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Tasting Single Malt Scotch

For March/April 2021 issue, explore the world of Scotch whisky, and it’s impossible to talk about the joys of scotch without talking about the sublimity of single malts. In legal terms, single malt Scotch whisky must be made solely from malted barley, yeast, and water, distilled on pot stills at a single distillery in Scotland, and matured in an oak vessel in Scotland for a minimum of three years. But within this narrow definition, there’s plenty of room for creative diversity: the manner in which the barley was malted, dried, and prepared; the size and shape of the still; the length of time the whisky was matured and the type of barrel (or barrels) that were used—these, and other variables, all shape the whisky that goes into the bottle.

The galaxy of single malt Scotch whiskies is vast, and expanding. Here are a few stars to help you start navigating your own whisky explorations.

Ancnoc

Translated from Gaelic as “the hill,” anCnoc is made at the Knockdhu distillery in the Scottish Highlands. The 12 Year Old is light yet complex, with a fragrance of summer berries and orchard fruit, and hazelnuts and honey in the glass. The 24 Year Old dips into deeper territory, touched with licorice, toffee, and crème caramel, while Rascan is a delicately peated expression balancing honey and smoke.

Ardbeg

This Islay distillery is reputed for making some of the most intensely peated whiskies in Scotland, weaving the powerful smokiness in elaborate tapestries of flavor. Ardbeg’s 10 Year Old matches citrus zest and tropical fruit against deeper layers of coffee, licorice, and tar, while Uigeadail—named for the loch from which Ardbeg gets its water—is redolent of cedar, walnuts, and beach bonfires, while its flavor is rich with baking spice, honey, and bacon. An Oa is formed by marrying whiskies aged in an array of barrel styles (Pedro Ximenez, virgin charred oak, ex-bourbon cask, and more), yielding a shimmer of aromatics, with aniseed cookies meeting dark chocolate and spice, and flavors of orange peel, tea leaves, and nutmeg. Corryvreckan comes in at more than 114 proof with a powerful aroma of brown sugar, chocolate, seaweed, and creosote, and its flavor is similarly robust, dense with black pepper, anise, and coffee. And while whisky drinkers often (mistakenly) equate older with better, Ardbeg’s Wee Beastie eats that notion alive—only 5 years old, the whisky has the energy and exuberance of a puppy (but heavily peated and weighing in at more than 94 proof, this is more Great Dane than dachshund), with a peppery, resinous smoke leaping from the glass, and a palate that’s salty and savory, laced with eucalyptus and chocolate.

Balblair

Balblair is one of the oldest working distilleries in the Highlands. The 12 Year Old offers gentle brushes of graham crackers and toasted coconut on the nose, while in the glass it’s rich with creamy toffee and lightened with a crisp whiff of menthol. The 15 Year Old ventures further in the direction of toasted cereal, nut milk, and almond skin, with winter spice and oat cakes emerging on the palate, and a lingering, velvety finish. The 18 Year Old is roasty and round, with a core character of orchard fruit and honey accented with toasted cake, the whisky’s brightness and depth in perfect balance.

The Balvenie

The Balvenie is one of the more prominent distilleries in Speyside, and its flagship malt makes it easy to see why. The Balvenie DoubleWood 12 first spends 12 years in traditional whisky casks (ex-bourbon barrels and hogsheads), then rests for another 9 months in oloroso sherry casks. The result is a malt that’s fragrant with anise, dried tobacco, cocoa, and coconut, and with gentle flavors of fresh cereal, stone fruit, and buttered toast in the glass.

