How to taste Scotch

When I got the invitation from Christa Wittmier (@SuperCW) for a Scotch tasting lunch at The Modern, I was immediately intimidated. Usually the only time I drink Scotch is at Chinese society dinners (the real ones), and it’s usually just to toast. Would the various blends taste alike to me, the way beer does?

Fortunately, Scotch aficionado Ed Morita was interested and could make the lunch, so I could fall back on his expertise and not shame the Nonstop Honolulu crew. Instead, we found it to be a highly educational session with Dewar’s Brand Ambassador Gabe Cardarella, who walked us through the proper way to taste Scotch:

Dewar’s Scotch Lunch

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Dewar’s Brand Ambassador Gabe Cardarella flew in to do a scotch training for various media and bartenders yesterday at The Modern. Photo by Ed Morita

Scotch, like wine, differs in taste depending on what region it’s from: If it’s from the Highlands, it will have more honey flavor; from Speyside, it will be more fruity; from the south, like in Glasgow, there will be more vanilla notes; and in the east, it tends to be blended.

I’m not sure about other companies, but at Dewar’s, their Scotch is made from sense of smell alone, since the olfactory nerves can sense hundreds of different aromas — as opposed to the tongue, which only has a few tastes in its range.

In single malt whiskies, you only have water, malted barley, and yeast. With those three ingredients, you can produce a million different aromas. A blended Scotch is made of single malt and a grain whisky, which allows the two to fuse into a balanced spirit, as well as a more complex one. Once the blend is created, it’s put back into barrels and allowed to rest, which makes them easier to drink.

Anyway, that’s a lot of Scotch factoids for today, and if you want to learn more about the history, making, and science behind the art, watch Ed’s video at the end of this blog.

Tasting notes:

Aberfeldy 12
Ed: Honey characteristics were right up front with a lot of spiciness and vanilla. However, it was a little young for my taste.

Melissa: This was not bad. I could smell and taste the light hints of honey and it had a caramelly lingering on the tongue. Very smooth and didn’t burn.

Aberfeldy 21
Ed: This one had the age that I thought was lacking in the 12-year. Much of the same flavor characteristics as the 12 with a more full bodied flavor and great legs. I would like to add this to my collection.

Melissa: I was actually surprised that I liked this one; I didn’t think I would like a full-bodied Scotch. Another one with hints of honey, a little vanilla, and when Gabe mentioned “burnt wood,” I could taste that, as well.

Dewar’s White Label
Ed: This was the one that they used in the cocktail they made for us, and it definitely needed the help of the mixers. It made a great cocktail, but by itself, it tasted watered down with none of the complexity of the Aberfeldy or the blends.

Melissa: This is a younger Scotch, so it’s almost clear. I thought I would like it because it’s light, but it ended up being almost too light for me, like water. There wasn’t enough character in it.

Dewar’s 12
Ed: Of the entire lineup, this was the only one that I wanted some added water. It was a little too in-your-face and needed the water to mellow it out a bit and open up the bouquet.

Melissa: Definitely fuller-bodied than the Aberfeldy 12, but you could taste caramel, apples, and some other fruit. The finish was clean, but did leave a bit of a burn. Then again, I’m sick, so the burn hurt so good.

Dewar’s Signature
Ed: Roughly $200 a bottle, in Dewar’s lineup, this would be comparable to Johnny Walker’s Blue label. Not as much peat up front as the blue label, but I really liked the smooth finish. Like the blue label, this would be great with cigars, but I’d have to do a side-by-side tasting to see if I would buy one over the other. However, I’ve gone through two bottles of Johnny Walker Blue in the past, so the Dewar’s Signature might be a good change of pace.

Melissa: The menu said this would be mellow and creamy, but it ended up being too manly for me.

Bonus: Dewar’s 18
Ed: I’m more of a fan of Single malt whiskeys, but this blend was a revelation. A happy medium between the sweetness of the Aberfeldy 21 and the charred peat flavors of the Signature. At $70 a bottle, this is by far, the best deal of the bunch. All the refinery of the Signature but a fraction of the price.

Melissa: This is a blend that is between the 12 and the Signature, and across the board, we all loved it. It definitely has a buttery taste and feel in your mouth, and has a smooth creaminess that both men and women can enjoy. I’d also consider spending money for this.

Blended Whisky 101 with Dewar’s Brand Ambassador Gabe Cardarella