No Whisky, No Water
“Uisgebeatha Gu Brath” — Water of Life Forever!
(The motto of the Keepers of the Quaich, a society for the preservation and promotion of Scotch whisky)
Today, good malts have become widely available throughout the world. Until recent years, even in Scotland, the secret of just how good it could be was known only to a small number of aficionados. It was only when the price of Cognac went through the roof that people sought out other alternatives. Many turned to malt whisky and few have been disappointed. Cognac and other fine brandies are primarily after-dinner drinks. Malts, on the other hand, come in a range of styles suitable to many different occasions.
The name “whisky” comes from the Gaelic uisge beatha, meaning “water of life.” This was shortened to uisge, which, in turn, evolved into “whisky.” Distillation is a very ancient art and no one is really sure about its origins. Scots rightly prize their great gift; however, it is most likely that whisky distilling began even earlier in Ireland, rather than in Scotland, at least as far back as 1400AD. The oldest surviving whiskey distillery in the world (the Irish spell “whisky” with an e) is Northern Ireland’s Bushmills, established in 1608. This pre-dates any Scottish distillery by about 175 years. Moreover, Scotland’s oldest distilleries are typically found in its Western Isles, suggesting that the distilling skill was transmitted via the short passage across the Irish Sea. Whatever the truth of it, there is no doubt that Scotch whisky now reigns supreme.
Whisky is made by the distillation of fermented grains. Two processes can be used. A lighter, less characterful whisky can be made using a variety of grains in a Coffey still or continuous column still. With the exception of Invergordon, all grain distilleries are located in Scotland’s Lowlands. These whiskies are matured for three years, whereupon they will be used almost entirely for blending.
Malt whisky, made exclusively from barley, undergoes a malting process before distillation. The barley is soaked in tanks of water for two to four days. It is then spread out flat and allowed to start sprouting. As the seeds germinate, some of the grain’s sugars are released. Subsequently, the grain is dried in a malt kiln over a peat fire, thereby halting the germination. Malt kilns had traditional pagoda-like roofs that you can still see in some of the older malt distilleries. Peat-fired drying results in the typical peaty aromas and flavours much prized by connoisseurs. Malt whisky is also distilled twice in distinctively shaped pot stills. Variances in the shape of the still will greatly affect the resulting whisky. A short-necked still produces a heavier, oilier character, whereas a highnecked still will make a lighter, more delicate spirit. Although each distiller starts off with the same fairly basic ingredients, they are able to produce astoundingly different whiskies.
Scotch whisky owed its original popularity to its blends —the stronger flavoured, more characterful malts were blended with lighter, blander grain whiskies, resulting in a drink acceptable to most palates. In earlier days, Highland malts were often made in small illicit stills and hidden from the English excise collectors. As might be expected, although robustly flavoured, it could be rough old stuff. Eventually, the Highland distillers were persuaded to go legal and, from about the middle of the nineteenth century, Scotch as we know it developed rapidly.
Blending requires great skill. A good blend can combine from twenty to fifty different whiskies (malt and grain) of different ages and regional characteristics. As a general rule of thumb, the better the blend, the greater the proportion of malts. A good blend will show subtle overtones of the fine malt on which it’s based, even though it may contain a relatively high proportion of the more neutral grain whiskies. Blends, especially premium blends such as Johnnie Walker Black Label or Chivas Regal, are smooth and characterful drinks — a tribute to the blender’s art.
In the past, most malts, like grain whiskies, ended up in blends. During the Second World War, the cereals used for making whisky had to be diverted to feed the population. Some distilleries were mothballed; others closed completely. In the post-war years, with growing affluence, and as palates became more adventurous, the whisky industry responded. Old distilleries were reopened and new ones have come on stream. With all this, the single-malts trend has grown. It is with these straight or unblended malts from single distilleries with distinctive regional personalities that Scotch whisky is at its finest.
It’s From Where?
Scotland has six regions that produce malt whiskies. (In addition, there is the original Bushmill’s distillery in Northern Ireland, which has put out a straight malt for a number of years. Other Irish distilleries have also started to make malt whiskey and a number of these are now finding their way onto Canadian shelves.) The Scottish regions are: Lowlands, Highlands, Islay, the Islands, Campbeltown and Speyside.
The Lowlands are relatively easy to categorize. Lowland whiskies are typically lighter and more delicate in style. Fragrant and easily approachable, they are a good introduction to malt whisky. A classic example is Glenkinchie, a ten-year-old malt, lightly sweet on the nose and smooth with a touch of dryness on the finish.
The Highlands region includes the northern distilleries around Inverness and close to Moray Firth; the ones to the east, near Aberdeen; in the south, several distilleries are located around Perthshire toward the Highland Line; and in the Western Highlands, there are three in Fort William and Oban. These malts exhibit a range of styles. Glenmorangie, from the Northern Highlands, is a beautifully balanced medium-bodied whisky, fruity on the nose, with just a touch of peat. The fourteen-year-old Oban, from the Western Highlands, betrays its coastal origins with a smoky, peaty bouquet and a firm, slightly austere finish.
