Malt whisky is a fascinating drink. Sadly its advocates include a fair share of snobs and poseurs, with the result that some who might otherwise try a dram or two are put off. It is this tragedy that in a small way we hope to address here.
Martin Pilkington returns with his look at the world of single malt scotch whiskeys with a discussion on the myths and truths behind the drink as well as a selection of malts to work with any occasion.
Read more on the world of single malt scotch whiskey on the following page.
by Martin Pilkington
Let’s dispel a few myths at the outset: single malts (whisky from a single distillery) are not, per se, superior to blended scotch. I recently refused to review one particularly vile single malt, fearing legal ramifications. Contrast Black Bottle, a well-made and characterful blend of Islay malts.
Nearly all single malts are effectively blends of spirit from different years, finished in different casks, from different batches. The age on the bottle indicates the youngest whisky in this blend. Single cask whiskies are rare and expensive.
Quality and enjoyment do not necessarily increase with the spirit’s age. I prefer Bunnahabhain (pronounced Booner Harven) 18-year-old to its 25-year-old.
Scotch is not innately superior to say bourbon, or rye, or Japanese whisky.
Not all Scottish distilleries are in twee glens, and quality is not dependent on picturesque settings. To quote Iain Banks on Glen Lomond distillery: “It’s a factory on an industrial estate,” which doesn’t prevent him saying of one of its products: “I like it for its eccentricity.”
How to Taste?
The answer to that question is really however you damn well please. But if you invest in a good malt, respect it; no mixers except a dash of water, or maybe club soda before sundown. And it is worth having a set of nosing glasses: not one – drinking alone is sad; drinking in company is sociable and the insights of others are useful.
Speaking of which, when I began visiting distilleries, John MacLellan, then manager at Bunnahabhain, was kind enough not to laugh at my opinions, and stressed that everyone’s experiences of a dram differ. There is no right answer.
To back that up, take these two statements: “The nose is light and flowery, with wet meadow notes and cucumber” and “a powerful heather and honey nose with brown sugar.” Both of these views describe the same malt – a Glenkinchie 12-year-old in the 2010 Malt Whisky Yearbook.
The ideal way to taste a malt is probably with the people who make it. Not just because they know their own product, but because if you visit the distillery first it enhances the experience. You find yourself wondering about how the shape of stills, the warehouse site, and umpteen other factors have influenced the results. You can never really know, but it’s fun to muse.
If you ever get the chance, make for the Balvenie Distillery in Dufftown (be sure to book in advance for the though for the full tour). Balvenie has every process from grain preparation to blending on site and their “signature” is a very fine drop indeed.
Geography or Gastronomy?
The usual way to look at malts is geographically.
If this is how you would like to study them, I would direct you towards Jim Murray’s excellent Classic Whisky Guide, which breaks Scotland into eight regions.
Personally I focus on when; not where: do they go with food? Celebration or contemplation? Aperitif or digestif?
The late great Michael Jackson – the drinks writer, not the Grammy award winning singer – used to include such suggestions in his roundup of a distillery’s house style: we may disagree with his conclusions but not their aim. At this point we offer ideas matching malt to occasion: as with tastings, so with these – they’re not ‘right’, just personal views.
Newcomers to the subject could do a lot worse than start with Glenmorangie’s The Original – their 10-year-old. Not too heavy and regarding flavors it has a bit of everything: candy, flowers, hazelnut, citrus. Most important, it will not scare anyone off nor break the bank.
The French serve whisky as an aperitif, and they know a thing or two about appetite. A personal favourite is Springbank (my pocket says 12-year-old, my heart, 15), very light coloured, grassy, with quite a spicy finish that will pique the appetite.
My drink anytime malt is Tobermory 10-year-old. With a touch of sweetness, a hint of smoky peat, it is satisfying without being at all cloying. Someone I know dubbed it the ideal breakfast malt. They were probably joking.
It has to be Bunnahabhain 18-year-old: sweet with lots of sherry wood influence, along with raisin and candied peel flavors – liquid fruitcake.
The Balvenie Doublewood. Famously honeyed, a malt to sip slowly while chatting with friends after the meal. I’ve heard it called a conversation whisky, and understand the sentiment.
If I come in from the snow and need reviving I’ll reach for Laphroaig 10-year-old. Jackson called it medicinal and there can be no argument about that. It has a huge, muscular flavor, the phenolic essence of Islay whisky.
On no account give this to a novitiate; it is for those who have got a taste for the stuff, and not all of them either. If you like it, you’ll love it.
Celebrate the Deal
The Macallan 10-year-old, or older if you can find (and pay for) it. It is padded, smooth, restrained and refined. Sherried, with lots of fruit and no little spice, and a taste that lingers luxuriously. Cheers.
Finally, if you are an aficionado we’d love to hear your suggestions for ‘occasion’ malts. If you are new to the order then welcome, we’re just as interested in your discoveries and perceptions.
More single malt scotch whiskey to explore:
Martin Pilkington writes about drinks and more here at Selectism and beyond. If you have yet to read his gin primer, we highly recommend it.