If you were to stand on the edge of a high cliff and looked out at the far horizon, this is what you would see…brilliant blue sky sweeping down to kiss the silver, shimmering surface of a vast body of water; the sparkling pebbles on the beach surrounding it like a jewelled necklace; golden gorse, standing waist high, undulating in a gentle breeze; craggy rocks sweeping upwards with rough hewn stone cottages peeping out from the heather and, occasionally, the glimpse of a handsome head crowned with swept-back antlers moving through and over dark, gleaming, storm tossed boulders.
In the dim distance, one is wont to see a fort or castle standing out (some in ruins, some not) against a rapidly gathering storm that could turn the skies into a dramatic and angry purple-blue melange. A landscape that is at once mysterious and yet open, strong and unforgiving while being strangely beautiful. A harsh, unafraid and proud land peopled with men and women whose characters reflect their birthplace and whose favourite tipple boasts the same invigorating personality and strength, in every sip. This is Scotland, the land that gave its national drink the name of its birthplace; the land that has become famous for that singularly remarkable drink – the single malt whisky.
Scotch whisky. It moves mountains…
Well, maybe not quite! But, those who have a fondness for it, often feel that they can. Move mountains, fly through the heavens, do deeds of derring-do…and whatever else, whenever and wherever the spirit takes them! Scotch…it does that to people. So, what is it about scotch whisky – a gleaming, warmly golden liquid that flows down the throat like smooth and molten honey – that makes it the largest selling spirit worldwide? Why is it that there are those who would imitate the qualities of this magic brew in places as far flung as Japan, India, the Czech Republic, France (the land of wines and champagne, no less!), New Zealand, Sweden, Taiwan, yes Taiwan, Tasmania apart from Ireland, USA and Canada. But, while all these countries do produce excellent whisky, they are not allowed to call it ‘scotch’. Whisky yes, scotch, no. Rather like champagne, the real thing, which has to be grown, harvested and bottled only in that specific region in France called Champagne and nowhere else.
So, what is it about Scotland that makes it particularly suited to the production of whisky? Is it the clear, pure, flavourful water found in its free flowing streams and deep underground pools? Is there something different about the barley grown in the high hillsides and deeply fertile valleys? Is it the sherry casks this ‘spiritual solace’ is aged in, sometimes for over two decades? Or, is it the hundreds of years of experience distilled into this magic brew by the master brewers of Scotland? Nobody has been able to give a definitive answer to this conundrum that is Scotch whisky. Generally Scotch (the prince amongst princes) is the result of blending various types of whisky. But, the king who stands out from this aristocratic crowd is unabashedly the single malt. The king amongst the princes.
Single malt whisky: the uncrowned King of Scotland
What is blended scotch whisky and what is single malt exactly, you ask. Well, to clarify things a little, let us consider the explanation given by Vinepair,“a blended whisky is actually a combination of a barrel-aged malt whisky (as in all barley) and some quantity of grain whisky (a whisky made with barley as well as other grains). The person who does the combining has a super important job—making sure a branded blended Scotch whisky tastes consistent from year to year—which is probably why he or she is called the Master Blender.”
Then, to further decode the mysteries of Scotch, Vinepair goes on to say that, “single malt whisky is simply the product of one distillery… Single malt Scotch whisky is simply a “malt whisky” (again, as in “all barley”) that’s the product of a single distillery.”
So, is there a difference in taste? Yes, there is and that depends on a number of variables.
- Where the Scotch was made: different scotch-producing regions tend to produce different flavour profiles
- How it was aged, and for how long: many Scotches are aged in used Bourbon barrels, occasionally finished, or briefly aged, in a special wine or spirit cask
- How the brand is “supposed” to taste historically: the Master Blender will blend barrels to make sure a single malt or blended whisky tastes true to its lineage and reputation
Single malt whisky: the king of kings
Which brings us to that all important question: Which single malt belongs amongst the best and the brightest? While scotch drinkers are steadfast in their brand loyalties and will argue for their favourites till the dawn breaks over the very last round in their neighbourhood pub, it is generally acknowledged there are certain malts that are arguably the ‘greatest’.
According to The Independent, the five best single malt Scotch whiskies are:
- Lagavulin 16 year old. It’s a deep amber whisky, the nose begins with a rush of smoke and bacon, followed by the suggestion of sea air.
- Bruichladdich Black Art 5.1 1992, 24 year old whisky. The nose is sweet – a complex blend of citrus, vanilla and a sweet earthiness. The palate is deep and complex, exotic fruits mingle with a light smokiness, ending in a long, creamy finish.
- Glenmorangie Signet. The nose delivers a punch of deep cocoa and burnt citrus peels. Cinnamon and cocoa take the lead, ahead of hints orange and more exotic fruits – ending in a dry, fruity finish.
- Glen Garioch 12 Year Old whisky. The nose offers tones of dark chocolate and honey coming to the forefront. The honey follows…adding hints of pepper and oak.
- The Ardmore Legacy. The nose is all about frostbitten meadows with touches of peat… The palate brings these peaty tones forward… as smokiness meets up with vanilla notes and suggestions of spice. The finish is dry and citrusy.