Single Malt Whisky
Major whisky types
- BLENDED WHISKY - A whisky made by blending together any number of single malt whiskies and grain whiskies to create the required flavour and characteristics. These can be from different distilleries and be of different ages. Blended whisky, in majority, could be characterized as a “commodity” whisky of lower quality compared to Single Malt but also of much lower cost. MALT WHISKY, produced from 100% malted barley (fermented with yeast) and distilled batch by batch in massive, traditional copper 'pot stills'. No other grain products or fermentable material is permitted in the production of this whisky.
- SINGLE MALT WHISKY - Whisky that is made of 100% malted barley and is from just one single distillery location. They generally contain slightly different ages of whisky from numerous different casks within the distillery’s warehouse. These are then married together in a larger container to establish the required consistent flavour profile. The age stated on the bottle is the youngest age of any whisky included.
- SINGLE CASK SINGLE MALT - Whisky as exclusive as it gets. It's the same as a normal single malt whisky, but all bottles are taken from one single cask of whisky. When you realize that a bourbon barrel usually equalizes about 300 bottles of whisky (sherry casks are larger), the drinking of a single-single is quite a special experience.
Like wines and many other drinks, the single malts of Scotland are grouped by region. These regions offer mainly a guideline rather than a rule about the taste, the richness or other special characteristics of whisky. The main regions in Scotland in alphabetical order are the Campbeltown, the Highlands, the Island, the island of Islay, the Lowland and the Speyside.
Campbeltown whiskies are a curious mix. Characteristics include a defined dryness with pungency, smoke and a solid salinity. There was a time when Campbeltown was the most prolific of all of Scotland’s whisky regions. Around a century ago there were as many as twenty-eight distilleries in the geographically smallest of Scottish appellations. Today there are but three: the newly founded Mitchell’s Glengyle, though it will be a few more years ‘til any Glengyle single malt whisky is bottled, Glen Scotia and Springbank, a distillery which produces three very different whiskies using different levels of peat and still combination. Campbeltown sits on the Mull of Kintyre peninsula protruding from the western coast, ‘mist rolling in from the sea’. It is the proximity to the coast that gives the whisky its salty tang. Campbeltown single malts are often superb aperitifs.
As a very vague rule of thumb, the Highlands region is one of big-bodied whiskies, often peated and smoky, often very powerful. The Highlands is such a large, diverse region that is difficult to categorize their whiskies accurately. Technically speaking, the Islands has not been officially recognised as a region of its own and, as such, is included in the Highlands appellation. For the sake of precise classification, we shall choose to note the separation.
It is worth looking at the subcategories within the Highlands, typically broken down into the cardinal compass points. The Northern Highlands is an area of big-bodied, cereal rich, sweet and mouth-filling whiskies. Noteworthy examples are The Dalmore from Alness in Ross-shire, whose single malts are rich and sherried with honeyed sweetness and, of course, Glenmorangie, whose full-bodied whiskies are among the world’s best-selling. The Southern Highlands produces lighter, fruitier and drier whiskies. Edradour and Aberfeldy are good examples. The Eastern Highlands proffers full-bodied, dry, well-fruited single malts. Glen Garioch whiskies are wonderful examples; their twenty-one year-old is a personal favourite with its beautiful fruit and smoke. The Western Highlands locale is one of full-bodied, powerful single malts, peated and smoky. Oban is a wonderful example and Dalwhinnie’s consistently amazes.
A diverse whisky region, the proximity to the sea often proffers slightly salty, sometimes smoky whiskies. Balance is a recurring theme; sweetness and pungency in perfect harmony. A decidedly eclectic assortment of whiskies is to be found on the Islands. It is hard to categorise them, indeed the fact they are a category of their own is most probably for geographic ease rather than for discerning between styles. There is often, however, a marked salinity, particularly in whiskies from Isle of Jura, with their oily nature and gentle peat.
The Isle of Skye is beaten by the elements, the sole distillery, Talisker, uses peated malt and the smoky, pungent drams it produces are quite similar in style to the punchy whiskies from Islay’s southern coast.
