Of all the world's spirits, Scotch whisky commands the most respect. A fine scotch is not often the choice of the casual drinker, as it is not a casual drink. Scotch is the quintessential connoisseur's spirit; it rewards an experienced palate with unrivaled depth and complexity — often with prices only a connoisseur would pay.
But for all the talk of acquired taste and a high price of admission, scotch is a relatively simple spirit, one that can be enjoyed by novices and seasoned enthusiasts alike.
Scotch is a whisky (not whiskey) distilled in Scotland from fermented malted barley. In most cases, the grains have been treated with peat smoke, rendering an earthy flavor to the finished product. Single-malt scotch is the product of a single distillery, while blended scotch combines different single malts and occasionally whisky distilled from grains other than malted barley. Simple, right?
Now that we've got that out of the way, it's time to actually enjoy the stuff!
Head to The Pub at International Plaza to get a handle on what the various regions of Scotland have to offer. Here, you'll find a bustling bar similar to what you might find in a major Scottish city. Make sure to grab a booth so you can properly savor the fine whiskies you'll be sampling. If you're not sure where to start, try a flight for $16, including your choice of three 1-ounce pours of whiskies 12 years old and younger. Try the Glenkinchie 12-year, Glenfiddich 12-year and either Ardbeg 10-year or Talisker 10-year. These are highly representative of their respective regions and are a great starting point.
After a proper introduction, you may find yourself ready to crack the intimidating scotch menu at Tampa's Datz. The small, intimate bar space in the back is the perfect spot to soak up a snifter of the good stuff. As extensive and impressive as Datz's bourbon list is, the scotch list is even more so, covering both premium blended whiskies as well as single malts from every region, even Spring Bank 10-year, from Scotland's prized, elusive Campbeltown region.
Although it's easy to get into big-bucks territory here — the John Ramsay Glenrothes Legacy is $200 a glass — there are several interesting selections for $10 and under, such as the bone-dry, smoke-and-pepper Laphroaig Quarter Cask ($10) and Tobermory 10-year, an explosively sweet, rich whisky from the Isle of Mull.
With an emphasis on flavors of earth and smoke, many consider a premium cigar the ideal accompaniment to a glass of Scotch. Tampa's Cigar Castle is eager to oblige, with a cavernous walk-in humidor to compliment a bar well-stocked with top-notch scotch.
Here you'll find some serious stuff, like the highly-rated Glenfarclas 25-year, and Jura, a whisky from a remote island of the same name, famously described by George Orwell as being "extremely unget-at-able." You'll also find Yamazaki 18-year, a fantastic Japanese whisky made in the Scotch style. If you like to experiment, try the Macallan Cask Strength, which is not diluted prior to bottling, as most whiskies are. This 117-proof whisky is best served with a side of water, which can be added slowly until your personal dilution preference is achieved.
Cigar Castle also hosts the occasional scotch sampling. The most recent one included a visit from Richard Paterson, master distiller at Dalmore, whose Highland single malts are available for sale right behind the bar.
A keen appreciation for scotch can be expensive, but splurging can be fun, and at the Hard Rock's Council Oak steakhouse, you'll have ample opportunity to do so, with several ultra-premium scotches within arm's reach. Some of the Highlands' finest can be had here if your wallet can handle it — Macallan 21-year and Glenfiddich 30-year cost around $30 each. For proof that single-malts aren't the beginning and end of fine scotch, try a Johnny Walker Blue Label, featuring a blend of some of the oldest, rarest and most expensive malts in Scotland, some from distilleries that have been defunct for decades. It is truly one of the most complex and enjoyable scotches on the market, at a mere $35 a glass.
All that's left is to grab a bottle of something nice from the local liquor store so you can enjoy your newfound connoisseur status right at home.