By Viren Malhotra, a lover of the good things of life, single malts included.
There’s a common misconception that a whisky labeled “single malt,” must be a product of just a single batch or barrel of whisky. Most single malts however are a blend or a mixture of whiskies, distilled from fermented mash made exclusively with malted grain (usually barley).
The root of all confusion lies in the simple word single. A single-malt scotch whisky is just a product of a single distillery and not the product of a single batch or a single barrel. A single-malt Lagavulin may contain Malt whiskies from many barrels/batches produced at the Lagavulin distillery, but it will contain only whiskies produced at Lagavulin.
Then what are all these other blends we hear about? There are three blends that are generally encountered:
Key Geographical Regions of Single Malts
Scotland is the Holy Grail of Single Malts. There are essentially five regions in Scotland which produce single malts: Highland, Lowland, Speyside, Islay and Campbeltown. These regions are not prescriptive of flavour, but the Lowland has historically produced lighter whiskies; the Highland region is vast and varied; Speyside is the heart of the whisky world and presents plenty of choice. Islay produces heavily peated whisky. Campbeltown, once a thriving hub of whisky production, produces slightly salty, dry and smoky whiskies.
Scotland’s largest whisky region boasts an array of styles, from rich and textured to fragrantly floral, as befits an ever-changing landscape of coastline, moor and mountain. Even without the famed Speyside enclave, some of whisky’s most famous names are found here. Some of the more popular Highland Malts include: Cragganmore – A Highland malt and a great place to begin. Macallan – A Highland malt and the exemplar of the big sherried style. Expensive, especially the older bottlings, but worth it. Glenmorangie – Rhymes with “orangey.” A wonderful Highland malt that comes in a variety of excellent finishes – Portwood, Madeira, and sherry. Balvenie – A Highland malt often described as “the most honeyish of malts.”
This region now only has four currently producing distilleries: the most famous amongst these being Glenkinchie.
The two best-selling single malt whiskies in the world, The Glenlivet and Glenfiddich, come from Speyside. Speyside has the greatest number of distilleries of any of the whisky-producing areas of Scotland. Broadly speaking, Speyside whiskies can be classified as falling into one of two camps. At one end of the spectrum are the light, grassy, ‘lunchtime whiskies’ such as Glenlivet; at the other end lie the rich, sweet, sherried qualities of Glenrothes and Macallan (also often categorised as a Highland Malt due to its unique location).
Because of their typical peaty style, most Islay whiskies are immediately recognisable as such. However, the peaty, smoky character of Islay malts isn’t an actual ‘regional’ trait as such. The whiskies of the distilleries along the southeastern coast of the island, Laphroig, Lagavulin and Ardberg, have a smoky character derived from peat, considered a central characteristic of the Islay malts, and ascribed both to the water from which the whisky is made and to the peating levels of the barley. They also possess notes of Iodine, Seaweed and Salt. Caolila, on the northern side of the island also produces a strongly peated whisky.
The other distilleries on the island make whisky in a variety of styles. Bunnahabhain makes much lighter whiskies which are generally lightly peated. Bowmore produces a whisky which is well balanced, using a medium-strong peating level but also using Sherry-cask maturation.
The Campbeltown region is the smallest of the Scottish malt whisky regions. Once a major producer of whisky with as many as 28 distilleries, and claiming the title “whisky capital of the world”, its production has markedly declined. Most of the distilleries have gone out of business and now only three distilleries continue to produce whisky in Campbeltown, i.e., Springbank, Glengyle and GlenScotia.
For decades, serious whiskey drinkers drank scotch. Irish “blended” whiskey was for drowning sorrows–or coffee. However that seems to be changing now.
The line between Irish whiskey and Scotch whisky has become blurred, Irish whiskey companies like Bushmills and Jameson have expanded their range to include deluxe whiskies from aged blends to pure pot stills and their own brand of single malts. The top Irish whiskeys are now just as good as many single-malt scotches.
Suntory and Nikka are the two leading Japanese whisky companies. Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 from Suntory was given the World Whisky of the year title by the Whisky Bible 2015. 2015 year marks the first time in the book’s 12-year history that a Japanese whisky has landed the title. Needless to say, Yamazaki Malts are now disappearing off the shelves quicker than they can be replenished.
Ageless Whisky’s – A New Trend
A significant trend in the whisky world is the ‘No Age Statement’. Lately, brands have been replacing the familiar 10, 12 and 18 year range with ageless whiskies with no stated ages. Though aged—as all Scotch must be, for at least three years—these “ageless” whiskies are younger than the whiskies they’re replacing and can be released without hitting a specified maturity.
This move away from age statements allow a brand much greater flexibility and ability to increase supply without waiting years for stocks to age. Age statements also tie a Company’s hands behind their back in terms of innovation. And innovation has always been the lifeblood of the Scotch whisky category. Amongst the better ageless whiskies recently launched are Glenlivet Alpha and Talisker Storm.
Interested in getting first hand knowledge about single malts? Take the Whisky Trail in Scotland.