In INFUSED, a weekly column, Elizabeth J. Musgrave connects spirits, wine, and beer with culinary and creative arts
When I was invited to review The Smart Guide to Single Malt Scotch Whisky by Elizabeth Riley Bell, I couldn't wait to delve into the intricacies of the libation of Scotland, particularly through the guided hands of the noted leading female voice in the predominantly male field of expertise. When learning about a new topic or interest, I like to start with words (no great shock, I'm sure), and entering the Scotch world I find the confusion starts at the very beginning: the name.
Is it Scotch Whiskey or Scotch Whisky?
The easiest way to figure out if there is a difference in the actual spirit, or whether some folks just don't know how to spell, is to ask an expert. Or not: after researching numerous sources, it all seems to come down to this. Whiskey with an 'e' is most traditionally used for American and Irish whiskey, while Canadian, Scotch and Japanese whiskies leave the extra vowel out. With that said, both spellings have been found on bottles in all countries throughout history, and most countries are narrowing down which is preferred. The controversy makes for great conversation while enjoying the liquor, however, which is part of the fun of this drink.
Bell doesn't get that elementary in her manual. It is assumed the reader knows the difference between the spellings and various types of whiskies, and has chosen to enrich their education about Scotland’s single malts and blends for the single most important factor: taste.
Starting in section one with the labels, storage, and cost vs. value, Bell gives great insight to the differences and similarities of the distilleries' names, locations and tastes. In the chapter on tasting, the reader receives step-by-step instruction on the best process to get the most out of the experience. In section two, the authority of Scotch then rolls into detailed tutelage of the whisky-making process including water choice, barley standards, distilling techniques, and maturation and cask choice.
For those not wishing to open a craft distillery, section three describes Scotland’s distilleries by geography with maps, history, and types of offerings available throughout the country and islands. From the well known Glenfiddich and Glenlivet to the lesser familiar distilleries, Bell gives intimate insight, tips, and history of each with a respectful yet conversational tone. Throughout the guide, Bell has three sidebars – Whisky Lexicon, The Noser Knows, and The Distillery Cat's Meow – giving helpful terminology, tasting notes and historical facts enhancing the guide immensely.
In a phone interview, Bell discussed with me the ease of obtaining Scotch nowadays from boutique distilleries (“much easier with internet”), being a female in the early days of the male-dominated world of Scotch (“not difficult at all”), and how do American mixologists rate in knowledge of Scotch.
"As with anything, it varies from place to place,” says Bell. “There are growing opportunities in bars that offer a wide selection of choices and, often times, there is a mixologist on site who is knowledgeable about them. Also there have been some very exciting things done – particularly in the larger cities you see this more often – of experimentation done with Scotch cocktails.
“I think American mixologists can hold their own with Scotch. It is certainly a growing field: I find that mixologists today know a great deal more about single malt than they did twenty years ago, and we all benefit from that. It's one of the best times as far as availability, quality and opportunity we've seen in the exploration of Scotch whisky."
Bell admits she is clearing out and making way for new bottles in her stash by auctioning her own personal collection of decades’ worth of Scotch in October. The sale will take place at Bonhams 1793 NYC.
Bottom line: Elizabeth Riley Bell's straight-forward approach, coupled with fun graphics, detailed maps, step-by-step instructions and history make The Smart Guide to Single Malt Scotch Whisky an absolute must for the scotch drinker, maker and collector of all levels.
Review copy and images provided by publisher and Elizabeth Riley Bell.
Elizabeth J. Musgrave is the editor for GottaGo.us, writing the fine-living syndicated column and syndicated blog, Gotta Go. Published both in print and online at GottaGo.us, AroundIndy.com, and BroadwayWorld.com, Gotta Go offers reviews and recommendations on food and drink, the performing arts, and travel destinations.
Elizabeth is also a freelance writer, photographer, public speaker, and a leading Indianapolis performing arts and restaurant critic. She can be heard on 93 WIBC's Saturday Morning News Show as Indy’s entertainment adviser, and can also be found on Twitter,LinkedIn, and Facebook.