Cocktails and Spirits with Paul Clarke: Starting from Scratch with Scotch

In last week's Washington Post, longtime drinks correspondent Jason Wilson reiterated an admission that had long had whiskey--er, make that whisky--drinkers peppering him with emails: the fact that he didn't love scotch "as much as some think I should."

I know the feeling. I've been covering spirits and cocktails for the better part of five years, and while I've plumbed deep on rum, American whiskey, absinthe, and other spirits, scotch has long eluded me as a subject of fascination.

Wait--did you hear that sound? That was a thousand scotch-lovers banging their desks in frustration before beginning to pepper away at their keyboards with angry, or helpful, or disbelieving comments. Every spirit has those who love it beyond all others, and scotch whisky--and here we're mainly talking about the world of single malts--has a particularly ardent fan base; as Wilson notes, should he make a mistake regarding the spelling of the spirit, including an errant 'e' in 'whisky' when it's typically reserved for spirits of Irish or American manufacture, he'll be sure to receive a slew of comments, some more helpful than others: "[...] some Scotch enthusiast will leave a nice comment online that reads, 'But they'd spell it Whisky, wouldn't they?' That comment will be below the one that calls you 'so uninformed i wonder how much actual knowledge you have' but goes on to spell both 'Cointreau' and 'liqueur' wrong."

This isn't to say I don't like scotch--to the contrary, I'm a big fan of all types of whisk(e)y. But my tastes, and my interests, have more typically been focused on American whiskies, which have a history and organizational structure that are more or less approachable and easy to determine, whereas scotch is governed by a set of rules and traditions that can be impenetrable for the casual observer. It doesn't help that the world of scotch whisky is relatively immense and, to the initiate, bizarre and complex, full of brand names that are peculiar amalgamations of strangled consonants and with a Byzantine array of styles. I know my Islay from my Speyside and a few of the major brands from each region, but beyond that I'm mostly lost. I'd like to learn more, but I feel I'd need a free year or so just to get started.

So hold the scolding, scotch drinkers, and share the wealth of your experience: where would you recommend an interested whisky drinker start to explore? And everyone has favorites brands and styles--what are yours?