Winter is Scotch season. It's warming, it's honeyed, it's rich. But it's also woefully misunderstood. Below are some examples of consistently perpetuated falsehoods that Compass Box whiskymaker John Glaser brought to my attention recently while discussing his two latest masterpieces, the Peat Monster Reserve Magnum Edition ($150) and Hedonism Maximus Reserve ($300).
The Top 5 Misconceptions About Scotch Whisky:
1) Blends are inferior to single-malts.
A rash generalization that presupposes that a "pure-breed" is somehow better than a mutt. There's a reason why everyone loves Johnnie Walker Black and Chivas Regal; they are miraculously consistent year after year. And great blends often draw on 30 to 40 single malts. These blends may in fact have some components of your favorite Scotch, too. Do some homework, try a little more tasting. You'll be surprised.
2) Scotch is an after-dinner drink only.
The cliché is familiar to most: Some old guy nursing a Scotch in the library, perhaps with a pipe, and probably wearing a suit, after a hearty dinner. Ridiculous. There are light Scotches and dark ones. Smoky ones and sweet ones. I love having a Scotch on the rocks or a Scotch cocktail before a big meal. I haven't yet found that Scotch pairs well with all courses in all meals, but it's certainly not mandatory to wait until dessert for a wee dram.
3) You have to love smoky, peaty flavors to appreciate Scotch.
There's this sense that you're a wuss if you don't drink it straight, and you're a lightweight if you don't like the peaty, smoky, iodine-like flavors. I think there's an evolution in Scotch drinking for a lot of people that goes like this: You start out in life hating the stuff. Then you learn to like the lighter, sweeter ones. Suddenly, you open up to smoke and peat, and your taste buds crave manhandling. Then, after a few years, you realize that it may be easier to discern complexity in whiskies that have floral and fruity notes. That peat moss overwhelms other flavors. Doesn't mean you can't hit the Laphroaig from time to time.
4) You don't want to dilute the flavors of the better bottles with water or ice.
Master blenders all over the world agree that a small amount of water opens up the drink. It allows floral notes to come out. It lessens the harshness of the alcohol. And while ice does make your mouth colder, and therefore less sensitive, sometimes that just tastes good in a refreshing kind of way. Plus, a cube of ice ("just one rock, please") can slowly alter the flavor in a good way. Don't let a bully bartender scoff at your request. You drink it the way you like it.
5) The color of Scotch can tell you a lot about it
According to Glaser: This is wrong for over 95% of Scotch whiskies, even single malts, because most are artificially colored.
James Oliver Cury is the executive editor of Epicurious.com and former editor of Time Out New York's Eat Out section. He is a member of the James Beard Restaurant and Chef Awards Committee and has been a judge at the Culinary Institute of America, the Jack Daniels World Barbecue Championship, and the Food Network's Iron Chef show. When he's not stuffing his face, Cury tries to make sense of pop culture. He's written for dozens of magazines, including Esquire, Playboy, Details, Entertainment Weekly, Maxim, Men's Journal, SPIN, Glamour , US Magazine, Food & Wine, and Every Day with Rachael Ray. His book, The Playboy Guide to Bachelor Parties (Simon & Schuster), came out in 2003.
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