Originally Posted by Althis
I'm about to buy my first bottles of scotch and am looking at Macallan 12 year and Laphroaig 10 year. As a college student, I mostly drink Jack Daniels and cheap Jameson and am not sure what to expect. I hope I like what I find.
It'll be an interesting experience. Jameson is actually a decent spirit, and a typical example of the irish whiskey category, which, after a recent trip to ireland, I find myself rather familiar with. Irish whiskey prides itself on the character of the barley. They roast it without any smoke and typically use very pure spring water to make the whiskey to highlight the character. They also use neutral spirit to cut the stuff made from the malt to spread out the flavors, similar to what a lot of whiskey drinkers do with water after the fact. It maintains the strength while separating the flavors, so to speak. There's a reason that until fairly recently, single malt anything was fairly niche. And Irish whiskey was generally considered the more approachable cousin to scotch.
Now, I don't like Jameson as much as some other Irish whiskeys, simply because I find it too simple and refined. It achieves its objectives perfectly- it's a simple description of barley in spirit form. I like some other irish whiskeys that have other notes in them as well, from whatever factor, or are denser in flavor, like the few irish single malts available.
Point is, Jameson ain't rotgut.
Jack Daniels is a Bourbon. It's made from corn and freshly charred oak barrels. Like other bourbons (I don't buy the Tennessee Whiskey bit- by the US government definition, it's Bourbon. Yes, they filter it through Charcoal. So do other Bourbons.) It's sweet (due to the corn), smoky, and I don't know of a better way to put it, meaty.
Scotch is made from barley and aged in recycled oak. It's dry, unlike bourbon, due to the mashbill, similar to the irish whiskey. But Scotch Whisky (as it's spelled there) welcomes, rather than avoids, the flavor complexities introduced in the process of making the whisky. The barley is dried over peat fires, lending a smoky taste. The water is often tinged with peat from the local bogs, lending a peaty taste. The aging introduces flavors as well. Salt, heather (from the air blowing over the fields, of course!), fruit, from wherever in god's name it comes from...
The proportion of those ingredients will vary based on regional style. Islay scotches will be high in peat and smoke. Speyside scotches will be high in salt and heather. Lowland (not around much these days) will put the focus on the barley. Highland can be just about anything, though they're generally less sweet and grassy than speyside and less peaty and smoky than islay.
If you're into complex and relatively dry whisky, you'll love scotch. I'm personally a fan of just about everything, I have an islay single malt and a speyside blended in the cabinet right now, along with a bourbon and an irish, so I'm not gonna make calls on good or bad. You're looking at a speyside and an islay, and they couldn't be more different. The Laphroaig will be loaded with smoke and peat, while a speyside whisky like McCallan will have pretty much none. You should, at some point, try examples of each style, a couple of times (sometimes people react badly to unfamiliar flavors, even if they wind up really loving them once they're over the shock) and figure out what you like best, unless you're somebody who, like me, winds up loving virtually all styles. In which case you're doomed to a lifetime of keeping a wide variety of (probably expensive) spirits on hand to suit your mood and cocktail idea on any given day.
Also, long winded posts like this are what two 4 oz, high proof cocktails can do to you. You have no idea how handy firefox's built in spell check is.