All whiskies are made from just three ingredients: water, barley and yeast. Malt whiskies are based on malted barley, that is, barley that has been steeped, germinated and finally, kilned. A single malt whisky is the product of a single distillery. Blended whiskies, like J & B, Johnnie Walker, Chivas Regal and the like, can be based on a variety of malt and grain whiskies from different distilleries, blended together. Johnnie Walker Black Label, a 12-year-old deluxe blend, for instance, is composed of more than 40 malt and grain whiskies, a high proportion of which, by the way, are Islay malts. Blended whisky styles may be smooth, fruity, oaky, full-bodied, malty or smoky, depending on the profile of the predominant whisky.
Just as within the world of wine, the single malt whiskies of Scotland are grouped by region, the difference being that these regions offer a guideline to the styles, rather than a strict rule. As one familiarizes oneself with the different whisky regions, the distinctive characteristics of each are learned.
The regions of Scotland are the Highlands, the Lowlands, Campbeltown, Speyside, Islands and Islay single malts. (To give the uninitiated some idea of the differences, Highlanders like to say that they use Lowland whiskies to brush their teeth!) Speyside malts are generally sweet, fruity and flowery and are thought to be quite complex and elegant. Malts from the Islands can be quite peaty, but not to the extent of Islay malts, which are renowned for that feature. Generally speaking, Islay single malts are not for the faint of heart; they are famous for a complex, refined smokiness and the strong influence of peat in two forms, first in the island’s soft, peaty water and secondly when used in the kilning of the malt.
Tasting – or nosing as it is called – single malt whiskies is not unlike tasting fine wine. Here are the six essential tasting tips:
The Prep Choose a glass that is narrower at the top than the bottom. Hold it by the stem so that your hand doesn’t warm the whisky pour a small measure (a dram) into the glass. Don’t add water – yet – and certainly no ice. Adding ice to good whisky is like adding it to hot soup.
Colour Hold the glass to the light to determine how the spirit was matured. A golden hue means a sherry oak cask was used, while a paler whisky suggests a bourbon cask. (All whiskies take their colour from the cask in which they were aged.)
Body Hold the glass at an angle and swirl it quickly once so that the inside walls of the glass are coated. Now, hold it upright and watch as the whisky flows down the inside of the glass. “Long legs” means it slowly slides down the glass, indicating a richer, full-bodied spirit, higher in alcohol.
Nosing Your first impression is your best. (Unlike wine, single malt vapors may anaesthetize your nose if you inhale them repeatedly.) Take note of the characteristics which can run the gamut from sweet and floral to mineral (slate) to smoky and peaty. If the characteristics aren’t readily apparent, add a very small amount of still spring water. This helps the whisky to relax and open up and, as the Scottish say, “release the serpents from within.”
Taste Take a good mouthful and swallow. Note whether it’s creamy, smooth, warm, astringent or soft. Take another sip. This time swirl it around in your mouth, so that it covers your entire tongue. Sweetness will be noted on the tip of your tongue, saltiness on the sides, bitterness at the back.
Conclusion Recall your first impressions. Overall, is it a balanced whisky? Did your mouth confirm what your eyes saw and your nose smelled? For example, if it looked full-bodied in colour and had long legs, but was thin and disappointing in the mouth, it’s not balanced. Finally, does the aftertaste linger in your mouth after swallowing? Is it pleasant and does it have medium or longer length or is it short and crisp? Repeat the experience (often) and enjoy!
This refers to the southernmost area of Scotland, a relatively flat, mountain-less region. Whisky from this area are generally considered as the most light-bodied and soft of the single malts without the peat of the Islay malts or the brininess of the Island whiskies. The Lowlands is defined by a line following old county boundaries and running from the Clyde estuary to the River Tay. The line swings north of Glasgow and Dumbarton and runs to Dundee and Perth.
Beautiful Speyside is universally acknowledged as the heartland of malt distillation. This area, between the cities of Inverness and Aberdeen, sweeps from the Granite Mountains down to fertile countryside, where barley is among the crops. It is the watershed of a system of rivers, the principal among which is the Spey. Although it is not precisely defined, Speyside is commonly agreed to extend from the River Findhorn in the west to the Deveron in the east. Within this region are several other rivers, notably the Livet. The Speyside single malts are noted in general for their elegance and complexity and often a refined, subdued smokiness. Beyond that, they have two extremes: the big, sherryish type, as typified by The Macallan, Glenfarclas and Aberlour, and the lighter, more subtle characteristics of The Glenlivet 12 Year Old.
Within Speyside, the River Livet is so famous that its name is borrowed by some whiskies far beyond its glen. But only one may call itself The Glenlivet. (Braeval (aka Braes of Glenlivet) and Tamnavulin are produced in the valley and only Tomintoul in the parish.) These are all delicate malts and it could be tentatively argued that other valleys have malts that share certain characteristics. The Highland region includes a good few coastal and island malts, but one peninsula and just one island have been of such historical importance in the industry that they are each regarded as being regions in their own right.
