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Fort McMurray Wine Snob

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It all starts with a Gaelic word – a wine snob’s look at fine scotch

It all starts with a Gaelic word, “usquebaugh” that over time was shortened to “uskey” and then became whiskey. For those of you who forget your Gaelic, usquebaugh translates to “water of life”. Water is, after all, the most important ingredient of whiskey. All whiskeys are based on simple recipes that change from one region to another. The most obvious change is the food for the yeast. Yeast converts the sugar into alcohol and this “food” is different in each place. Scotch is grain/malt, Canadian rye is rye, and bourbon is corn. It is that simple.

To zero in on scotch is where the fun begins as the “style” takes shape. There are five scotch regions, each with their own style. The Lowlands, Highlands, Speyside, and Islay are the big four that make up almost all of the scotch. Campbeltown, with only three distilleries, has become the rare fifth. If you like a scotch then that region will likely produce more of the same.

A controversial scotch question is neat, water, or ice? First off, it’s about what you like so who am I to tell you what to do? That said, I can answer the why for each one. In professional scotch tasting it is one part scotch to one part high quality water (often distilled). Water allows many of the smells and tastes that are hidden by the high alcohol to be more noticeable. When neat, these tastes for most are overpowering. Ice, as with all cold drinks, numbs the intensity of the tastes and smells. What you like is what you like but try the experiment with each side by side and you could mistake each for a different scotch.

Blends versus single malts is the other controversial question in the scotch world. Blends are traditional recipes of the single malts with grain whiskey together with the goal of achieving something better. Typically 15 to 40 different malts with two or three grain whiskeys are combined. The popularity of many of these blends has caused some of the “ingredient single malts” to no longer be sold on their own. Johnny Walker Blue is one such blend that now buys all it can of some of its ingredients.

{tab=Value Pick}


Very clean aroma with a sweet fruit nose. In the mouth, the vanilla of the barrel aging is wonderfully subtle and adds to the complexity. They use Glenfiddich and the Balvenie single malts in the blend and the quality is obvious as is the value. Major Speyside influence, so if you like it, try a Speyside single malt.

{tab=Hardcore Scotch Drinkers’ Only Pick}


Warning! This is a serious punch in the nose. All the traits of an Islay scotch can be found in this. Most readers may not want to buy this. I recommend it for the others. If you like peat, pipe tobacco, and a seaweed taste, this is for you. The peat and burnt rubber smell are candy to the nose of the Islay lover and offensive to all others. Do not start trying scotch with this one. That being said, it is seriously part of the royal family of scotches and is always on any quality scotch list.

{tab=Must Have In Your Bar Pick}


The DoubleWood uses sherry, then bourbon, barrels. Combined with a great Speyside single malt is amazing. I have tried this as well as the 17-year old of the same name and prefer the less expensive 12 year. The sherry barrel gives a slight peach, honey, and clover taste while the bourbon is clearly vanilla and caramel. Great way to taste the power of the barrel.


Scotch Facts:

  • A rule exists that in order to be called a bourbon, a bourbon barrel can only be used once. As such, most barrels wind up being perfectly good for many more years and end up scotch barrels. If it does not say what the barrel is, assume it is bourbon. Often you can taste bourbon in your scotch.
  • Scotch must come from Scotland or it is simply made in the scotch style. Counterfeit scotch is a global problem.
  • Cask strength is caused by not adjusting for evaporation. As the “angels get their share” the strength of the scotch climbs. Normally, water is added to get it back to 40%. With sast strength this is not done and it is bottled as is.

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