Mull is slightly more unfamiliar, its sole distillery, Tobermory produces soft whisky with menthol freshness and plenty of sweetness. Orkney is a dark, weathered isle, there is often a salty character, but, certainly in Highland Park’s case, there is sublime balance. Arran is a newcomer to the scene, and its sole distillery and namesake is producing whiskies that have recently come of age. There is plenty of barley sweetness, no peat and a good fruity character.
Islay (pronounced ‘eye-la’) whiskies are among Scotland’s most powerful, thunderous drams. Often with plenty of peat and smoke, brine and medicinal flavours, of all the whisky regions of Scotland, Islay has attained a truly iconic status. When compared to the various drink producing regions of the world, be it the Grande Champagne designation of Cognac or the first growths of Bordeaux, or that distant island, Madeira, there is something magical about the illustrious Scottish Isle, some 35 miles from the coast of Northern Island.
There are some nine distilleries on the Isle. To the North there lies Bunnahabhain and Caol Ila, to the west of Loch Indaal sits Bruichladdich and further west, the newly founded Kilchoman - Scotland’s most westerly distillery. To the centre of the isle sits the mighty Bowmore, but it is from the southern coast, not far from Port Ellen and the newly opened distillery of the same name, that the most pungent whisky emanates, produced by the trio of leviathan Ileach distilleries; Ardbeg, Lagavulin and of course Laphroaig. There is a defined power to the whisky, peat being the obvious attribute, certainly the best associated. Smoke is both a flavour of its own, but is intrinsically linked with peat. The peat flavour is imparted during the barley malted process, while the smoke used to dry out the barley is produced by burning peat.
There is a marked reduction in peaty power to the far north; the malts of Bruichladdich and Bunnahabhain are comparatively soft. In Bruichladdich’s case it is due to the relative shelter from the elements that the Rhinns proffers. For Bunnahabhain it is the unpeated malt and the water source, the Margadale springs, cutting their course in stoic avoidance of the peat beds of Islay. Islay single malts also have a refined salinity; there is a profusion of seaweedy, kelp-rich whiskies.
This can be quite easily attributed to the terroir. The Islay distilleries possess a relative close proximity with the sea, all of which save for Kilchoman, the only inlander. The sea spray is said to whip across the warehouses, the salty air penetrates the barrels and flavours the maturing whisky.
The Lowlands produces gentle, light whiskies, often very dry and devoid of peat. Lowland whiskies are commonly referenced as feminine drams, ‘the Lowland Ladies’. Most of the whisky regions of Scotland, and indeed the world, there can be some crossover. For example, it is quite possible to produce a heavily peated whisky outside of Islay or the Highlands, simply distilling peated barley can facilitate that.
The Lowlands is different in this respect, where the method of production differs; Lowland whiskies are triple distilled. Though this does occur elsewhere it is best known and most commonly practiced further south. The region is bordered by the Highland Line to the north and sits neatly atop England. There is no peat used and there is not a great deal of local peat. There is little salinity in the whisky, for the operating Lowland distilleries are all sited inland. Auchentoshan is quite possibly the best known. The Rosebank and St Magdalene distilleries have produced delightful whiskies.
Speyside whiskies are among Scotland’s lightest, sweetest single malts. Age often brings a bit more body and the profusion of heavily sherried whiskies from the region exhibit superb power. Though a comparatively small appellation, Speyside has, by some distance, the vast majority of Scotch whisky distilleries. Indeed there are eighty-four working distilleries, including the world’s best-sellers: The Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, Glen Grant and The Macallan.
The Speyside style has altered over time, a traditional Speyside single malt would be more akin to a Highland whisky, with a definite robustness and a marked peat. More recent expressions are lighter, sweeter whiskies; honeyed and fine. Lacking the peat of Islay or the Highlands, the ozone and salinity of coastal malts or the dry, perfume of the Lowlands; Speyside whiskies are sweet and subtle. There is however, no hard and fast rule as to the characteristics of Speyside whisky, for more than half of Scotland’s distilleries are to be found in this sub-region of the Highlands.
