I have to be careful with Scotch. Not in the “I have to be careful how much I drink” sort of way – I actually find Scotch to be among the easiest of the alcohols to self-limit…it is so much about an intense, slow, sipping experience. But I do have to be careful about how much I buy.
How much variety, how much range of character and component flavors comes out of something so simple as malted and kilned barley, water, yeast, and the ineffable subtleties of production technique, aging, and terroir! And that’s what undoes me. Oh why not get these four different scotches from Islay and see how the different aging microclimates influence relationship between maritime and peat character? What about these Western Highland expressions, we should definitely try them too… You see how it goes.
Anyway, that’s the problem – not only can I sink a small fortune into bottles of the stuff, but I can quickly end up with, well, a small fortune worth of bottles that I can’t quite keep track of and can’t quite remember what I think of them (sure, some people create databases for that kind of thing, but I’m not one of them). And then there are the times that what you want is a mild floral Speyside, say, and all that’s left is a cupboard of ball-breakingly intense Islay stuff and some leftovers bottles of stuff you tried but didn’t really care for.
So I’ve developed a system of classifying Scotches. It is, somewhat, modeled on that in David Wishart’s excellent “Whisky Classified” but simplified (a little), customized (to my tastes), and focused not on the range of flavors expressed in Scotch but the range of situations in which I’m likely to want a Scotch.
Let me explain that last, for a moment. Wishart’s classification, like most other efforts at booze classification (and flavor classification in general), starts with, well, the available flavors. Then it groups in bins them, puts them on wheels or axes, etc. I’m thinking in the reverse situation – what are the times that I’m going to want some kind of Scotch – and what are the particular flavor characteristics I’m going to want then. Sure, you might argue that I’m starting with the available palate of tastes and aromas, but I think of it as “consumer focused” rather than “product focused.”
So instead of calling them categories or flavor profiles or characteristics, let’s call them Moods. The Five Moods of Scotch.
So with that out of the way, here are the five Moods as described by flavor:
- Mild & Floral – aromas of dried grasses, heathland, flowers, and perhaps some malt or citrus
- Spice & Fruit – strong on the dark, spicy, fruity character typical of whiskies that spend a lot of time aging in ex-port or sherry casks
- Balanced – a blend of characteristics (“balanced” here is not evaluative but a neutral descriptor)
- Smoky – pale and mild, with a distinct but clean smoke character
- Maritime – all the seaweed, iodine, salt air, and peat smoke you can stand
And here’s the situation (the literal “mood,” if you like) that I associate with each:
- Mild & Floral – great for sipping after a hard day’s work…if there was a “lawnmower beer” of Scotches, this would e it. Occasionally I’ll drop in a single cube of ice (the horror!).
- Spice & Fruit – this is the bad news Scotch, intense and powerful and often cask strength (the flavor tends to reward the strength).
- Balanced – a good daily sipping dram, after a day at the office or with the kids, but with a bit more gravitas than the Mild & Floral.
- Smoky – one of my favorite liquors to take camping or to enjoy outside, the smoky character gives it a rustic feel but it is clean enough to enjoy amid the distractions of life
- Maritime – the children are in bed, you are alone by a reading lamp and have a good book in hand
And here are some exemplars of each, as I’ve recently stocked:
- Mild & Floral – Glenkinchie 12 Year Old. Uniquely distilled in the lowlands near Edinburgh, it captures the mood of rolling grasslands rather than crags, mountains, or storm swept coastlines.
- Spice & Fruit – Aberlou’s Abunadh. Cask strength, 100% ex-sherry aged, truly a hammer to settle your mood.
- Balanced – Benromach 10 Year Old. Mildly peated, aged in a blend of ex-Bourbon (90%) and ex-Sherry (10%) casks, truly stitches together the sundry Scotch flavor characteristics.
- Smoky – Bruichladdich Port Charlotte. Though an Islay, the maritime notes aren’t super strong, just a wonderful warming smoke character.
- Maritime – Lagavulin 16 Year Old. A mouthful of intensity, with all of the peat and the brine and seaweed and salt air.
Others may disagree with how I binned these whiskies or suggest other exemplars for the five different moods – but this is a subjective exercise at best.
I try to have one bottle in each category open and available for drinking, should that mood strike. I also try to make sure that there’s at least one bottle “back” ready to swap forward, especially if the current drinker is less than half full. But also I try to avoid having more than a couple bottles in each category on hand, much less open, just to avoid the analysis paralysis.
This keeps it simple.
Instead, I rotate within each category. If, for example, the last bottle of Smoky I had was a Bruichladdich Port Charlotte, I might pick up a bottle of Peat Monster or Benromach Peat Smoke next. This helps things stay fresh and knowing that I’m eventually going to rotate in another favored bottle makes it easier to resist the temptation to run out and buy All Of The Scotches Right Now.
I’ve, obviously, got a few go-to members of each category. They’re selected for having a reasonable price point, good and representative flavor, and reliable availability. Occasionally I’ll try something new and, if it works, let it join the rotation.
Sometimes I keep a couple of bottles “working” in each category, especially when one of them (e.g. the Lagavulin) has a pricetag well north of three figures it can be nice to have a more budget-friendly player in the house (say some Laphroaig).
I do something similar with the rest of the bar…I have my two or three ryes that I like to have, a couple of gins, etc. And every so often I’ll try something new or we’ll do a tasting and there’s a sudden flush of bottles on the shelf, but that’s usually followed by an episode of “drinking down to the basics” again.