An Acquired Taste

This article originally appeared in National Geographic Assignment.

I bellied up to the little downtown bar intent on proving the hard drinking journalist cliché true. My peripheral vision spied out my territory, two big haired brunettes straight out of a The Real Housewives of New Jersey episode to one side, and two checkered dress shirted financial types to the other. The proverbial rock and hard place. Soon it further dawned on me that I had happened to sit between an ongoing discussion between the two different groups of people. The kind of argument not held directly, but manifested in loud conversation seemingly directed at no one in particular.

“No one with any class drinks blended Scotch,” said one banker type to the surrounding air.

“Blended Scotch is so smooth,” said one of the housewives loud enough for all to hear while stirring the ice in her highball with a manicured forefinger.

I recognized the nature of the discussion. It was the great Scotch debate: single malt whisky versus blended whisky.

One of the men took a long slow sip of his whisky, adorned by a single ice cube, before sharply inhaling and then exhaling with an audible “ahhh”.

“Single malt is an acquired taste,” he said.

Scotch is a lot like the land it comes from. Harshly beautiful, politically complicated, and loved by its people, Scotland itself might be considered an acquired taste. According to Scottish law, only Scotch whisky (notice the lack of an “e”) can be produced, bottled or even aged in Scotland. There are actually three types of Scotch (in Scotland it is simply called “whisky”).

  1. Single malt whisky made from malted barley produced at one single distillery.
  2. Single grain whisky produced from other cereal grains such as corn and wheat, also produced at a single distillery.
  3. Blended whisky which is a combination of the two.

The term single malt is not limited to Scotland. Single malt rye whiskey (notice the “e”) is made in California by the Anchor Distillery and single malt whiskey is made by both St. George Spirits and Charbay Winery and Distillery (both also in California). Single malts are also produced in many lands associated with the British realm, including: Ireland, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Wales. Oddly there is no whisky tradition in England itself, the titular seat of the British Empire. Additionally Japan produces many malt whiskies similar in style to single malt Scotch (going so far as to import Scottish peat for the process), a fact immortalized in the 2003 Sofia Coppola film Lost in Translation.

When it comes to taste, whisky gets much of its smoothness by virtue of age. The longer it matures in the barrel the smoother tasting it will be, much like fine wine. Single malt Scotch is certainly distinctive; its flavor profile is stronger and more discernable than its blended cousin. Typically, single malt scotch is also aged longer which helps to mellow some of its harshness. But, find an older blended whisky (like an 18-year-old Johnnie Walker Gold) and you will find it is decidedly smoother than most single malts of the same age.

All of this occurred to me as I listened to the two groups of Scotch drinkers bicker, which then led me to several thoughts on the matter.

  1. Personal taste is subjective and as such is unassailable through argument. You like what you like, no matter what anyone else says.
  2. Acquiring a taste for something might indeed be a noble goal. Acquiring “taste”, in general, however, might prove far more elusive.
  3. When you start talking about how little class (or taste) someone else has, you have just removed what little you might have started with.
  4. When selecting a Scotch, if smoothness is your goal, go blended or old or both. However if bold distinctive flavor is your desire select a younger single malt. Either way you are in for a treat.
  5. Sometimes barstools are empty for a reason.