To name and describe the best single malt whiskies is a daunting task. There are some 130 different maturing single whiskies sleeping the long sleep in warehouses scattered throughout Scotland. The vast bulk of this whisky will be used in blends which are so familiar to consumers around the world. These are made up of a range of malts from 25 to 40 in number, plus one or two grain whiskies, in varying proportions depending on the blender’s formula. Grain whisky is distilled by a continuous process in a column still, while malt whisky is produced on a single batch basis in a pot still. A small proportion of the malt whiskies will be kept for about 8 to 10 years, and then bottled as shelf whiskies from one particular distillery.
Malt whisky consists of malted barley, peat (for flavoring) and plenty of pure, fresh water. Scotland abounds in all three and has, in addition, a dedicated and skilled workforce who seem determined to make sure that the best traditions of Scotch whisky distilling are maintained-no matter what pressures the forces of commercialism might exert. The “original” Scotch is now getting the recognition it so richly deserves and, perhaps, just in time, in view of the growing interest in Japanese whisky; this is, of course, a blended product, the best of which uses a good deal of Scotch malt whisky imported in bulk to give it body and character.
Malt whiskies fall into four categories: the most important is that which covers Highland malts, embracing some 90 distilleries stretching from just north of Glasgow to the Orkney Islands. Most of these are located in Speyside, which is the valley of the River Spey and its tributaries. The second category of whiskies comes from the island of Islay; the Lowland malt distilleries constitute the third category. They are not particularly outstanding as single malts, as their gentle character makes them more suitable for blending. The much depleted Campbeltown whiskies form the final category. Campbeltown was once considered the whisky capital of Scotland. However, of the original 21 distilleries, only two have survived.
By law, all Scotch whisky must be matured for a minimum of three years in oak casks.
Most of that whisky will mature for over three years, and those destined for bottling as single malts will lie in wood for at least 12 or 15 years-some for well over 20 years. Originally, old sherry casks were used, but they are now very scarce, and used only for the finest malts. American whisky bottles, a reliable substitute, are imported for refilling by the canny Scots who have taken advantage of FDA regulations which prevent food and drink containers from being used twice. Once bottled, the whisky does not age further.
Many self-appointed connoisseurs proclaim that malt whisky should always be drunk neat (i.e., without ice). Others maintain that the full bouquet and flavor can only be realized through the addition of a little Highland spring water or, in its absence, still mineral water. The Scots take their whisky at any hour of the day. When mixed with water, whisky is good before a meal and does not deaden the appetite. Taken straight, it is an ideal digestif, although one might drink an older whisky for this purpose.
The Highland malts are particularly good, especially those from Speyside. The term “Crackerjack” is applied to the very best whiskies and the three greatest-all from Speyside-are undoubtedly Glen Grant, Glenlivet and Macallan. Others of note include Bowmore, Cragganmore, Glenfarclas, Highland Park, Laphroaig, Longmom, Mortlach, Springbank, and Talisker (see sidebar).
Glen Grant is one of the oldest and most distinguished names in Scotch whisky. The Glen Grant Distillery at Rothes is one of the largest in the Highlands. This whisky has a light taste and makes an excellent aperitif. However, it gains considerably in body with age. The ten-year-old is, in my view, a good compromise, for it retains the typical dryness of Glen Grant while still possessing the rounded flavor of an older whisky.
The first whisky distillery to be licensed following the far-reaching reforms of 1824, Glenlivet achieved fame for its excellence when George IV proclaimed his preference for it over any other whisky. Its great strength has been its continued consistency in quality. This is evident in the full and fruity bouquet which marries well with its rich and slightly sweet taste. It is bottled at 12 years.
Macallan is matured exclusively in sherry wood; the latter imparts to the maturing spirit a rich golden color and a full bodied taste which has set Macallan apart within the Speyside category. The bouquet is the smoothest of any whisky, as the palate experiences the uniqueness of the sherry influence not found, to this degree, elsewhere. Bottled at a variety of ages, the 18year-old is supreme. Macallan-Glenlivet PLC owns the distillery and the Chairman of the company, Alan Schiach, is the great-grandson of the man who rebuilt it in 1892, and gave it its present name. Schiach had a successful career as a screenwriter, a stark contrast with the traditions of Highland malt distilling.
This is one of the oldest distilleries in Scotland, dating from 1779. It occupies the middle ground between the big Islay malts such as Laphroaig and the blander makes, and so presents a well-balanced finish with a light touch of smokiness on the nose. It makes an excellent aperitif if taken with ice and Perrier.
T his distillery, unknown outside the area, produces a whisky which combines a good, dry nose with a rich, peaty flavor, that sets it apart from the many other small distilleries in the area. Despite its dryness, it is particularly good as a digestif.
T his whisky comes from the last independent family-owned distillery harboring the largest stills in Speyside. The product is highly prized for its distinctive character; the 21-year-old is a superb after-dinner drink, and the 8-year-old, with 50 percent extra-strength (Glenfarclas 105), is a unique experience.
Highland Park, on the island of Orkney, is the site of the activities of the celebrated 18th century illicit distiller, Magnus Eunson, who, as a minister of the church, shamelessly used his ecclesiastical office as a cover for his illegal whisky making. Today, this whisky serves best as an after-dinner drink, when its smokey character can be fully appreciated.
Laphroaig is one of a number of haunted distilleries. The legendary ghost of this distillery is said to be a former owner who accidently fell into one of the vats. Its taste is renowned for its peatiness and the influence of the sea due to its coastal location. Strictly an after-dinner drink, the 15-year-old is much richer than the 10-year-old.
One of the few distilleries which still uses direct heat in the distilling process. This whisky-which has only recently reappeared on the market -is full of character, almost like old leather, with an aroma that sugggests a field of corn.
Another “sleeper”, Mortlach deserves much wider recognition, although it has been the Wine Society of London’s chosen malt for many years. Well-balanced with a lingering aftertaste, the well-rounded Mortlach bouquet endures more than most. For many years, it was owned by Johnnie Walker.
T he only surviving Campbeltown malt can be found at Springbank, another old distillery that dates back to 1828. The 19th century buildings remain unchanged. Springbank does its own floor malting, bottling its whisky up to 33 years old, although its full aroma and enduring taste can still be enjoyed at 12 or 15 years.
Another island whisky (from Skye), Talisker revels in its peatiness. The flavor fills the mouth while the bouquet reveals a sweet subtlety; the two combining to make a most interesting dram.
Glenfiddich and Glenmorange should be mentioned for they are the biggest selling malt whiskies in the world, as well as in Scotland.