Over the last few months, I have found myself more and more exploring what American whiskey enthusiasts refer to as ‘The Dark Side,’ and with more interest and specificity than I ever have.
In college I did most of my drinking out in the New York City bars, and it was mostly beer with the occasional lineup of vodka martinis. I preferred Stoli, but I wasn’t very picky about the vodka; I just wanted something that the next morning wouldn’t make me feel like I had been in a car accident the night before, and Stoli usually obliged. (By the way, though I wouldn’t go near gin in the old days, I much prefer gin to vodka nowadays.) Scotch occasionally made its way onto the menu as Dewars on the rocks, but I can’t say I noticed it much.
When I came home to the ‘burbs for summer between school years, it never made sense to me to buy vodka. I bought whiskey. I can recall buying a fifth of J&B once (tasted like turpentine and apple juice) and maybe a 375 here or there of Jim Beam White or J&B or Dewars. I didn’t have the time, resources or interest to investigate my drinks, I just wanted something that put me in a good mood, and while it seemed silly to me to drink vodka out of a pint bottle, it seemed entirely appropriate to do so with the brown stuff.
Did I know when I was drinking a bourbon versus a blended Scotch? Kind of. but it was mostly because of the labels.
Bourbon has kept me very well occupied since I discovered it in 2005, but as any force-fearing Star Wars fan can attest to, the dark side is powerful. The heavily peated Islay offerings were the first single malts to really get my attention, though I can’t say I was ever a peat-head. There is much drama to be found inside a good bottle of bourbon or rye, and drama is what I encountered in Bruichladdich’s Octomore. I tasted it at WhiskyFest in 2011 and quickly ran out to buy my own dear bottle of the stuff. Talk about drama, this was a monster that created its own itch inside me and proceeded not just to scratch it, but to level it with the power of a hurricane. Calling it a force of nature is not an exaggeration. I had a bottle of Orpheus in my cabinet for a good fifteen months before finally laying it to rest.
I have tried various other Islays, including the mildly peated Bunnahabhain 12 year old, the young, feisty Kilchoman, and the standard bottlings of Ardbeg, Laphroaig and Lagavulin. I can’t say I’m a fan of the chill-filtered, watered down versions of the last three distilleries mentioned, but I have found independent and/or limited edition bottlings of theirs to enjoy. I drank through a bottle of Ardbeg Alligator and found its BBQ notes addictive. I had a single cask Laphroaig 13 year old that was very gentle in its deft handling of earthy peat. I’m currently working on a bottle of Ardbeg Day that is sweet on the entry, has a thick malty palate, and finishes with a fat exhalation of smoke from a sherry-dipped cigar. It’s growing on me.
Sherry cask aging came into my life with a 31 year old cask strength Glenfarclas. It really kind of swept me off my feet. I had never had such an aged whisky before, and it really impressed me with how relaxed the wood component can be in a whisky that’s aged in a used barrel. It was a deep, deep orange brown color with an earthy nut-fruit thing going on and a smoky, salty finish. Finding this whisky is really what has sent me forward in pursuit of fine malt.
I’ve been eagerly exploring Springbank. The discontinued 10/100 (10 years old/100 proof) was an early favorite, and in general, a very good Scotch to get the attention of a bourbon lover. I have grown to love the Longrow 10/100 as well, which is a Springbank that has been more heavily peated. Longrow brings fresh, windblown smoke and notes of cool coal. Put a sherry cask around it for 11 years and you get – surprise! – jellied yellow fruit, lemon-lime, and more coal alongside freshly dug up fertile earth.
According to this page on Johannes van den Heuvel’s Malt Madness website, there are close to 100 active distilleries making malt whisky in Scotland today. All but eight of them were founded before 1980, and 66 out of these 100 some-odd distilleries were distilling in the 19th century. Seven of these were distilling in the 18th century! According to Sally Van Winkle Campbell’s But Always Fine Bourbon, of the 75 or so American distilleries operating in the time before Prohibition gutted the industry, only 51 survived. Though I haven’t a source for it, I don’t think I am wildly speculating when I state that maybe a dozen of those surviving 51 distilleries are still in operation today.
I can feel the weight of American history in the bourbon and rye whiskey I drink, and the intimacy I have found with my country’s native spirits comes natural to me. The land that produces malt whisky carries a tremendous history that is foreign to me, and I feel like I am in the early stages of finding a real intimacy and appreciation for it. I am not the least bit interested in turning my back on bourbon or rye whiskey, but the cabinet space they have ceded to single malt Scotch over the last six months is not about to be reclaimed.