Single-Malt Scotch Made (Kinda) Simple

By J Morton
Created March 14, 2017

Few drinks are more intimidating than single-malt Scotch -- single bottles can sell for hundreds (or thousands) of dollars, it's not as accessible as beer, and to the newbie, certain varieties of the stuff can taste like the interior of a wood-burning stove (to the experienced drinker, the taste of peat and smoke is a feature, not a problem...more on that in a moment).

That said: Scotch is awesome. It's up there with great wine and craft beer in terms of its depth, intensity, and complexity. There's a whole universe (well, a whole country, anyway) to explore, in terms of styles and tastes. And it's shockingly affordable.

Single Malt Scotch is a type of whisky distilled in Scotland, made with malted barley as its only grain ingredient, and matured in oak casks for at least three years and a day. The "single" part of the name points to the fact that for a whisky to be single malt, all the malts in the bottle must come from a single distillery.

The relatively strict definition of a single malt Scotch means that quality isn't going to vary all that much -- it ranges from "good" to "mind-blowing." Once you start drinking Scotch, you'll make the happy realization that even a Scotch that's not to your liking, specifically, is still pretty good -- it's really impossible to go wrong.

So, in a nutshell, the beauty of Scotch boiled down....

1) There's a Scotch for (almost) everyone

Scotch can be peaty, or smoky, or honey-kissed; it can be smooth, or abrasive, or layered; it can be balanced, or wild, or sweet. A Macallan 12 (a very commonly available and almost perfectly balanced Scotch) is not a bad place to start to get your bearings -- from there, if you'd like to go more wild and challenging, or more sweet and mellow, you've got options.

2) Scotch is a great value

One bottle of good Scotch typically costs $30-60. Expensive, right?

Happily, no. You don't slug back big gulps of Scotch -- and you don't mix it -- you drink a dram or two slowly with water on the side, sipping it, digging the flavor, enjoying the mellowness of the experience. A properly sealed open bottle can last for a long time, and once you get into Scotch and get five or six bottles open, your "library" can sustain you for quite a while without needing much refreshing.

3) The quest for "your" Scotch can be a really fulfilling one

Once you've tried three or four Scotches (easy enough to do -- there are Scotch bars, seminars, tasting parties, and other sampling opportunities in most cities), you can start to explore and try all manner of other varieties and ages. One of the coolest discoveries you'll make is that older (and therefore more expensive) isn't always better; my favorite Scotch in the world is a Highland Park 18 (about $100 a bottle) -- I prefer its strength and clarity to the more softly spoken 40-year-old expression of the stuff, which can go for $1,000 a bottle.

Get out there and get tasting -- there's a richly flavored and challenging world of flavor out there!