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Oct 22, 2014

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Single-malt tips from the pros

Perhaps you've noticed that many bars which serve flavorful beer seem to be featuring single-malt whiskies.

Or maybe while you were waiting for a draught at your local pub, that rack of six "classic malts" captured your attention.

Or your latest promotion included an invitation to dinner with the boss, and his secretary suggested that knowing which region of Scotland a particular single-malt comes from is more important than selecting the proper fork when you get your salad.

But what's a guy or gal to do when faced with a menu that carries some pretty hefty prices for 1-1/2-ounce (or perhaps a tad more) servings? On either of the coasts, the 25-year-old Macallan often costs $25 and up -- and even allowing for a generous pour, that's an expensive drink.

Bill Burdick, owner of Sherlock's Home in Minnetonka, Minn., often fields novice questions from young execs headed to that big dinner with the boss. Burdick's brewpub is an upscale eatery in an industrial park surrounded by corporate offices. As well as offering the only cask-conditioned ale in the United States served regularly from wooden firkins, the pub features a single-malt menu with more than 70 choices.

"One of the inherent problems is that one cannot just sit down and try all 70 without killing oneself," Burdick said.

So, we asked the folks behind the whisky at some of the pubs with major malt selections what they tell a novice. Here you can get tips from:

First, a quick primer

Beer and single-malts are, indeed, cousins. Both are made from malted barley, but Scotch is distilled, while beer is fermented. Also, hops are an essential ingredient in most beers, while whisky is unhopped.

And single-malt whiskies differ from blended Scotches in much the same way all-grain beers differ from the mass-produced beers that are always on sale in your local grocery store. Most of those best-selling beers have adjuncts, such as corn and rice, added, which makes them cheaper to produce and also less flavorful.

Single-malt Scotches are just that: Scotches from a single batch. Blended Scotches usually contain many single malts, but also are usually more than half grain whisky. Grain whisky is cheaper to produce and also less flavorful. This isn't altogether bad for somebody who wants to spend less, get a certain bang for the buck and doesn't feel like taking on more complex flavors.

Clearly, the beer renaissance in the United States has produced a different kind of beer drinker, and many of those folks have moved on to Scotch.

"It's almost a generational thing," said Rick Knight of Holmes & Watson. "I'm 46 and I grew up starting with '7 & 7,' then had Jack Daniels. I always drank brown goods, never white goods. The drinkers under 30 never had anything dark. The group in their 30s grew up drinking tasteless liquor; that's why they come up with concoctions with juice and stuff, to add taste.

"Now, people are bored. They've moved away from the white bread. They want to try rye or nut-grain bread. You see that in both the beer and single-malts they are drinking."

What the pros say

Rick Knight, Holmes & Watson
450 Broadway, Troy, N.Y., 518-273-8526

Editor's note: Knight sold the bar since he was interviewed for this story.

Knight thinks the "classic six," which you'll find as the only choices at many bars just getting into single-malts, are an excellent place to start. Those are: Oban (14 years old), Lagavulin (16), Glenkinchie (10), Dalwhinnie (15), Cragganmore (12) and Talisker (10). "I'll give them a taste of each," he said. "If I get bored, I might pick six others, but they are very representative of what's available."

A key to the way a particular Scotch tastes is the region from which it hails. After all, the whisky spends 10 or more years in a barrel, so it will take on both taste from the barrel and from the surrounding area. For instance, the Springbank distillery is in Campbeltown, near the sea, and produces a single-malt with a briny taste. There are four Scotch-producing regions.

"Once you find a region you like, then you can explore other malts from the area," Knight said. "It's like trying on a pair of shoes."

As well as offering 25 beers on tap, Holmes & Watson usually has 65-70 single-malts on its menu.

Alicia Horn, Birds of a Feather
1712 Aliceanna, Baltimore, Md., 410-675-8466

Horn and her husband, John, offer 110 single-malts at their Fells Point restaurant. One beer from Baltimore Brewing Co. is available on tap, and more by the bottle.

"I generally have them tell me what they like in a blend," Horn said. If a novice appears to be bold, Horn may send the customer right to a Laphroaig. This is a very peaty, smoked malt from Islay, an island off the Campbeltown peninsula. "If they can handle that, they can take on anything," she said. Horn judges from their reaction where to send them next. "Somebody might say, 'I like that peat, but not that much iodine.' Then I'll suggest Highland Park," she said.

Mike Miller, Duke of Perth
2913 N. Clark, 312-477-4050

The Duke of Perth is a Scottish pub that has aged gracefully, as popular for its beer garden and fish fries as it is for its bar. "For some people, it's a neighborhood hangout, while others come in here exclusively for the Scotch," Miller said. "And we get a lot of people who bring their parents when they are in town to visit. It seems everybody thinks their father likes Scotch."

The Duke of Perth has nearly 80 to choose from. We've seen a regular customer walk in, ask the bartender for a recommendation, get just a taste and then tell him to send a snifter over to the table. For those who haven't advanced that far, Miller is happy to offer suggestions. "We try to feel them out, then we give them a little more than they are used to, but not so challenging they won't enjoy it. The good thing is, it's not like hot sauces. You're not going to hurt yourself."

Joe Moreau, Kells Irish Pub
112 S.W. Second Ave., 503-227-4057

Moreau has often found that it's best to aim beer drinkers toward Irish whiskey, but while Kells is an Irish pub, it is known for its single-malt selection. There are more than 70 to choose from. Like the others, Moreau will begin by explaining the importance of the region a malt hails from to the customer.

"I'll ask them if they want something more complex or something sweeter and smoother," he said. He finds many novices feel more comfortable starting with something from the lowlands, which produces lighter malts. "I do a distillery tour (three half-ounce pours for the price of a single shot), where they can try three Scotches from the same region or three from three different regions."

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