AN ODE TO THE SINGLE MALT

 

“I drink only single malts!” Should we laud this pompous ass? Or look upon him with awe. Should we hang on to every word that drips from his lips? Or, oops, was that a drool?! Is bandying words with buddies of a single malt club over this one against the other the road to understanding the soul of the single malt? Am I being cynical? Is pretentious better? In our search for identity, we often lose sight of the real deal. Complexity of flavour. And the joys of discovery.

So why the fuss? When did the world suddenly wake up to this mystic creature. This wonder from the wild. The golden nectar. The mother lode!

Malt whisky has always existed. It was the first and only whisky to be distilled in Scotland (and Ireland too) for years on end. All over the Scottish countryside, especially where the land was fertile and the water in plenty, farming families had discovered the joys of distilling. Travelling monks has ensured that alongside preaching God’s word, the art of ‘uisge beatha’ (whishke baha) or ‘water of life’ was also well established. Barley was in plenty, and what was left over from food & fodder was malted & either, fermented (beer) and drunk or distilled (malt whisky) to keep.

The stills were all crafted from copper (steel was yet to be discovered), and the size and shape differed from distillery to distillery. What may have started as default by the fabricator became a keeper of the family tradition, dictating the character of the whisky to follow. The distiller, his still and his skill came to create liquid history, each with his own, unique identity. This golden potation often took the name of the given distillery, thus establishing forever its origin. Each of these individually named malt whiskies, from these family owned distilleries were soon called single malt whisky. Single – because each one came from its own single distillery. And this distillery made only that one malt whisky to which it gave its name. So Glenfiddich from Glenfiddich & Glenmorangie from Glenmorangie and so on…

 

 To think that in spite of these beauties being around, they were way ahead of their times just like some of us are (hehe). The larger part of the populace found these flavour filled malts too much to handle. In frustration, a few inspired traders played with the different flavours, toned them down with a neutral whisky and created blends. John Walker was one of the pioneers in the blending art. Customers loved them, and rendered the malts to the back seat. Even today, only about 10% of the single malt production is bottled in its name. Most goes into making of blends.

It was only in the late 1960s that Glenfiddich decided to bottle some its malt as a single and brave the market. As first mover, it still holds very high recall in most markets. Almost a decade later saw single malts from the now Diageo making an entry. Cragganmore, Oban, Cardhu, Glenkinchie, Talisker, Lagavulin… By the 1980s, the world had begun to wake up to the origin of the blends – the single malt. Soon after it turned viral. Barely forty years since the first rumble, people now, ask if blends will now become obsolete now that single malts have arrived! Really?!

So where does one begin? Which is the best? How does one know? Calm down. Breathe deep. Let’s now study some geography now that we’ve touched upon history. Scotland is divided into 5 (4, if I’m to be correct and not told off by those in the know) whisky producing regions, each giving you a hint of what they have to offer. The Highland malts are full flavoured, have great character, some hinting at sherried sweetness, some gently smoky. The sweet, mouth-watering Glenmorangie, silky Oban, buttery Clynelish the marmaladey Dalmore, the surprisingly soft Dalwhinnie and the bold Glen Ord. Speyside, though the heart of the Highlands, is often looked at on its own. With its fertile valleys and rivers, almost 60% of Scotland’s distilleries are located here. Big, warm, deep, fruity malts come from here. Glenfiddich, The Glenlivet, The Macallan, The Balvenie, Cardhu, Cragganmore, Glen Elgin, Glen Rothes… are just some of the big guns.

The Lowlands are the gentle souls. Soft, easy, calming. Glenkinchie & Auchentoshan are front runners. Campbeltown – well all I can say is “once upon a time it thrived, now it barely survives”. Then there are the islands. Orkney on the head of Scotland – freezing cold with Highland Park & Scapa being the saviours of its natives. My favourite Talisker – from the Isle of Skye. Sweet and luscious in the mouth with a huge big smoky push at the end. Just sensational. Tobermory from Mull & Isle of Jura from Jura. But the smoky, peaty, phenolic monsters from Islay (eye-lah) are the ones to reckon with. You either love ‘em or hate ‘em. Ardbeg, Lagavulin, Laphroaig, Caol Ila. Smoked Goa sausages and spicy smoked pepperoni. Seriously. Bunnahabhain being the exception. Its easy palate almost makes you wonder! Islay? Really?