Benriach

This Speyside distillery is renowned for elegant whiskies that evince an excellent interplay between whisky styles and cask maturation. The Original Ten incorporates malts matured in three styles of cask (ex-bourbon, ex-sherry, and virgin oak), stacking the characteristics of these barrels in layers of orchard fruit, honey, and toasted oats, with a lacing of almond milk and the faintest wisp of smoke. The Twelve swaps the virgin oak barrels for port casks, adding a depth of cocoa, coffee, and dried fruit to the mix. For The Smoky Ten, the distillery added the traditional touch of mixing in peated whisky and incorporated Jamaican rum barrels into the equation, resulting in a shimmering richness of honey glaze, candied pears, and baking spice. The Smoky Twelve repeats the peat process but combines whiskies aged in bourbon, sherry, and Marsala casks, resulting in a creamy spirit full of toasted nuts, orange peel, and chocolate, with a lingering brown sugar finish.

Bowmore

An Islay distillery dating to 1779, Bowmore takes its whisky-making heritage to heart, still malting and kiln-drying its barley on site. The 12 Year Old has a graceful fragrance of sea spray, lemon zest, and smoke, and flavors of tea, cocoa, and toasted wood emerge in the glass. The 15 Year Old is matured first in bourbon barrels, then oloroso sherry casks, resulting in a whisky aromatic with dried fruit and forest canopy, and flavors of brown butter, salted caramel, and molasses cookies. The 18 Year Old is dense and rich, with an ethereal smokiness hovering over flavors of fruit tart, pastry cream, and dark chocolate, like lingering near the dessert table at a summer cookout.

Glenfiddich

The single malts from Glenfiddich are among the world’s most popular Scotch whiskies, and Glenfiddich’s Bourbon Barrel Reserve 14 demonstrates the distillery’s appeal. A single malt built for bourbon drinkers, the whisky is first aged for 14 years in ex-bourbon barrels, then finished in new charred American oak barrels from Louisville. Lively with the brightness of lemon peel and honeysuckle, this whisky has deep flavors of caramel, toasted cinnamon, almonds, and ripe stone fruit. 

Glenmorangie

Using the tallest distilleries in Scotland (dubbed “giraffe stills”), Glenmorangie has perfected the art of creating gentle, elegant whiskies, then juggling an array of cask styles to create myriad expressions. The Original is a 10-year-old expression that’s mild and mellow, bright with orange peel and ginger on the nose, and soft on the palate with honey and peach. The Lasanta incorporates the influence of sherry casks, giving the whisky round fragrances of plums, berries, and dates, with toasted spice and marmalade on the palate. Port pipes enter the equation for Quinta Ruban, resulting in a malt that’s round and rich, with cherries, chocolate, and tangerines on the nose, and a palate filled with berry jam, nutmeg, and baking spice. Nectar d’Or takes things in a different direction by introducing the influence of Sauternes casks, producing a whisky that’s luscious and bright, with aromas of green grapes, vanilla, and fruit tarts, and the dessert-table roundness of almond paste, pastry cream, and ginger on the palate. 

Old Pulteney

The Pulteney Distillery is one of the northernmost in Scotland, and its whiskies evince the crisp, austere character of its maritime environs. The 12 Year Old has a bright brininess touched with dried grass, and a clean, mild flavor of dried oats and honey. The 15 Year Old is more intense, with apples, hay, and butter on the nose, and a richer flavor of spice cake and salted chocolate. The 25 Year Old is richer still, redolent with candied citrus peel and nougat, and with a lean, lush flavor of nut brittle, dark chocolate, and vanilla cream. For The Huddart, peat smoke enters the picture, giving the whisky aromatic touches of fresh sugarcane, green apples, leather, and wood smoke, and a flavor round with satsumas, lemon drops, toasted spice, and caramel.

Speyburn

Speyburn has a history dating to 1897, and this Speyside distillery’s single malts are bold and engaging. The 10 Year Old is precocious and exuberant, with an aroma like that of a bowl of butterscotch hard candies with a fruity Jolly Rancher or two hidden away in the mix; on the palate, the flavor is full of candy and custard, mildly rich and bouncy. The 15 Year Old enters an interesting adolescence, with fruit jam, shortbread, and pastry cream emerging in the glass. In the 18 Year Old, the fruit character fully emerges as baskets of peaches and pears, with toasted cake and a drizzle of boiled honey lingering in the finish.

Article By Imbibe

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