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New Interest in an Old Brew

If beer is the beverage of youth and warm summer nights, Scotch may well be the official drink of maturity and chilly winter evenings.

While beer is familiar, whisky, as the Scots call it, is shrouded in mystery, from its spelling (without the “e”) to the tongue-tangling names of the producers (i.e., Laphroaig, Lagavulin, Glendronach), to the exotic smokiness found in some bottles. And it’s an acquired taste--not immediately pleasing, and definitely not for everyone, though its popularity with the under-30 set is growing.

“Single malts have become like martinis--a statement drink,” says Robert Cross, sommelier at Hotel Bel-Air. "[They are] easily one of the most, if not the most, interesting spirits. [They have] the greatest individuality, and each brand can be very different.”

A passionate Scotch drinker who favors the Talisker and Bowman labels, Cross stocks nearly two dozen different bottles at the hotel bar, where it is a popular drink.

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“Why try it?” muses Howard Meister, owner of Wine and Liquor Depot in Van Nuys. “Scotch, as you sip it, can change flavors right in your mouth,” Meister explains, “and a good whisky has a whole array of flavors.”

Meister is a recent but thorough convert, and his store reflects the depth of his devotion: Depot’s shelves hold more than 550 different Scotch whiskies, one of the largest collections in the world, according to Meister. Prices range from $13, for a bottle of Lismore Highland, to $2,550 for a 1946 Macallan.

“I have to try every one I see,” says Meister, a self-described fanatic who has trekked to Scotland three times to savor the local liquor.

But it’s not the big sellers, blends like Chivas Regal and the various colors of Johnnie Walker, that fire Meister’s passion. He, like many connoisseurs, favors single-malt Scotches. While blends result from the mixing together of dozens of different whiskies, along with grain alcohol, all in an effort to produce a smooth and pleasing product, single malts have no additives and tend to have stronger, quirkier flavors that, like fine wines, reflect their place of origin.

Single malts, with their strong identities, are to blends as a soloist is to an orchestra. Just pour a wee dram (a small shot) and listen for yourself.


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