Scotch Whisky For The Rest Of Us

Distillers are trying to lure the uninitiated by adding more familiar flavors

Scotch whisky drinkers are used to serious old-world names such as Glenfiddich, Laphroaig, and Lagavulin. So where do The Rich Spicy One, The Smokey Peaty One, and The Smooth Sweeter One fit in? These three new malts from Jon, Mark & Robbo's Easy Drinking Whisky Co., which are just hitting store shelves, represent an attempt by some distillers to demystify a sometimes intimidating spirit and bring new drinkers into the fold.

It goes beyond the names. The new-generation Scotches offer novel blends, or they finish the whisky in casks that have been used to produce sherry, Cognac, or Bordeaux wine. The resulting flavors are often more accessible to the uninitiated than the traditional smoky varieties. Distillers hope these flavors will lure consumers who are drawn to the "white spirits" such as vodka and rum. "People always want to try what's new -- and most of the new stuff is very good," said Warren Radford, a whisky buyer at New York's Astor Wines & Spirits.

One of the best examples is Jon, Mark & Robbo's Easy Drinking Whisky. In 2002, Scottish brothers Jon and Mark Geary approached David Robertson, former master distiller for the Macallan label, about creating some whiskies that ordinary people could relate to. The 80-proof Smooth Sweeter One, for example, obtains a unique, vanilla taste by throwing lighter Irish whisky into the mix. At $30 per 750-milliliter bottle, it doesn't cost much more than a popular blended Scotch whisky such as Johnnie Walker Black.

Another relative newcomer, Isle of Jura Distillery's 90-proof Superstition ($40), is winning admirers for its ability to combine the smoky, peat flavor associated with malt from the Islay islands in the Hebrides region of Scotland with the more floral qualities of malts from the Highlands. "Even an established whisky drinker may have tried a big, smoky whisky like Laphroaig, Lagavulin, or Ardbeg and shut that door very quickly," said Isle of Jura's master distiller, Willie Tait. "So we found a way to marry two wonderful styles."


Superstition comes in a striking bottle with a cinched waist and an Ankh cross embossed on it. The name refers to an old Scottish belief that it's unlucky to cut the peat in April instead of in May. (Drying the malted barley over peat-stoked fires is what gives this whiskey its distinctive character.) The cross represents the divine power of immortality, or so it says on the label.

Other distillers are attaining new flavor notes for their products -- and trying to pique the interest of wine drinkers -- by supplementing the traditional aging of their whisky in bourbon barrels with a few months of finishing in barrels used for sherry, Cognac, or wine. Glenmorangie pioneered the technique about a decade ago by using madeira, sherry, and port barrels. More recently, it has brought out a 12-year-old whisky finished in burgundy casks ($40) that has a fresh, light character.

Bruichladdich, a once-shuttered distiller in the Islay region that has been undergoing a revival since it was bought and reopened in 2001, is applying deft finishing touches to the fine stocks its new owners uncovered. Golf lovers might want to check out its limited-edition bottlings commemorating famous courses. The third annual release is a 14-year-old named Royal Troon that was finished in sherry casks ($80 to $90). The label sports a rendering of the famous British Open site by renowned golf landscape artist Graeme W. Baxter. It makes a fine gift for any golf nuts or Scotch newbies you know.

By Gerry Khermouch

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