The most important region in Scotland, however, is Speyside. Though located in the Highlands, it is treated as a separate region. Here you’ll find over fifty distilleries — the largest concentration of distilling in the world. Speyside malts run the gamut from rather light and delicate apéritif whiskies to powerful, concentrated after-dinner drams. A personal favourite is Aberlour. The ten-year-old has a delightful, richly sweet character derived from aging in sherry casks, with a lingering, complex finish. The more expensive twelve-year-old Macallan exemplifies the sherry-cask style. Rich, sherried aromas, with a touch of fruit are complemented by elegant flavours and a mellow, sweet finish. Others worthy of note are the Balvenie, a robust and balanced after-dinner malt and the twelve-year-old Cardhu, a smooth, aromatic, slightly nutty drop. Another good twelve-year-old is the lightly aromatic but smoky Cragganmore. Glenfarclas, bottled at various ages, is one of the great-all-around malts. The twelve-year-old Glenlivet is a subtle yet substantial drink that can remind you of dry brandy. Best known is the Glenfiddich, light and delicate on the nose, appealing on the palate, with a lightly sweet finish. This one is an excellent introductory malt.
Campbeltown, located on the Mull of Kintyre stretching out toward the Western Isles, produces whiskies resembling those of nearby Islay. This once-important region now has only two or three malts; but if you can get your hands on them, they are splendid. Longrow and Springbank have power and finesse, but both are rare.
The island of Islay (pronounced eye-lah) produces the most powerful and emphatic of all malts. Most are decidedly not for the beginner, although distilleries such as Bruichladdich are moving toward more approachable styles. The ten-year-old Laphroaig has an intense bouquet of peat smoke, iodine and seaweed. On the palate, it is oily, full-bodied with heavy, pungent peatiness and a slightly sweet finish. The other blockbuster is Lagavulin. The sixteen-year-old is powerful, with a full, smoky, peaty nose and heavy, rich flavours. Less astringent than Laphroaig, it is nonetheless equally demanding. The medium-full Bowmore and the lighter Bruichladdich still have the pronounced Islay character, but are a little more approachable. A good range of Islays are widely available in Canada.
The islands of Jura, Mull, Skye and Orkney all boast whisky distilleries. The most noteworthy are Talisker on Skye and Highland Park on remote Orkney. Talisker was the favourite of Robert Louis Stevenson, who praised it in his poem “The Scotsman’s Return From Abroad.” It has been described as partway between the Islay and Highland styles. A big, full-bodied, peaty whisky, it also has rounded, malty flavours with a bit of fruity sweetness. Highland Park is elegantly balanced with heathery, smoky overtones and a light touch of peat on the rounded, malty palate. The venerable Irish offering, Bushmills ten-year-old malt, is lightly smoky on the nose, medium-bodied with a peaty but balanced flavour and a distinctive finish.
It’s How Old?
Finally a word about age. Single malts are released at different ages. Most good ones are either ten or twelve years old. Usually, this is the age at which the particular whisky has achieved optimum maturity. The older is not automatically superior. Some malts are released at different ages — the older, the more expensive, however. These can be very fine, but beyond a certain age it is doubtful if the premium is really worth the fabulous sum it will cost you.
Tasting Straight Malts
Malt whisky offers an incredible range of sensations both on the nose and on the palate. Aromas can include fruit, flowers, heather, spice, nuttiness and, of course, the smoky aroma of peat. Similarly complex flavours delight the palate. As with wine, wood aging mellows and adds colour and flavour. Finish, or aftertaste, can be short or lingering and ethereal.
To fully appreciate the whisky, use a glass with a stem and a rounded bowl to permit you to swirl the contents. The glass should also be narrower toward the top to concentrate the aromas. A brandy glass is ideal, but an all-purpose wine glass will also do. Never use ice — it effectively deadens both aroma and flavour. Also, most experts agree that, unlike fine brandy, malts are best appreciated with the addition of a little water. This seems to bring out both aroma and flavour. Spring water is best. Experiment with amounts and your preferences. Remember, cask-strength whiskies are about 60 per cent alcohol and require a higher proportion of water.
90 Glen Breton Ice 10-Year-Old Single-Cask Malt Whisky Aged in Icewine Barrels (Cask Strength) ($49.95/250 ml)
The world’s first single-malt whisky aged in Icewine barrels — a Nova Scotia original! The elegant bouquet offers a range of subtle spices, orangey citrus fruits and hints of ripe banana. Remarkably complex flavours of citrus, dried fruits and spice play on the palate. All are wrapped in a smoothly textured package, finishing with lightly-peaty-tasting dry oak and lingering cedary perfume. (NB: when tasting cask-strength whisky, always cut it with spring water, otherwise your palate, not to mention your wits, will be fried after a few sips.)
89 Connemara Pure-Pot-Still Peated Single Malt Irish Whiskey ($40.44)
Intriguingly complex on the nose, with tarry, peaty and lightly herbal overtones. It is also smokey, pungent and peaty in the mouth. The herbal character is more forceful on the palate, with some thickness of texture and a very dry, heavily smoky finish.
