Apr 25, 2018

Beer Break

Beer Break Vol. 2, No. 3
Single-malt whisky

Oct. 18, 2001


We're going to wander just a bit off the beer track this week and discuss beer's cousin, single-malt whisky. It's a short side trip because both are made from malted barley. However, Scotch is distilled, while beer is fermented. Also, hops are an essential ingredient in most beers, while whisky is unhopped.


That's why it hardly seems like an accident that interest in single-malts blossomed at the same time in the 1980s and '90s as the interest in beer.

"It's almost a generational thing," Rick Knight said a few years ago, when he was running the Holmes & Watson pub in Albany, N.Y. "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."

But what's a single-malt newcomer 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 may cost $35 or more -- 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.

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.

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.

A while back we asked some folks who are on the front line, actually pouring whisky for customers, what sort of advice they offer:

- Knight said that 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."

- Alicia Horn of Birds of a Feather in Baltimore, which offers more than 100 single-malts to choose from, said: "I generally have them tell me what they like in a blend." 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 of the Duke of Perth in Chicago said, "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." Regulars may just ask a bartender to surprise them with a snifter of something new, but Miller doesn't start off newcomers that way. "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 at Kells Irish Pub in Portland, Ore., 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. 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."

Editor's note: Michael Jackson is as much an authority on whisky as beer. For those of you who want to jump in with both feet, "Michael Jackson's Complete Guide to Single Malt Scotch" offers tasting notes on 800 whiskies.

Tasting notes
Brewed by the Moorhouse brewery in England

Michael Jackson writes:

It starts with a sweetish, barley-sugar, maltiness; develops a strawberryish fruitiness; and finishes with an aniseedy hop dryness. It is perilously drinkable for a beer of more than five per cent alcohol.

Brooklyn Brewery owns the Post Road brand

Real Beer tasting notes:

Pours a bright pumpkin-colored orange, smells like a fresh pumpkin pie right out of the oven - a mixture of pumpkin and plenty of spices. First taste is also pie-like, with plenty of nutmeg, clove and cinnamon. Foody pumpkin flavor mixes with solid malt structure for surprising complexity. Clean finish, little lingering sweetness.

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