OAKLAND -- I walked into the smoky 19th Street Station bar, pulled up a stool and asked for a glass of Scotch.

"Which one?" Roy Mejia asked. "That's what I was going to ask you," I said.

I had already sampled my way around Oakland and discovered that although this is a beer and cocktail town, there's still a lot of Scotch to drink. But it is one of those intimidating drinks that require the ability to wrap your tongue around Gaelic syllables and distinguish an eight-year single malt from a 12-year single malt.

Mejia lined up four bottles, the labels eye-level, and began to pour. There was a 10-year-old Laphroaig and a 12-year-old Glenlivet.

"This one I've never heard of, but the liquor salesman says it's to die for," he said about the bottle of sweet, smooth Old Pulteney, a 12-year-old single malt registering a hefty 43 percent alcohol content.

I glanced up at a sign he keeps above the bar that reads, "No Snivelling."

"I forgot this one," Mejia said, placing a bottle of Chivas Regal before me. "It's not a single malt," he added. But it was 18 years old.

Scotch must be aged three years in wooden barrels, but a good and proper one should age a minimum of 10 years to mellow and pick up the flavors of the wood ("spirits" are younger than three years).


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After a point -- about 21 years levelheaded connoisseurs generally agree -- age turns into more of a marketing scheme than a quality guarantee, giving companies an excuse to jack up prices for the intimidated newcomer.

Blends are another matter. Experienced drinkers advise newcomers to start with blends, which are milder.

You know them as Dewar's, Johnnie Walker and Cutty Sark. I had started with Glenlivet, which I thought was a blend but was in fact a single malt, meaning it comes from one distillery. It brought tears to my eyes but is nevertheless a good starter because it's not as peaty as the hard-core Scotches. I was trying to go slow.

A few weeks later, I picked back up again at Dogwood with a Japanese brand, Hibiki, suggested by the bartender, Victor. Technically it was a whiskey, with an "e." Scotland and Scotland alone produces Scotch whisky -- minus the "e."

The Gaelic origins give Scotch hard to pronounce names like Bunnahabhain and Laphroaig, a mighty malt that, once uncorked, announces its challenging nature from a foot away.

I was still not ready for anything that advanced, although I knew Laphroaig was in my future because just about every bar had a bottle on the shelf. Bartenders would give me the rundown of their recommendations, then point to the bottle and say in a serious tone, "Then there's Laphroaig."

First I had to learn how to drink the stuff properly. For that, I went to The Legionnaire Saloon, which had just opened a few days earlier at Telegraph Avenue and 23rd Street.

Bartender John Niemczyck gave me a glass of 15-year-old Balvenie.

"Do you want sparkling water or still water with that?" Niemczyck, a Scotch lover, asked.

I had no idea. The only taboo passed down to me thus far was ice because it would either dilute the liquor or make it taste like the contents of the freezer.

The proper procedure is to sip from your glass, then add a dash of water to open up the Scotch, my bartender advised.

I had barely scratched the surface of Scotch when I found myself a few weeks later at the 19th Street Station with a bottle of Laphroaig sitting in front of me.

So I lifted the glass to my mouth, and before I had taken a single sip, the image of golfers trudging across a muddy golf course immediately sprang to mind. It tasted like licking out the bottom of a barbecue grill that was lined with peat, which makes sense.

The island of Islay that produces Laphroaig relied for fuel on peat, the decomposing vegetative remains scraped off the top of centuries-old bogs. That is how it came to be the signature taste of the serious Scotch, which is the product of humble barley.

So Laphroaig and I had met. My research, I knew, had come to an end.