Slàinte mhath

A quick guide to the language of scotch.
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Courtesy iStock

Scotch can be an intimidating beverage to start exploring, but the iconic drink is fairly accessible with a little bit of knowledge.

In a city like Grand Rapids, beer is king, but whisky is close behind. The first step to break down the barrier is heading to a solid bar with a good selection whiskies.

“A good whisky bar is the perfect place to start one’s whisky journey,” said Dan Crowell, a national ambassador for Glenmorangie. “A knowledgeable bar staff can effectively guide one’s first steps down that path. But whatever starting point one chooses, it’s important to keep in mind that there’s no wrong way to drink whisky. A curious mind and an adventurous spirit are all that is required in order to begin a whisky journey.”

For starters, there’s a misconception that all Scotch whiskies are smoky and peaty. That’s not true and it’s easy to wade into that realm, if you want to get there. There are five main regions that make scotch, each with distinct characteristics. Sure, the most famous of scotches often carry heavy smoke notes, but Lowland whiskies are light bodied and often grassy, easy on the palate and perfect for a high ball. Speyside are sweet and crisp, taking plenty of vanilla from their aging process.

As a palate becomes more familiar, start jumping into Highland and Islay, which can carry heavier bodies and more smoke. A quality bartender or liquor store owner can help guide through bottles to ease into the liquid. But one thing’s for sure, it’s super fun to explore this spirit, because while Scotland is a small country, the many bottles of whisky produced there often can transport a drinker to the various, extremely unique areas of the nation.

“Just as bourbon is woven into America’s cultural identity, the same is true of Scotland and its whiskies,” Crowell said. “I’d ask the bourbon fan to look at single malt scotch with the same mindset he or she might apply to vacationing in another country. Seek out and experience the differences while celebrating the commonalities that unite us all.”

Whether it’s scotch or bourbon or another style of whisky, there’s a special language spoken through the liquid. It just takes a little bit of sipping to understand a conversation.

“That conversation tells not just the story of a distillery, but also of its natural surroundings, its history, its people, their skill, their vision, their dedication and their creativity,” Crowell said. “Whisky achieves its highest potential when it is consumed among friends. In a communal environment, where a wide variety of impressions, tasting notes, insights and opinions are shared, one can truly appreciate the incredible depth and diversity of flavor that exists in single malts.”

So, raise a glass with the traditional Scottish toast of slàinte mhath (to “good health”) and explore the intricate language a good scotch has to offer.

This story can be found in the May/June 2022 issue of Grand Rapids Magazine. To get more stories like this delivered to your mailbox, subscribe here

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