88 The Tyrconnell 5 Star Pure-Pot-Still Single Malt Irish Whiskey ($36.76)
Softly peaty on the nose, with lightly fruity, floral and heathery notes, this smoothly rounded whiskey has a sweet malt character nicely balanced with gentle peaty, smoky notes on the finish.
93 Bunnahabhain 18-Year-Old Islay Single Malt Whisky ($128.51)
By Islay standards Bunnahabhain is rather gentle, leaning more toward subtlety than untamed power. Bouquet is richly sherried with elegant fruitiness, floral and honeyed notes, lightly salty character and a dash of spice. Richly rounded and smoothly textured, with lovely dried fruit and sweet spice on the mid-palate, it finishes with reasserted Islay smokey dried peat and firm oak. A whisky with plenty to contemplate all the way through.
93 Caol Ila 25-Year-Old Islay Malt Whisky (Cask Strength) ($188)
This extraordinarily complex malt is aged in an uncommon pairing of American and European oak barrels. Bouquet is stunning, with orange fruit, floral and subtle iodine notes and a delicate suggestion of seaweed. Equally impressive in the mouth, it delivers richly sherried sweetness counterpoised with smoky dry peat, citrus and other dried fruits and a very long oaky dry finish.
92 Auld Reekie 12-Year-Old Islay Malt Whisky ($74.12)
Despite the name, the bouquet is surprisingly subtle, with seaweed, light iodine and underlying ashy peat smoke. On the palate, it really lives up to its handle, with huge smoky, salty seaweed, enormously powerful peatiness and light fruity sweetness. The smoky pungency of peat and the sea follow through on the finish, with dry oakiness and a lingering trace of sweetness.
92 The MacAllan 21-Year-Old Fine-Oak Single Malt Whisky ($261.84)
Displays floral and fruity notes, together with pencil-box cedary oak and sherried richness on the nose. Rich, sweet and rounded on the palate with the classic MacAllan sherried profile combined here with considerable power. Finish is very long, with cinnamon and nutmeg, satisfying sherried sweetness and a final note of dry oak.
91 Auchentoshan Triple-Distilled Three-Wood, Sherry-Finished Lowland Malt Whisky ($71.50)
Bouquet gives a subtle and complex array of orange peel, pencil-box cedar, light cinnamon spice and an intriguing hint of sourness. A big mouthful on the palate, by no means typical of Lowland delicacy but showing rich sweet-dried-fruit intensity intricately overlaid with the three wood-cask flavours. The interplay of fruitiness and complex wood influence continues through the very long finish — a connoisseur’s whisky and a great Lowland malt.
90 Bruichladdich 14-Year-Old Islay Single Malt Whisky ($77.49)
Highly aromatic with a lovely smokey peaty nose, astringently dry yet refined, with a hint of sherried sweetness. Powerful and complex on the palate, it has rounded fruity sweetness with smokey and peaty overtones and both rich sherried sweetness and lots of dry oak on the finish. A superb but demanding whisky.
90 Bowmore 17-Year-Old Islay Single Malt Whisky ($77.50)
Initially, the nose shows orange, light peat smoke and a trace of oak. A dash of water amplifies the bouquet and brings out more robust peaty character. Smoothly textured yet powerful in the mouth, displaying fruity sweetness together with forceful peaty grip. Finish reveals remarkably complex intertwined rich fruitiness, peat smoke, iodine and cigar-box oakiness.
90 Benriach 16-Year-Old Speyside Single Malt Whisky ($79.99)
Subtle and restrained bouquet with discernable oakiness. Peaty, smoky notes are elegant rather than overpowering and are complemented by perfumed fruity and nutty overtones. Texture is rich and smooth with smoky dried peat, orange fruit and attractive spice on the long dry finish. Beautifully balanced.
89 Bruichladdich 10-Year-Old Islay Single Malt Whisky ($59.79)
The Bruichladdich style is more approachable than many Islay malts, with fairly mellow dried fruit, light peatiness and sweet sherried overtones on the nose. Flavours are rounded, showing sweet malt character, some orange fruit and light smoke and sherried, dry oakiness on the finish.
89 Clynelish 14-Year-Old Coastal Highlands Single Malt Whisky ($70.62)
An uncommon dram from the East Highlands, this deeply burnished amber malt is rather restrained on the nose but shows dry salty sea notes with smoky, peaty character that follows through on the palate. It has an attractive pungency and finishes very dry. The style is austere and will appeal particularly to connoisseurs.
88 Auchentoshan 10-Year-Old Triple-Distilled Lowland Malt Whisky ($46.50)
Triple distillation creates silky smoothness on the palate with more delicate body and subtlety. Bouquet reveals delicate spicy-orange-tangerine and vanillin character. Similar fruity and spicy impressions come through on the palate together with some subtle grassy herbal notes and a sweet citrusy finish. A fine, elegant Lowland malt.
86 Glen Parker Speyside Malt Whisky ($34.29)
For those unfamiliar with malt whisky, this is a good place to start: quite aromatic, with hints of orange, tangerine and a light malty overtone; agreeably smooth on the palate, with sweet malty flavours and a dry, nutty overtone on the finish — you get true but not overpowering malt character
(all whisky notes: Sean Wood)