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How a New Year's resolution led one writer on an exploration of Scotch whisky

Scotchy Scotch Scotch

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I'm not a fan of New Year's resolutions. I believe that if you want to make a change you should just do it. But something happened last December for me when I set my first resolution, well, ever. I blame the cold and a Mad Men binged-haze — and probably the bottle of wine I had downed. I wanted to be more like Don, Peggy, and Joan. I wanted to feel warm. I wanted to be the kind of person Sean Connery would have a drink with. I wanted a velvet smoking jacket. So I decided that in the year 2014 I would learn to like Scotch. Well, fast forward nine months, and my palate for Scotch hadn't been improved or even tested. Until now.

My past experiences with Scotch weren't great; they usually ended with a scrunched up face, the utterings of "never again," and a deep burn in my esophagus — and not the good kind. To say I was hesitant to start on my journey of whisky enlightenment is an understatement.

But when duty calls, you've got to down a dram every now and then. To start my palate expansion, I headed to Bottles in Mt. Pleasant for a Scotch tasting — and an education. Joe Ziegler, whiskey ambassador for Ben Arnold Beverages was there to offer me the basics. He laid it out for me, explaining the three different kinds of Scotch whiskies and taking it back to the basics. Namely, that there are five different kinds of Scotch: single malt, single grain, blended malt, blended grain, and blended. The blended whiskies are easier to drink, but it's not straight Scotch. Being a purist, I knew if I was going to do this, I needed to do it fully. The only way to go was a single malt — and, ideally, neat. Then Jim discussed the types of the brown elixir: Highland, Islay, Lowlands, Speyside, and Islands. Other than their geographical location, their differences went over my head. He also discussed peatiness and honey notes, citrus undertones and nutty accents. But what would I like? Well, there was only one way to find out. So, I wandered up to the tasting table to toss some back.

Hopefully, the Shieldaig won't make you sob like it did us - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Hopefully, the Shieldaig won't make you sob like it did us

The tasting consisted of three Highland Park whiskies. A 12-year, 15-year, and 18-year (all classified by barrel age). There was also a blended whisky, but we weren't going to play that game. And these are my notes from the fateful day Scotch was re-introduced in my life.

1. 12-year Highland Park — This burns. Supposedly tastes citrusy and woodsy. Well, if woodsy means bile-like then, yup.

2. 15-year Highland Park — My throat still burns. I guess this is smoother. But oh, the burn.

3. 18-year Highland Park — I honestly don't know what this tastes like. I just don't want to vomit. Do not vomit at Bottles.

I quickly thanked Joe for his wisdom and got the hell out of there before I spewed.

Well, shit. This was going to be tougher than I thought. As much as people told me Scotch is an acquired taste, I wasn't expecting this. I usually take to new tastes pretty well. So, I did what I normally do when I need some tough love and good advice. I called my dad. He laughed at me and then just told me to stay away from the peaty ones. Well, that wasn't as helpful as I had hoped.

The Berry's Scotch, an Islay, had heavy notes of peat, while the Grangestone had a nice sweetness from the bourbon barrel - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • The Berry's Scotch, an Islay, had heavy notes of peat, while the Grangestone had a nice sweetness from the bourbon barrel

It was time to turn to my next expert — Bert Williams from Total Wine. Bert gave it to me straight. He knew that it was going to be tough to sell me on drinking Scotch — and enjoying it. He tried to explain how the different tastebuds come together and where this particular liquor excels. He lost me at umami. He walked me through the different bottles and the different flavors and told me eventually I'd be able to pick out all the layers. I tried to hide my skepticism. With Bert's help, I picked out a single malt that had been matured in a bourbon cask made by Grangestone. Was it cheating a little? Probably, but I needed a safety net. The next one was a Speyside Scotch, which would have some smokiness but not an overwhelming amount. So I grabbed a bottle of Shieldaig 18-year-old whisky. But then for the last bottle, Bert thought I should go all in. He recommended an Islay Scotch that has a very smoky taste, almost charcoal-like. The smokiness comes from the peat they use when heating the grains to make the Scotch. Bert said, "Sometimes, they're so smoky, it's like licking an ashtray." I wasn't sure how that would win anyone over. I was scared, but I knew I had to do it, so I grabbed the bottle of Berry's 20-year-old Bruichladdich.

That night, I took the bottles out and stared at them. I knew I had to try them, but I wasn't ready. As my new trio of Scotch sat on the counter, I did the wussy thing and poured myself a glass of wine, promising that tomorrow would be the day.

Not one to go back on my promises, I manned up the next night with the help of some friends. Gathered around a kitchen table, I poured out tastes of the Grangestone. Also knowing I needed all the help I could get, I took Bert's advice and plunked two cubes of ice in the glass. As the sweet elixir hit my lips, a miracle occurred. I didn't hate it. In fact, I kind of enjoyed it. The ice helped cool the burn, and the flavors, well, I still can't differentiate the undertones, but it didn't taste like ass. It had a subtle sweetness to it, and I pictured myself drinking it in front of a fire on a blustery winter night.

Not to rest on my laurels, I moved on to the next one, the Speyside. Woah, was there a charcoal flavor to it. It wasn't bad. But it wasn't good. I again drank it with the training wheels of ice, but I tried it neat as well. And well, there was that burn again. One of my friends said drinking neat really opened up the flavors more, but I couldn't tell through the fire that was burning down my throat.

JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek

Feeling defeated, I poured a glass of the last Scotch. The Islay whisky and, well, I was warned about it. The smell of the amber-colored liquid was enough to make me gag. I didn't want to drink it, not at all. But I did. And I hated it. And then I did a spit-take, like the classy lass that I am. I couldn't pawn this one off on my friends. And even the macho guys who were drinking it neat, I caught throwing in ice cubes to help diffuse the taste. It wasn't quite like licking an ashtray, or what I would imagine that would taste like, but that peat sure did have some smokiness. After my tastebuds recovered, I poured myself a nice glass of the Grangestone and considered it a win.

But to be a true lover of Scotch, I knew I had to enjoy it on my own. So, on a rainy Monday night, while watching About Time for the millionth time, I thought, this is the moment that'll prove I'm a real Scotch drinker. I poured myself a nice little dram of Sheildaig Speyside and cozied up on my couch. Now in all fairness, this movie makes me cry, but I was not expecting my next reaction. I took a sip of the Sheildaig, I started to sob, uncontrollably. And it wasn't even the really sad part of the film yet. My New Year's resolution had brought me to couch-shaking tears. It was then I knew I had to throw in the towel. I will never be Joan or Peggy or Don. Hell, I would have even settled for Pete Campbell in this assignment. But alas, I am not a Scotch drinker.

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