Courtesy of Chall Gray, Little Jumbo
Combine all ingredients in a shaker with ice. Shake and strain into a coupe glass. Garnish with a brandied cherry.
For most people who enjoy spirits, Scotch whisky isn’t among the first drink they’ll try. There are a number of preconceptions about the national drink of Scotland, and they all contribute to the idea that Scotch isn’t an approachable spirit.
Scotch has an aura about it that can suggest a sort of male, bourgeois culture. “Even the smell of it is something you might associate with cigars and old men,” says Kala Brooks of Top of the Monk. “It was sort of an old boys’ club kind of thing, something of days past.” But that’s rapidly changing, she says. “I’m starting to see a lot of young people come in and ask for Scotch.”
Another popular misconception is that an older Scotch is automatically better than one that doesn’t even note its age. “Don’t be blinded by age statements,” says Brooks. Scarcity paired with increased demand means that many Scotch distillers are moving away from displaying the age of their bottled spirits.
Also, there’s the idea that a single malt Scotch is by definition superior to a blended whisky. “Single malt means it’s made from malted barley, from a single distillery,” says Chall Gray, co-owner of Little Jumbo. A blended Scotch is a combination of different single malts. “It might come from different distilleries, even different regions,” Gray says.
While it’s true that many of the most expensive brands are single malts, and that all bottom-shelf varieties are blends, “Which is better?” isn’t a simple question to answer. Distillers’ blends have often been carefully refined over time to deliver a specific flavor profile. “And they’re generally pretty secretive about what those blends are,” Gray says.
The process of making Scotch gives the spirit its unique character, often described as peaty or earthy. “Barley is harvested. It’s wet and it’s germinating; it’s still trying to grow,” Brooks says, describing jones one part of the complex and involved process. Distillers “roast the peat underneath the barley malt, and as they do, an oily vapor is released. It attaches to the malt itself, and then that [liquid] is distilled.” Brooks says that while the ingredients and end products are very different, the process of distilling Scotch is similar to that used to make corn-based bourbon in America. “It’s literally the fuel and the grain itself that make the big difference.”
Even though Scotland is a relatively small country—roughly the same size as South Carolina—it’s home to five distinct whisky regions: Highland, Lowland, Speyside, Campeltown and Islay. And each imparts its own terroir—the component of a beverage’s character that derives from environmental factors—to whiskys distilled there.
“A lot of that is due to the weather,” Gray explains. “Islay Scotch—like Talisker, one of my favorites— is very salty and oily, because the distillery is out on the Isle of Skye. So they have salty wind whipping through all the time. A lot of the terroir comes from the geographic placement of the distillery.” Peat dug from bogs closer to the seaside will have more of an ocean water character; Campbeltown and Lowland Scotches tend to be “grassier.”
The growing popularity of Scotch is evidenced by the wide variety of choices available in Asheville bars. Several—including Little Jumbo, the Crow & Quill and Post 70— feature literally dozens of Scotches on their shelves; Top of the Monk even offers flights, custom-built from among its extensive Scotch cabinet.
Gray and Brooks agree that Monkey Shoulder—a smooth blend of five Islay Scotches, selling locally for under $40—is an excellent entry point into the world of Scotch whisky. It’s great straight-up and mixes well in cocktails [see sidebar]. “And any of the ‘Glens’ [Glemorangie, Glenfiddich, The Glenlivet and more than 30 other brands] are going to be safe, not overwhelming, good quality whiskys,” Brooks says.
When it comes to food, Scotch is often paired with assertive dishes like steak, but Brooks notes that it works with other foods as well. “Two of my favorite things pair with Scotch,” she says. “One is chocolate; the other is stone fruit.”
Because of the complex and rich taste of Scotch whisky, both Brooks and Gray discourage adding much water to a sipping Scotch. Gray says, “I recommend tasting Scotch neat, and then tasting it with a little bit of water. Because many Scotches will demonstrably change and open up when they have water added.” He also strongly suggests using filtered—rather than chlorinated tap—water.
“I wouldn’t add more than three or four drops of water,” Brooks says. She recommends that when tasting Scotch, drinkers do the Kentucky Chew: take a sip and then swish it around in the mouth, letting the spirit contact all parts of the tongue. “Lightly deadening your palate to the actual alcohol means that when you take the second sip, you’re really going to get the flavor on the back palate.”
Courtesy of Lexy Rae, MG Road
Combine in a cocktail shaker, shake, double strain and serve “up” in a martini glass or coupe. Garnish with a lime wheel.
