started a grocery and wine shop in Edinburgh in 1827; and James Chivas operated a very successful general store in Aberdeen beginning in 1841, to be joined by his brother John in 1857. (The brothers started blending scotch in the 1850s, although not under the Chivas label; that would come many years later.)
At the time, scotch was a drink made for the local community so I’ve got to think the men were happy to do the grocery shopping in 19th century Scotland! These grocers were the fathers and grandfathers of the men who would market and sell a new kind of whisky that would appeal to a larger audience at the end of the 19th century: blended scotch whisky.
Until the middle of the 19th century, scotch had an audience that was limited to local communities in the counties of Scotland and with good reason; the whisky was rustic, to say the least. In those days, whisky makers were not buying oak barrels from Spain or the United States to age their whisky and create special nuances as they do today. The product then was moonshine or just one step up from moonshine, even when it was legalized.
However, the invention of the continuous still in the 1820s marked the advent of a new distilling technology, which would have a tremendous worldwide impact on scotch whisky and spirits. This new technology enabled distillers to produce a light and fruity grain whisky at high proof with much lower overhead costs.

Blended Scotches

The first blended scotch on the block was a vatted malt produced by Andrew Usher in 1853 called OVG—Old Vatted Glenlivet. Yes, the same 18-year-old Glenlivet of single malt fame today that makes one’s mouth water just to think of it. The term “vatted malt,” though now out of favor, referred to a whisky that was made by blending barrels of single malt scotch from several different distilleries to add richness and complexity to the whisky. However, the blended malt whisky is certainly not out of favor, in fact blended malts (as we are now instructed to refer to them) are making a comeback; a sip of Johnnie Walker Green will communicate more than I can express in words about this rich and rewarding category.
Eventually, Usher experimented with blending the stronger, more assertive single malt whiskies with the lighter fruitier grain whiskies to produce a blended whisky that had layers of flavor and nuance. The malt whiskies can create smoke, peat, brine and saltiness, even floral and herbal nuances, depending on where they are distilled. Like cognac and other world-class spirit categories, scotch speaks about the place where it was made. The grain whiskies, on the other hand, supply the fruit notes and mellow the overall attack of the alcohol.
Michael Jackson [sadly, Michael just passed away, not long before press], author of Whisky: The Definitive World Guide, wrote: “The notion that taking a selection of malts and mixing them with a selection of grain whiskies produces a drink that is somehow inferior is an erroneous one. A top blend is every bit as complex and rewarding as a single malt.”

The Growth of Blended Scotch
In the late 19th century, this new style of scotch whisky conquered the world thanks to the entrepreneurship of men like Dewars and James Buchanan. During this time, a phyloxera infestation in the vineyards caused a serious drop in the production of French brandy, creating an unexpected demand for this lighter style scotch. For the first time, makers began selling scotch whisky to London and, more importantly, to North America and around the world, opening a huge market for this local whisky from Scotland. Today, 90 percent of all scotch whisky sold is blended scotch.
Of the top five best-selling blended scotches worldwide, Johnnie Walker Red is number one and Johnnie Walker Black is number five. There are many important reasons for that success and I know a few at the top of the list: Clynelish, Talisker, Cardhu and Royal Lochnagar, single malt whiskies that make up the heart of the Johnnie Walker blended scotches. However, I must warn you: The Johnnie Walker blends are made from three separate grain whiskies and over three dozen malt whiskies, so don’t expect the distinctive Talisker nose—the rich, smoky, slightly herbal and heather notes—to jump out of the bottle. But the malt whiskies add to the complexity of the blend. Jackson describes the contribution of Clynelish to the Johnnie Walker blends as adding “…a rich mouth coating sexiness when mature. It gives a fantastic mouth feel to blends.”

New Barrels, New Flavor
Once scotch whisky became an international business and demand increased for storage barrels, the impact of the wood barrels on the whisky became a significant factor in its taste. The longer the whisky stayed in barrels the better it tasted. The English owned many of the sherry and port houses of Spain and Portugal and shipped the wines north in barrels to England and Scotland for bottling. Those barrels were then reused for storage of scotch whisky. The sherry barrels imparted a fruity nutty character to the whisky. Indeed, experts calculate that 70 percent of the flavor in the whisky is due to the years spent in oak barrels.
Eventually, as Spanish barrels became limited in supply and more sherry was bottled in Spain, the Scots looked to the United States for barrels. By law, American bourbon, rye and Tennessee whiskey has to be aged in new charred American white oak barrels, meaning that there are plenty of used barrels available for sale. Since many large spirit companies already owned brands on both sides of the Atlantic, and with the Scots being a thrifty lot, a brisk trade in used American whiskey barrels developed between the two countries.

Great Scotch Cocktails!
All this is fine but let’s get practical about what to buy and how to make cocktails with it. There are some classic and modern scotch cocktails worthy of note. Since malts tend to be tough to match, the trick is to pick flavors that can stand up to the strong flavors in the malts.
Gary Regan, author and beverage expert, came up with a simple two-ingredient cocktail called the Debonaire Cocktail (great name as well!) that I highly recommend. In a sense, the Debonaire cocktail derives from the Manhattan cocktail, but without the bitters.

DEBONAIRE COCKTAIL
By Gary and Mardee Regan
2 1/2 ounces Speyside malt scotch (I suggest The Glenlivet 12)
3/4 ounce Canton Ginger & Cognac liqueur
Preparation: Stir both ingredients to chill and strain into a chilled martini glass. No garnish.

Canton Ginger & Cognac liqueur is a combination of ginger and Cognac that has recently returned to the market, much to the delight of bartenders, myself included.
Speaking of Manhattans, the scotch version of this cocktail, called the Rob Roy, is a sophisticated way to pass cocktail hour. My favorite recipe is the Perfect Rob Roy, meaning simply that the scotch is mixed with French dry and Italian sweet vermouth. Note that I used the qualifiers for a reason: With the exception of Vya from Quady Winery in Madera, California, I recommend that you avoid using domestic vermouth.
ROB ROY
2 1/2 ounces Johnnie Walker Black scotch (if you are rolling in dough, use the Johnnie Walker Blue. Hey, why not!)
1/2 ounce Italian sweet vermouth
1/2 ounce French dry vermouth
Dash Peychauds Bitters
Preparation: Pour all ingredients over ice in a mixing glass and stir as you would a martini. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with a lemon peel.
I have a favorite scotch cocktail, which, at first glance, looks like a bizarre and God-awful combination of ingredients, but take the leap of faith. It is worth it. I noted that the recipe started appearing in some serious cocktail books so I finally decided to try it. The taste convinced me never to judge a drink again without trying it.
BLOOD AND SAND
3/4 ounce Johnnie Walker Red scotch
3/4 ounce Peter Heering Cherry Heering
3/4 ounce Italian sweet vermouth
1 ounce fresh orange juice
Preparation: Shake the four ingredients well with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with an orange peel.
Dale DeGroff, author of The Craft of the Cocktail, is an award-winning bartender and consultant to the spirits industry.
 

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