The test of Scotch is more than what the nose knows

HAPPY EATER

February 21, 1993|By ROB KASPER

The other day I took the time to stop and smell the Scotch.

I sniffed the fruit of the Speysides, inhaled the smokiness of the Islays and noted the peat of the Highland Parks. They were some of the component whiskeys of Scotland that make up a Scotch blend, J&B Select. The new Scotch is being introduced to the United States in two states, Maryland and Massachusetts.

Mine was one of a number of noses in a sniff-off held last week in Ruth's Chris Steak House in downtown Baltimore, designed to show that all Scotch did not smell like medicine.

That is what James E. Milne, the man with the trained nose, told me. Milne is master blender for Justerini & Brooks in Glasgow. He came to Baltimore last week to lead the roomful of liquor store owners and restaurateurs through the inhaling exercises that were part of the introduction of the new Scotch.

I sniffed, listened and took notes. I had one basic question. Why was this Scotch different than any other? I heard two answers, one simple and one complex.

The simple answer was that it smelled better. In particular, the LTC new Scotch was said to be easier on the nose than the bold aromas of the single-malt Scotches. Such whiskeys, distilled from the malted barley in particular regions of Scotland, became popular in the United States in the mid-1980s. Known for their strong regional flavors, the single-malts also deliver quite a wallop to the nose. Some imbibers called the single-malt aromas "distinctive." Others said they smelled like medicine. The new one, according to my nose, didn't.

The reason why the new Scotch doesn't smell like something found next to the castor oil, I was told, had something to do with the genteel way the whiskey was "married." This was the complex answer.

Scotch gets married when component whiskeys, some made from single malts, some from grains, are joined together. The fellow who joins them together is the master blender -- in this case Milne, a man who makes his living with his nose.

Like other master blenders, Milne sniffs the bouquet of each ingredient, then sniffs the blend until he has got it right. For the marriage of this particular Scotch, Milne put the happy components in sherry casks for four months. There, he said, they mature. The resulting union, Milne said, was a blended Scotch with a "strong flavor profile and a high degree of mellowness."

I took that to mean the aroma didn't knock you over and it tasted pretty good.

Maryland was chosen both because it has a representative number of Scotch drinkers and because the state's liquor stores tend to be locally owned by independent operators, said Henry S. Swincki Jr. of Paddington Corp. in Bel Air, the importer of the Scotch. A new product has a better chance to make it on its own merits when it is sold in independent liquor stores, as opposed to states where the market is dominated by chain liquor stores, Swincki said.

Swincki said the Scotch will be priced at about $17 a bottle. He said it is designed to appeal to upscale Scotch drinkers taking holiday from their favorite $20-and-up single-malt Scotches as well as to sippers of competing premium blends, such as Dewar's and Johnnie Walker.

I ran all this past Hugh Sisson. Sisson and his family operate a restaurant, bar and brewery in South Baltimore. When I got him on the phone, Sisson was organizing a Scotch tasting at the restaurant on March 22.

Sisson had several reactions to the news that a new premium blended Scotch was on the market.

First, he said, it was part of the trend in food and drink that stresses taste rather than quantity. "You see it in restaurant food, you see it in beer, and you see it in Scotch -- people are seeking flavor."

When I told Sisson that the new Scotch deliberately avoided the aromas of smoke and medicine, he moaned at the loss. "That's the good stuff," he said.

But when Sisson heard that new blend had some Highland Park Scotch in it, he got curious. "I might have to taste that," he said.

Despite the fact that he makes his living doing it, Milne did not recommend sniffing the new Scotch, or any Scotch.

"If you see somebody in a bar sniffing a Scotch . . . he is probably a journalist," Milne said.

The true test of Scotch, he said, lifting a glass to his mouth, "comes at the end of day, in the tasting."

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