Blended or single malt scotch? Speyside or Islay? Highland or Lowland? If these questions give you a deer-in-the-headlights look, never fear. In the land where stateside bourbon reigns supreme and most well scotch is the stuff of nightmares, knowledge and true appreciation of this noble liquor is rather uncommon. But once hooked, the world of scotch is one of the most satisfying and complex in the spirits world.
“I love scotch. Scotchy scotch scotch. Here it goes down, down into my belly.”
— Ron Burgundy, Anchorman
Let’s go over the basics:
A combination of grain and malt whiskeys, aged for at least three years in oak. Nine out of 10 bottles you see on the market are blends, including Johnnie Walker, the best-selling whiskey in the world. Other famous examples: Dewar’s, Chivas Regal, and J&B.
Single malt scotch
These are produced from one distillery only. This is the rabbit hole, where you get to know the distinct regions of Scotland, their flavor profiles, climate influences, histories and styles. Regions include: Highland, Lowland, Speyside, Islay, Campbeltown and the islands. Flavor profiles largely depend on the region. A quick cheater:
Highland: Full-bodied and powerful. Dried fruit, syrup and nuts can sometimes meet a heavy dose of peaty smoke. Examples: Glenmorangie, Oban, Dalwhinnie, Deanston
Lowland: Often described as elegant, demure and mellow. Notes of ginger, grass, cinnamon and flowers. Examples: Auchentoshan, Glenkinchie
Speyside: Fruity, floral and nutty, with comforting notes of vanilla, honey and pear. Examples: Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, Balvenie
Islay: Generally not for beginners, these bad boys rock the peat. Think smoke, salinity and more smoke. Can range from full-bodied to bone-dry. Examples: Laphroaig, Lagavulin, Bowmore, Bruichladdich, Bunnahabhain, Ardbeg
Campbeltown: With only three distilleries, and one of the least familiar to American drinkers, this region produces dry scotch with notes of salinity, smoke and wet wool. Examples: Springbank, Glen Scotia, Kilkerran (Glengyle)
Islands: Huge variety in the category. Flavor profiles range from salty and briny to peaty to honeyed and floral. Examples: Ledaig, Talisker, Isle of Jura, Arran, Tobermory
Blended malt scotch
A combination of single-malt whiskeys from two or more distilleries. Often known for their innovation in blending, these whiskeys can run the map of Scotland, and thus the entire gamut of flavor profiles from honeyed and fruity to earthy and smoky. Examples include Big Peat, Sheep Dip, and Monkey Shoulder (a super-smooth whiskey perfect for bourbon fan crossovers).
Ready to try your hand?
Top locations for scotch tastings in San Diego
The Whiskey House
With 1,500 whiskeys and scotches from every region including Highland, Lowland, Islay, Speyside, Campbeltown and the islands, stop in for a range of flights by specific single malt distilleries, regional groupings or type.
420 Third Ave., downtown, 619.546.6289. thewhiskeyhousesd.com
An extensive list for scotch aficionados, newbies and bourbon converts, every region is represented in a variety of price points. Great addition: The menu displays designations of bottling, cask strength, and limited editions.
3054 University Ave., North Park, 619.269.8820. 213hospitality.com/project/sevengrandsd
Prepare to be blown away by this unassuming whiskey/whisky gem near the airport. Don’t be fooled by the dive décor: It is the most descriptive and educational list, with tasting notes for EVERY single scotch on the menu.
3365 India St., Middletown, 619.297.7211. aeroclubbar.com
Ease into your new obsession with these scotch-based cocktails:
Apples & Oranges at Kettner Exchange
Blended scotch, apple brandy, Fuji apple, orange bitters.
2001 Kettner Blvd., Little Italy, 619.255.2001. kettnerexchange.com
Sweet Leaf at Kindred
Blended scotch, ginger, allspice dram, sage, lime
1503 30th St., South Park, 619.546.9653. barkindred.com
Golden Goose at Polite Provisions
Scotch, Amaro Nonino, banana liqueur, and bitters.
4696 30th St., North Park, 619.677.3784. politeprovisions.com
Barreled Cocktail #4 at Juniper & Ivy
Scotch, amaretto, sweet vermouth and coffee liqueur.
2228 Kettner Blvd., Little Italy, 619.269.9036. juniperandivy.com
With 18 years in the restaurant and beverage industry and more than 850 reviews under her belt, Laurie Delk is a one-stop guide to all things craft beer, wine and spirits and is a Certified Specialist of Spirits through the Society of Wine Educators. You can follow Delk on Twitter @lauriedelklife or Instagram @sandiegobeer. Send ideas for featured drinks to firstname.lastname@example.org.