Older variants, particularly from those powerhouse distilleries: Macallan and Glenfarclas are often well-sherried, thick drams. There is a tendency to steer away from heavily finished whiskies, indeed most are matured in either ex-bourbon or ex-sherry casks. A heavily sherried Speyside single malt to be the perfect companion to a medium-bodied cigar, and a particularly well-aged expression can be the utmost of postprandial swigs.
Some of the light, youthful Speyside whiskies, perhaps from Allt-á-Bhainne or Glen Elgin, are charming and delightful. There is a low mineral content in the waters of Speyside, lying on the Grampians, with their granite content proffering soft waters. As a rule, the whiskies are either very low or totally devoid of peat, there is not a great abundance of it locally, though it has been used with some successful results in the cases of BenRiach and Tomintoul’s.
Enjoyment Instructions Step 1: Choose a single malt. There are many varieties to choose from, and rarely do two malt drinkers agree on which is the "best" drink. Some varieties to try are Speyside malts, which are usually a bit sweet, and Islay (pronounced "Eye-La") malts, distinguished by a salty, smoky aroma and flavor.
Step 2: Select the right equipment. A whisky tumbler is often considered as the traditional whisky glass. A tumbler is fine if you are drinking a Malt which you already know you enjoy or if you are mixing the whisky into a long drink. However when tasting a Whisky for the first time a tumbler will not do the Whisky justice. The ideal glass for tasting is a tulip shaped glass, this allows the whisky to be swirled around the glass without spilling it, and a tulip shaped glass will also concentrate the aromas in the neck of the glass. Remember to hold the glass by the stem so that you will not warm it in your hand.
Step 3: Prepare to drink. You're not quite ready to taste the scotch yet. First, you can check the colour, consistency and smell of your single malt.
- Checking the Colour
- Hold your glass of malt up to the light. The colour of the whisky is not necessarily an indication of single malts age but more an indication how it was matured. As the cask in which a malt is matured imparts colour and flavour, you can hazard a guess that a golden coloured single malt has been matured in a sherry oak cask and if the colour of the whisky is very pale this would suggest that bourbon casks have been used.
- Checking the Consistency
- Hold the glass by the stem, tilt it at an angle and rotate it briskly coating the walls of the glass with whisky. Now hold the glass up straight and watch the whisky forming the "legs" as it runs down the sides of the glass. The slower the legs, the more unguent the liquid, the older the whisky.
Step 4: Take a sip. Never down a single malt - they're meant to be enjoyed slowly. Take a small sip and hold the thick, often oily liquid in your mouth, sloshing it from side to side and letting it roll over your tongue. The taste buds on your tongue will pick up a variety of flavors. Again, like with the aroma, the tastes will range widely depending on the single malt, which region of Scotland it's from, what water goes into it, the method of distillation, etc. Generally, the taste will include such flavors as citrus, caramel, iodine, berries, almonds and more. After swallowing, keep your mouth closed and breathe through your nose experience what is called the "finish".
- Nosing the Whisky
- Hold your glass away from you, then pass it smoothly under your nose taking a deep breath through your nose as it passes. Think about what you can smell and try to imagine what the smell reminds you of. Take a mental note of what you detected then repeat the process a couple more times.
Step 5: Decide if you want to add water. Many people will tell you that the only way to drink single malt is neat. But the truth is that the best way to drink single malt scotch is the way you prefer to drink it. In fact, by adding water (usually no more that 20 percent), you will be releasing more "nose" and flavor from the drink. Master distillers routinely add water to their malts during tastings. The recommended water is still Scotish Spring Water since it comes from the same sources and has the same characteristics as the water already contained in your Scotch Malt whisky. Make sure that the water is at room temperature and please do not ever use tap water since it will add a chlorinated taste to the drink. Adding ice to your favourite single malt Scotch whisky is such a shame. Putting ice in your whisky will only reduce the temperature of the whisky, freezing its aroma and the smell, and will only dull the taste of the whisky. Many people do add ice, if you are one of them why not try it without, we assure you it will be like drinking a different whisky.