Cocktail ConfidentialThe Smart Girl's Guide to ScotchClaire Lassam

So last weekend, a good friend got her heart broken into several small, squished-upon pieces. When I picked her up to take her to my house to eat junk food, drink too much and watch Dirty Dancing, she told me her drink of choice for the night was scotch.

Now, up here in Canada, the beautiful great white north, we pay for our healthcare and pretty great education system by taxing a whole lot of money on booze. Which is how, alongside it being too late for me to go to a government-run liquor store and instead having to go a private shop, I ended up with an outrageously expensive bottle of scotch.

I mean, I guess as scotches go it wasn’t so bad, but it was easily four times more expensive than any other bottle of booze I’ve ever bought. When they told me the price, I had a mini heart attack and passed over my credit card.

Turns out it was worth it. It is damn good scotch. It’s just smoky enough, it’s soo smooth, it has a very clean finish. So how does scotch get that good? And what do words like “single malt” or “peat” mean? Why is it so much more expensive than almost any other alcohol? I did some research.

How is scotch is made? In the simplest terms barley, and sometimes other grains, are “malted” by being dampened and kept damp until sugars and natural yeasts have formed. The grains are then dried, ground, mixed with water, boiled, and distilled to turn into alcohol. When the barley is being dried it is often done with peat to give the booze its distinctive smokiness.

What’s the difference between scotch and whiskey? Mostly the starting point: While scotch can be made from a combination of grains, barley is always the main ingredient. With whiskey it’s made primarily from corn (or at least 51% made with corn.)

What’s this single malt, everyone talks about? Single malt means your scotch is made entirely from barley. If it says single grain, it means just the opposite, that more than one grain was added to the malting process. It’s a confusing one.

So why is scotch so pricey? Because the best scotch is aged for 10 years, 20 years, 30 years, even more. And that means someone has being paying rent where it has been sitting. That costs $$ and that cost is passed on to you.

Once you’ve bought the perfect bottle how do you drink it? Traditionally either straight up or with a splash of water in it, but never ice. You don’t want to chill the scotch. You can, however, drink it straight from the bottle when you’ve had too much to drink and your friend is heartbroken. Sometimes, that’s what being a friend entails.

I hope you’ve learnt a little something about scotch today!

Photo from Shutterstock

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  1. Ha, it IS ridiculously expensive, even, as I found out this winter, in Scotland. I think the whole boys’-club association with it is ridiculous, so I’m super happy to see this here! One thing – as other commenters mentioned, Scotch whisky is only from Scotland. Whisk[e]y is from many places – Ireland, the States, Canada, Japan, etc.

    also re: quick guide, an awesome tip I learned for remember how to spell it correctly in context: if it was made in a country with an ‘e’ in the name (Ireland or [the United States of] America), it’s spelled with an ‘e’ – ‘whiskey.’ If it came from a country with no ‘e’ (Scotland or Canada) there isn’t one – ‘whisky.’ So Jameson is whiskey, Lagavulin is whisky.

    Anyway! Thanks for a good article!

    (I know there are some errors in this, but ladies tearing down other ladies, especially on a subject that tends to be pretty male-oriented, makes me sad. :( )

  2. Just wanted to clarify/correct some of this…

    Scotch actually is whisky, made in Scotland. It’s more a geographic distinction. Similar to champagne vs sparkling wine. I think you’re actually trying to compare Scotch to Bourbon, which is also a whiskey, but made in the US, and made mostly of corn.

    Regarding single malt whisky, you are right that it is made from 100% malted barley, however the “single” part of that description does not refer to a single grain, rather a single distillery. That is why single grain whiskey still has “single” in its name. Although it is made from more than one type of grain, it is a whiskey made from a single distillery. “Malt whisky” without the “single” descriptor is still made from 100% barley. You can also find blended malt whisky, which is a blend of single malts, from different distilleries, but still all 100% barley. Then there is blended whiskey, which is a blend of grain whiskies, potentially even malt whisky, but again from different distilleries.

    Lastly, there is no right or wrong way to drink whiskey. Many people enjoy it on the rocks (with ice). There is no rule against that. And if you’re drinking it with nothing added, that’s usually described as “neat” rather than “straight up.” Straight up refers to a drink that is shaken or stirred with ice to chill it, but then strained and served without the ice. Typically if you order a whisky straight up, the bartender will understand you mean neat.

    • Finally! Someone on here who knows what is up! I hope she updates her article. Personally sometimes I as well like mine on the rocks and I agree there is no right or wrong way to drink it so IDK what she was talking about.