Ask Andrew: How Can I Learn About Single Malt Scotch?

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I’m making a long-anticipated trip to Scotland to play golf, travel and really learn something about single malt Scotch. What would be the best way to learn more on what will be my first — but hopefully not my last — trip to Scotland?

As a committed devotee to single malts, I applaud your decision. I have found single malts rewarding both overseas and here at home when I’m checking out the offerings in my local shops, doing a little reading or research, or just simply enjoying a fine dram at the end of the day.

Start in Edinburgh

I would highly recommend beginning your trip in Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland and a truly charming city well worth visiting in its own right. While there do not miss going to the Scotch Whisky Experience, set on the Royal Mile and within walking distance to other Edinburgh attractions. While several options are available, I would opt for the Gold Tour. With a duration of about 90 minutes, it will take you on a literal journey (in Disney-like barrel cars) where you will explore and learn all the key steps of production in a distillery. Though it may sound hokey, it’s well worth your time. You will also learn firsthand about the distinctive aromas that are a key component in the appreciation of single malts. Guides will then take you to the lovely Macintyre Gallery for a tasting of four whiskies that represent four of the major production areas in Scotland. I find this particularly important as there truly are differences between each. As part of the tour, you will see the largest collection of Scotch whisky in the world, an impressive, envy-inducing sight. The Gold Tour is 26 pounds, or about US$35.

If this has whetted your appetite for more, then by all means check out the tastings at Cadenhead’s. Cadenhead’s is an independent bottler of single malts, which means they seek out barrels from established distilleries, identify those they find most interesting, and then age, bottle and sell the resulting malts under their own label. I have always found the staff to be unusually well informed and passionate, and they are happy to help a novice take the first steps to becoming familiar with the world of whisky. The shop offers excellent tastings of six whiskies, five from different regions and one blended whisky (i.e., a Scotch made from several different malts from different distilleries, Dewar’s being a ready-known example). These tastings are 25 pounds each, or about US$33.

Explore on Your Own

Fortified with all this knowledge, you will no doubt look forward to trying out single malts on your own. A terrific place to start is Scotch. Part of The Balmoral, a hotel we have long recommended, this bar boasts a collection of more than 500 whiskies from every region of Scotland, as well as hard-to-find vintages and blended Scotches. In the handsome room with dark wood accents and tweed-upholstered couches, settle in for a comfortable, congenial dram or two with accompanying nibbles.

The Scotch Malt Whisky Society is a club for whisky lovers and indeed offers a wonderful range of bottlings. Just this year, it has opened its bar to the public, and it is something you should experience. At the aptly named Kaleidoscope Whisky Bar, you will encounter an ever-changing whirl of about 200 whiskies and other spirits, many that are quite rare. Unlike most bars, which group whiskies by region or distillery, the Kaleidoscope groups them by flavor profiles. This categorization will give you further opportunity to deepen your single malt knowledge.

Learn More About Scotch

Michael Jackson's Guide to Single Malt Scotch For your continued education back home, I urge you to get what has provided me with many delightful hours of reading time, “Michael Jackson’s Guide to Single Malt Scotch.” Alas, Jackson, who was a friend of mine, has been dead for some years, but so influential has been this book that for the seventh edition, published in 2015, writers who knew Jackson and his taste gave the book a complete updating. It has been a companion to me since its earliest editions, and I can’t imagine being without it.

Whisky Galore On a lighter yet instructive note, I also suggest you seek out a novel by one of my favorite authors, the neglected Compton Mackenzie. The entertaining “Whisky Galore” is his fictional account of a true event, the grounding of a whisky-laden cargo ship off a Hebridean island in 1941 and the hijinks that ensue. You might also enjoy the lovely film version made in 1949 by the Ealing Studios and recently restored, which I prefer to the updated version of a year or so ago.

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