First, a fact: every spirit isn’t made for everyone. As palates go, each of us has our own, and whether we consider ourselves to have a sophisticated palate or a poor one, every person nonetheless prefers particular flavor profiles. I love ginger, for example. Ginger in soup, ginger in cocktails, ginger all by itself, ginger pickled on a plate—more, please! So, when I taste food or drink, I often pick up notes of ginger first because I prefer it and am so accustomed to tasting it. Knowing your preferences is the key to understanding and enjoying spirits.
At night, especially when the weather begins to cool, folks tend to drink spirituous cocktails; they skip the daiquiris and pour the Scotch. When I tend bar and describe Scotch to novice drinkers, it can be difficult to entice and seduce my guest by using the usual descriptors: charcoal, seaweed, gasoline, citrus and brine. Scotch, even in the bare language of describing its taste, is off-putting. Most women bristle when the subject of Scotch is raised. But on a cozy fog-filled eve, sipping on the Scotch of your choice is a delicious reward.
Scotch is chiefly characterized by appellation; the area where Scotch is produced and aged creates the greatest impact on its flavor. This applies to single malt Scotches in particular. It’s less true for blended Scotch, which aims to produce a unique product by blending the best of Scotland in a proprietary fashion. Dewar’s and Johnnie Walker are the best-known examples of blended Scotch. For both single malt and blended Scotches, age matters: the higher the number on the bottle, the longer the spirit spent maturing in and taking on the characteristics of oak barrels, which impart flavors such as nuttiness, vanilla and coconut.
Let’s face it: Most women don’t like smoke in their booze. Scotch, whose production process involves the burning of peat, is always going to be a smoky spirit. But depending on the particular Scotch you taste, you can expect huge disparities in flavor. On the lighter side, there’s Dewar’s, which smacks of sweet heather and spice, with an easy, oily finish. Soft, blended Scotches like Dewar’s are fantastic in cocktails or on their own. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the single malt Ardbeg: produced on the island of Islay, Ardbeg is notorious for its deep briny character, full of peat, salt and smoke.
“When I smell Ardbeg, it gives me goosebumps all up and down my body,” says Christine Prentice, Beverage Director for the Purple Café in Seattle. “Band-Aids and Chevron—no way!” What gets forgotten beneath all those coastal characteristics, however, is a long taste of chocolate. Yes, ladies, chocolate!
The key to discovering and enjoying Scotch is to pick out the flavors you like best and search for them within the spirit. I noted that I dig ginger; if you like honey or white chocolate, you can find and enjoy those flavors in Scotch, and I heartily recommend seeking it out.
“Girls are down with the brown,” says Lynnette Marrero, President of the New York chapter of LUPEC (Ladies United for the Preservation of Endangered Cocktails). “I think that like other things, women hit their prime in their thirties. Our palates are sensitive, so initially, peaty Scotch can be too intense. However, Scotch finished in sherry or wine barrels can be attractive to women.”
Two classic Scotch-based cocktails are the Rob Roy and the Blood & Sand, both of which are balanced and designed to please the palate of both sexes. For women or any novice Scotch drinker, I recommend sitting in a bar with a friend and exploring the spirit. Chat with the barkeep and ask if a small flight is possible. If so, sample a Glenlivet, a Macallan 12, the Balvenie and, if you dare, a Scotch from Islay. Enjoy a seltzer or a glass of mineral water on the side, and you may be surprised: Scotch, when discovered to your liking, is a sexy and rewarding drink on any occasion.
Editor’s Note: Ladies, we want to hear from you! Do you drink Scotch? Which ones do you like? Share your Scotch-sipping experiences in the comments below!
Duggan McDonnell owns and operates Cantina, the San Fran-centric cocktail lounge dedicated to Latin spirits and California cocktails. He operates Liquid Think Tank, a beverage consultancy, and co-founded San Francisco Cocktail Week and the Barbary Coast Conservancy of the American Cocktail. He also co-founded and serves as CEO and Master Blender of Campo de Encanto pisco, winner of the Ministry of Production’s Gran Medalla de Oro Best in Show gold medal (the highest honor for any pisco).
Duggan’s many accolades include a Best Mixologist of the Year nomination at Tales of the Cocktail (twice) in New Orleans, and Leader of the American Cocktail Revolution from Food & Wine. A featured expert on the TV show “Great Cocktails,” Duggan also served as the spokesperson for the got milk? 2010 holiday cocktail TV campaign. He’s designed cocktails for the Sundance Film Festival and Aspen Food & Wine, and has consulted for spirits companies including Tequila Don Julio, Grey Goose Vodka and Cabana Cachaca.