Island single malts is a general term for single malt whiskies produced on the islands around the perimeter of the Scottish mainland. The islands (excluding Islay) are not recognized as a distinct whisky producing region, but are considered to be part of the Highland region. Islay is itself recognized as a distinct whisky producing region.
The whiskies produced on the Islands are extremely varied and have few similarities, though can often be distinguished from other whisky regions by generally having a smokier flavour with peaty undertones.
Put simply, bourbon is a type of American whiskey made primarily with corn. However there are five things that make bourbon what it is: all bourbon must be made with at least 50% corn; the rest can be wheat, rye or barley. It must be aged for no less than two years and aged in a brand new oak cask. It has to be distilled at no less than 80 proof and it must be manufactured in the U.S. Bourbon whiskey gets its name from its historical association with the area called Old Bourbon in Bourbon County, Kentucky. It has been reported that more than 97% of bourbon whisky is made in or near the “Bourbon Capital of the World”, Bardstown, Kentucky. Today’s bourbons are thought to be an improvement over the whiskeys of the past because the aging, bottling, yeast, water source, and grain composition have evolved over the decades to produce a superior whiskey in taste, colour, and smoothness. Generally, American whiskey is made up of a mixture of corn, rye, wheat, and barley (collectively referred to as the mash) and is aged in charred-oak barrels, but each variety has its own characteristics.
By far the largest region, the Highlands embraces wide variations in style. The West Highlands have only a few scattered distilleries making it difficult to generalize about their character. If they have anything in common, it is a rounded, firm, dry character with some peatiness. The far north of the Highlands has several whiskies with a notably heathery, spicy character probably deriving both from the local soil and the coastal location of the distilleries. The more sheltered East Highlands and the Midlands of Scotland (sometimes described as the South Highlands) have a number of notably fruity whiskies.
There are more than one hundred distilleries in operation in Scotland today. Little Islay – pronounced EYE-luh – about one-tenth the size of Prince Edward Island, with a population less than 4,000, is home to a magnificent seven. Collectively they produce about 20 million litres of single malt whisky a year. They are Ardbeg, Bowmore, Bunnahabhain, Bruichladdich, Caol Ila, Lagavulin and Laphroaig. An eighth, Port Ellen, at the western end of the island, is closed as a distillery, however the handsome buildings remain and it still supplies all-important malt to a number of operating distilleries. The combination of the sea, the peat, the barley malt and the briny Atlantic air produces a family of singularly distinctive smoky, peaty single malt whiskies, unlike any made anywhere else. A dash of Islay malt gives the unmistakable tang of Scotland to many blended whiskies.
Located on the peninsula called the Mull of Kintyre, on the west coast of Scotland, Campbeltown once had almost 30 distilleries. By 2010, only three distilleries continued to produce whisky — Springbank, Glengyle and Glen Scotia. The Campbeltown single malts are very distinctive, with a briny character. Although there are only three producers, they are still considered by serious malt lovers to represent a region in their own right. One of these, Springbank, produces three very different single malts. This is achieved by the use of a lightly peated malt in Springbank, and a smokier kilning of the malt in Longrow. Hazelburn is triple distilled resulting in a light, fruity, subtle malt.
Single malts are the product of a single distillery, with malted barley as the only grain ingredient, whereas a blended scotch whisky is a result of different single malt and grain whiskies blended together to create an exceptionally well-rounded and, most importantly, consistent flavour. The glass of Johnnie Walker Red or Chivas Regal you enjoy this evening will taste exactly the same in any bottle you experience next month or next year. The blending process is carried out using hand-selected oak casks, which is an important part of developing the spirit’s depth of character.
While single malt whisky is the product of a single distillery blends, however, use up to forty different whiskies with single malt as the base of their liquid.
Simply put vatted malts are also blended whiskies utilizing a variety of single malts in an attempt to get a totally new flavour but without the grain whisky component.
Canada has a glorious 200-year-old history of whisky production, filled with dedication, innovation, hard work, adventure, smuggling and intrigue. Today the words ‘Canadian whisky’ continue to be synonymous with fine quality spirits the world over as the collection of brands has steadily grown far beyond the ubiquitous and perennially good, Canadian Club and Crown Royal. Rye, the grain whose name acts as a nickname for Canadian whisky, plays a small but vital role in its production. It is rye that bestows most of its distinctive yet subtle spiciness and the aging in charred oak barrels that provides the sweet vanillins. But Canadian whisky is not derived from rye alone. Corn, rye, wheat and barley malt are used, generally with corn as the base and the other grains providing the flavour notes. Because the grains in Canadian whiskies have been specially developed to stand up to the Canadian climate, they lend a unique character to the final product.