Now you’re thinking – honestly Ms Basu, you sure you’ve got through to us? Ok. I understand. Here’s my most basic cheat sheet. It’s designed simply to put it all in perspective.

Level 1: This is the beginning

Glenmorangie 10, Glenfiddich 12, Glenkinchie 12, Dalwhinnie 12, BenRiach Heart of Speyside, Glen Elgin 12, Clynelish 14

Level 2: Step Up

Glenfiddich Solera Reserve 15, Glenmorangie Lasanta (sherry finish), Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban (port finish), The Balvenie Double Wood, The Macallan Elegancia, The Glenrothes, Cragganmore 12

Level 3: Getting There

The Macallan 18, Glenfiddich 18, Talisker 10, The Macallan Select Oak, Highland Park 18, Caol Ila 12, Ardbeg (any, one step at a time) Laphroaig 10, Lagavulin 16

Level 4: Anything above 18 as now your palate is well seasoned!

 

Also remember, the key to opening up your palate is, taste everything that comes your way. I’ve just started you off. Stay with you what you like till you find something you like better. The best is yet to come!

And finally, sure we tend to think scotch when we talk single malt. But there is life beyond Scotland. Try the Irish – the bold & chewy Bushmills from Irish distillers or the fiery, peated Connemara, the elegant Locke’s and the mellow Tyrconnel from the house of Cooley. The defiant Japanese single malts Yoichi, Yamazaki & Nikka. And just when you think that you’re all done, like a jack-in-the-box, out pops not just one but a range of single malts from a distillery in Bangalore, India. Amrut Distillers. There’s the sweet, biscuity, Amrut Single Malt with a distinctly bourbon nose and the warmly peaty Amrut Fusion Single Malt (a blend of Indian barley and peated Scottish barley), with a sweet toffee nose, hint of spice on the middle enveloped by a honeyed finish.  Close your eyes and sip. Taste history.

 

Shatbhi Basu

 

Useful Info (Box 1 – optional))

Glass: If you are tasting, as opposed to just drinking, use the simple all purpose wine glass. A sherry copita might be better, but where the hell does one find it?

Colour: Colour is not an indicator of quality or age and darker is not always better or older. From pale golds to rich amber and dark red-amber – each gives you a hint of inherent characteristics. Light malts are often aged in once used bourbon casks and will hint of vanilla & soft toffee. Deep amber is usually sherry casks with sweet dried fruit & spice notes.

Aroma: Each of us will find nuances and aromas familiar to our nose. Often I have desperately hoped and looked for the buttery, nutty, cinnamon overtones. Instead, I found smoky, vanilla, clove and honey hints filtering through. The point being – does it taste good to you? Cool.

Palate: Does your tongue confirm what your nose indicated? A first taste of sweetness followed by sharp pungent feel with warm honeyed, spicy notes. Briny, the sea, oily, iodine, fruity, honeyed, nutty, buttery, spicy, heathery, woody, toffee, chocolate, earthy, sherry notes are some common descriptive terms.

Body: Refers to feel in mouth. Full, medium, light, mellow, smooth, silky, firm, robust, chewy, syrupy, oily, round, soft.

Finish:

  1. What stayed in the mouth after you drank it? And for how long? Was the aftertaste sweet, hinted of oranges, toffee or did the tongue taste clean with mellow hints of malt? Did the flavours burst and then fade away just as fast or did that scrumptious flavour linger on for a while?
  2. The last special cask used to infuse its flavour and deep colour as a finishing touch to an already aged single malt. Like in the Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban (port finished)

Age: Older is not always better. Sure, whisky mellows, develops complex layers and nuances as it does a slow trot with the wood. But some will give off their best when younger. Zesty, fragrant, juicy, vivacious.