wine features Scotch Goes It Alone
Scotch Goes It Alone
September 2009

I don’t drink cocktails often. I think it’s all the wine study. After all, we certainly wouldn’t “waste” a good glass of wine by mixing it with tonic water or something. (Outside China, where Bordeaux with Sprite, on the rocks, is not unheard of. Really.)  So I tend to be more interested in the craft and handiwork of the distiller than that of the bartender.

If I were a vodka fan, that would sound pretty implausible. While there are plenty of skillfully-crafted vodkas, they’re still by-and-large intended as the base for a cocktail. The theoretically ideal vodka is a blank canvas, giving a cocktail alcohol and body upon which the mixologist can create. But since my spirit of choice is Scotch—single malt Scotch, specifically—talk of artistry and even terroir is not out of place.

Terroir is a French word. Its meaning is a bit fuzzy and even contentious, but the basic idea is that wine that shows ‘terroir’ reflects the vineyard where it comes from in its flavors, body, acidity, etc. Experts even attribute traits to bits of land as small as a single vineyard or even one part of a vineyard. Scotch never gets that specific, but knowing a bit about where a Scotch comes from can tell you a lot about what it will taste like.

Single malts are “single” in two ways: One kind of grain (malted barley) and one distillery location. A blended whisky may use other grains, or it may blend the products of several different distilleries. Johnnie Walker Red, for example, includes grain and malt whiskies, while their Green Label whisky includes fifteen different single malts, including some names you’ll also see bottled on their own like Talisker, Cragganmore, and Caol Ila. Obviously there’s plenty of room for developing complexity, but with so many products going into the mix, the terroir will be pretty obscured.

Single malts, however, show a sense of place; it starts in the malting process. To convert its starches into sugar, barley is encouraged to germinate. This process is stopped by heating it with hot air and/or smoke. Lacking other fuel sources, this was traditionally done with peat (decomposed vegetation that’s been compressed and carbonized over the years).  Of course, the composition of peat varies. For example, on the islands in the west of Scotland, it has a higher proponent of seaweed and moss, so when it’s burned, its smoke releases briny, pungent aromatic touches into the malt. The peat of inland areas will tend more toward wood or heather. In the old days, peat may have been the only fuel source available; today, distillers use peat in combination with other, neutral fuels (coal, or even electricity) so they can control how much effect the peat has on the malt.

Local water is another factor, and how much it affects a whisky’s flavors is hotly debated. At the very least, it can be said that Scotland’s water (pure, low in pH and iron, with good amounts of calcium) is good for Scotch on the whole. How much local water picks up flavor components from flowing through peat, woods, and the like is less quantifiable, but seems to play a part.

Scotland is almost universally damp and cool, which is good for the long, slow, aging process. But exactly how damp and cool an individual cellar is, and how much the air circulates, affects flavor development. Unlike wine and Bourbon, Scotch is always aged in used barrels, so the direct flavors of the barrel are marginal compared to the slow creep of oxygen through the porous wood, and the residual touch of whatever the barrel first contained. Usually that means a mix of Bourbon and Sherry; in the past couple of decades, several distilleries have been trying other barrels and even creating new whiskies that highlight the effect of the chosen aging vessel.

There is a problem with the terroir of Scotch: almost all of its various aspects can be manipulated. Sure, wine can be tweaked as well, but the basic process of fermentation happens in the wild; the same cannot be said for distillation. All those factors that become “terroir” in whisky represent a decision on someone’s part. Does that put an end to the “terroir” idea?  Well, some in the wine world might say no, that terroir as a “sense of place” includes the human traditions which develop in that place. It might be a stretch, but if it helps you keep track of your Scotch, I say run with it.

The Regions


A triangular chunk of land on the eastern part of the highlands, facing north into the Moray Firth and the North Sea. Home to about sixty distilleries, with enough variety to make the whole premise of terroir seem a bit tenuous. On the whole, however, these are fuller, sweeter Scotches, with barrel-aged flavors of caramel and nuts; lighter, drier versions often sport floral and citrus notes. Their richness makes them easy to like, so Speyside malts are often the first stop for someone new to single malts, coming perhaps from an appreciation for Cognac or cordials. Nevertheless, the best should not be dismissed as beginner’s quaffs, and show great complexity.

Try: Macallan and Aberlour for richness, Tamdhu or Knockando for the floral side, or Cragganmore for the dead center of Speyside style.


An island with only seven distilleries, but with a distinctive style that gives them added importance in the world of whisky. The sea’s influence is all-important, and Islay Scotch’s brine, peat, smoke, and iodine aromas can be quite an "acquired taste”—they’re nothing compared to haggis, though.

Try: Ardbeg, Laphroaig, or Lagavulin


Hard to define as a category, seeing as it includes most of northern mainland Scotland. The southern highlands tends away from peat, but doesn’t go for the weighty richness of Speyside: honeyed notes and a subtle smokiness are common traits. Oban looks out to the Western Isles by adding a briny touch. In the northern highlands, Glenmorangie has taken to making several whiskies with different sorts of barrels, so you can compare the effects that Madeira, Sherry, or even Burgundy barrels can have on a whisky.

Try: Glenmorangie, Oban, Dalwhinnie, or Clynelish

Other Islands

Jura, Skye, Mull, Orkney…the stretch of islands up Scotland’s west coast is dotted with distilleries, but there is no catch-all description for the style, especially since the amount of peat used varies quite a bit. Orkney’s Highland Park is notable for its heathery notes; not only is heather a primary component of their peat, they also add dried heather during the malting process. The result strikes a good balance between honey-like sweetness and peaty smoke. On Skye, Talisker brings some dried fruit notes to the smoke and peat of the Islay style.

Try: Highland Park or Talisker