Scotch whiskies, specifically single malts, are the tipple of choice
“Scotch whisky,” sighs Charles MacLean. The words linger, warming the air inside the library of Drummuir Castle in Aberdeen where we have gathered for an evening class on whisky. In our hand is a crystal goblet of amber liquid. Holding it up against the light, we see swirling shades of gold and red and catch, in the still air, traces of berries and caramel.
MacLean is easily Scotland’s most respected whisky writer and author of the textbook on the subject, Scotch Whisky. It’s a rare opportunity to learn, listen and taste. As the evening and lessons progress, flavours unfold in our mouths with hints of oak and spice, vanilla and honey.
“Scotch personifies the Scots,” MacLean says as he inhales the bouquet in his glass. “When you buy a bottle of whisky, you’re buying a whole lot more than just whisky. You’re buying into all the baggage of Scotland’s history.”
Interesting, too, that this baggage has suddenly become so well travelled.
Just a dozen years or so ago, whisky was a drink almost exclusively reserved for special occasions such as a wedding or a mid-life crisis. And even then, the bottle of choice was usually a Johnny Walker Red Label. It was nigh impossible to find anyone who could tell the difference between a Glenglassaugh and a Laphroaig, much less pronounce the names.
How quickly things have changed. These days, it’s hard to throw a hand-cut ice-cube without hitting either a whisky buff or a bar. And it’s not just the expats and your elderly granduncles that are sipping the stuff. Quite without anyone noticing it, whisky—especially single malts—has become big business in Asia with a whole new generation of hipster fans.
But why the sudden spike in interest, or even in the number of younger drinkers? Part of it is exposure and critical mass. In Singapore, for instance, there are about 5,000 University of Strathclyde alumni. Add a phenomenal increase in affluence in the thirty-something market that loves to experiment and you have a product that is shifting away from the realm of a special occasion drink to an everyday event.
There are four kinds of Scotch—malt, grain, blended, and liqueur whisky—but these days, the drink of choice is a single malt, which is especially prized for its more intense and complicated flavours.
Indeed, though 95 per cent of malt and grain whisky produced in Scotland is drunk as blended whisky, single malts have shown the best growth over the past 15 years.
The process of producing a single malt is very distinct from any other alcohol distillation. Aged for a minimum of three years in a barrel, the silken brew develops its own characteristics depending on the location of the distillery and the aging method used. While blended whiskeys tend to use wheat or maize, which sometimes produces a harsher flavour, single malts use just malted barley grains to create a noticeably smoother finish on the palate.
Balblair’s single malts, for instance, are created without the addition of peat, its stills fed by soft water from the Struie Hills and the distillery framed by the Dornoch Firth on the sweep of Cambuscurrie Bay in the heart of the Scottish Highlands. MacLean’s notes for BlackBarrel, meanwhile, describe a whisky that’s matured in freshly charred casks that are used only once, which makes for a smooth and mellow finish.
Bowmore, Scotland’s second oldest distillery, recently released Gold Reef, which is matured in first fill ex-Bourbon casks to create a heady mix of vanilla, citrus and sea salt. The Bruichladdich Infinity, a gentle Islay single malt, charms with fruity-salty notes that are laced with smoky overtones, while The Invergordan features a light, cereal nose with fresh grass and vanilla notes.
If it’s not already clear, the choice of single malts, while minute compared to the overall Scotch whisky production, has quickly become a quiet signal of refinement amongst aficionados. The labour intensiveness of its production and singularity mean that any flaws in structure, colour and tone show up much more readily in a single malt than in a blend.
But when it’s done correctly, the result conjures up the smells of Scotland, its moorlands and its seas. Of course, this commitment to perfection and passion for single malts can, as Balblair’s distillery manager John MacDonald points out, “sometimes be misread as a barrier to Scotch for those new to the category. However, as the ageing process of single malts compared to other spirits is a lengthy one, it is natural that a certain amount of prestige and distinction is associated with it. Ultimately, it is all about enjoyment, individual tastes and trusting in your own judgment.”
And that, certainly, is something to drink to.
TWO TO GO
Miyagikyo 1987 – Honshu (Japan)
Drawn from a first filled sherry single cask, this cask strength (and limited edition) Japanese single malt exhibits fantastic complexity of flavours of black fruits, spices, precious wood notes and dark chocolate. An exquisite match for fine cigars.
Mortlach 1939, Gordon & MacPhail 50 Years Old — Speyside (Scotland)
Produced on the edge of the Second World War, this Mortlach is a true collector’s piece. Presented in a mouth-blown Cristal decanter, there are only a handful of bottles in the world.
- Like Champagne, only whisky distilled in Scotland is allowed to be called Scotch whisky. Everything else is whiskey, unless it’s from Japan, which is allowed to be called whisky because its pioneer producer Masataka Taketsuru apprenticed in Scotland.
- Whisky is a very democratic drink and can be mixed with anything, including Coca-Cola and soda. Green tea, very popular in Asia, is a great mix.
- Have a glass of water at hand when you drink. Add a little—perhaps a few centimetres—to the whisky. This takes the edge off the top notes, which can be quite strong, and opens up the flavours and taste of the drink.
- There is quite a market of counterfeit Scotch whisky, especially in Asia. To tell if you’ve been served the Real McCoy, dribble a little of the liquid onto your palm. Cup your palms together and inhale. The difference in aroma will be apparent; counterfeit Scotch lacks the intensity and full-bodied flavour of the real stuff.