DIY lime cordial: Combine 1½ cups of simple syrup with the grated zest of six limes. Steep for at least 30 minutes; strain. Refrigerate leftovers.
Because of the peculiar alcoholic beverage laws in North Carolina, drinks aficionados have something of a limited range of options when it comes to spirits. Outside the times when we might make a legally dubious errand run across state lines, for the most part we make do with what is available.
A deeper dig reveals that choices do in fact abound, especially at some of Asheville’s select bars. Still, it’s difficult – not to mention often economically prohibitive – to sort out which brand of, for instance, gin will best suit one’s individual palate, and why.
Happily, Asheville is home to quite a few (and a growing number of) bartender/mixologists whose livelihood depends on being able to choose the right spirit for a given drinks application, and – when called upon to do so – make the case for those selections.
One of the central goals of LIQUORNERDS is to connect the spirits consumer with liquor specialists. In each column, we’ll reach out to Asheville bartenders, mixologists and/or other high-gravity experts, coaxing from them some practical wisdom. And we’ll generally focus on one spirit.
First up: gin. To the uninitiated, gin is sometimes thought of as little more than juniper-flavored vodka. And if a consumer reaches for the bottom shelf in the ABC store (home to those 1.75-liter plastic bottles and rock-bottom prices), that description isn’t too wide of the mark. “That’s what you get with a lot of cheaper gins,” says Jackson Zoeller of the Bier Garden, and Mountain Xpress’ “Best of WNC” bartender for 2017. Those brands, he says with a chuckle, often “taste like a Christmas tree.”
Traditionally, gin is a relatively inexpensive spirit, Zoeller says. But finer, more subtle choices are certainly available, and not at wallet-busting prices. “The best gin we carry is Hendrick’s,” he says, referring to a brand distilled in Scotland. A one-liter bottle of Hendrick’s retails locally for about $35. While gin is traditionally an English spirit (the most widespread variety is known as London Dry Gin), Hendrick’s is distilled with botanicals expanding that flavor profile.
Lexy Rae, bartender at MG Road, agrees, adding that cucumber notes contribute to and soften Hendrick’s character. “And it works really well in a gimlet,” she says, referring to a simple yet classic cocktail dating back at least to the 1920s. A gimlet is customarily gin and lime cordial, though some bartenders add citrus juices, sugar syrup and even a splash of club soda; there are few hard-and-fast rules in the world of cocktails.
For our part, we appreciate the herbal notes of Bombay gin (the regular one, not the pricier Sapphire), and find Hendrick’s a bit on the subtle side, though exceedingly smooth. Happily, there are options for most every palate.
Rae says that MG Road offers more than a dozen different gins. “We have some really interesting ones,” she says, noting that the bar carries at least a few beyond the common London Dry variety. One is an Old Tom gin, a sweeter style that was extremely popular before prohibition. Rae notes that the recipe for the popular Martinez cocktail originally called for Old Tom style gin.
Lexy Rae is also a fan of Genever, considered by liquor historians as the precursor to modern-day gin. It’s the national drink of both Belgium and Holland (where it originated), and has a deeper, more “bready” taste. “Genever has a richer mouth-feel because it’s much maltier than most gins,” Rae explains. “It was first made as a malt wine.” Bols is the most popular Genever brand, but Asheville ABC carries it only by special order; no other Genever brands are available at retail in the Asheville area.
More exotic choices exist, too. “At MG Road we have a really amazing brand called Gunpowder Gin,” Rae says. “It’s Irish, and it’s made with Chinese gunpowder tea. It’s really interesting to drink by itself, because it has such a complex flavor.” Among domestic gins – classified fittingly enough as American Gin – Rae recommends a Wisconsin brand, Death’s Door.
I’m old school,” admits Zoeller. His choices lean away from the exotic flavors and toward the traditional yet flavorful brands that are well-known. “You can open gin up with just a splash of water or soda water,” he emphasizes. “The way I go is a classic gin and tonic, but I like to throw a sprig of fresh rosemary in it,” he says.
Those higher-priced gins, you don’t want to go ruining them by throwing orange juice or something in them,” Zoeller says. And that wisdom holds true, whatever the spirit. Zoeller laughs when he recalls customers who “order the most expensive bourbon they can get, and then put Diet Coke in it. That’s what Jack Daniel’s is made for! And that’s what Beefeater gin is for: to put in tonic water.”