Eco

A Brief Treatise on Scotch Whisky Print

If you enjoy single malt Scotch as much as I do, you may be interested in the Scotch Malt Whisky Society.

First, if you're going to get serious about single malts, you should have a good guide. I like Michael Jackson's Complete Guide to Single Malt Scotch. It looks something like this (depending on the year you buy it):

 

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It is well written and contains good tasting notes on hundreds of single malts. (Oh, and that's me next to the book, with bottles of Bruichladdich and Springbank.) By buying this book, you can gain, in a few pages, a much better understanding of Scotch malt whisky, single malt whisky, etc., than I can give you here. But, if you don’t want to buy the book, read on.

For the record, I love single malt Scotch whisky. I am a member of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, I have visited its headquarters in Leith (Edinburgh), Scotland, I have stayed in its flats there on multiple occasions, and I have enjoyed tasting whisky in its Members Tasting Room. I bought (with several friends) two casks of Springbank and one cask of Bruichladdich, and have had them bottled. I have over fifty different single malt Scotch whiskies at home that I share with those few friends fortunate enough to know about them. My son-in-law Duane has become a disciple too, was a partner in the Bruichladdich cask, and enjoys a dram as much as I. Nectar of the gods, as they say.

Having said all that, I don’t really know all that much. My friend Art Litman knows more about single malts than I do, and there are many, many people who are far more knowledgeable about it than anyone I know. But, we do know more than the average guy on the street. As you read through this tome, perhaps you will learn something about Scotch whisky.

I have treated friends to taste tests of single malt whiskies from different regions of Scotland and will try here to explain why they are different, why I like some better than others, and why single malts are so different (and so much better) than blended whisky. It is important to understand that the only whisky that can be called Scotch whisky is that which is distilled in Scotland. Similarly, brandy cannot be called Cognac unless it is distilled and bottled in the Cognac region of France, and sparkling wine cannot be called Champagne unless it is grown and vinified in the Champagne region of France.

Scotch whisky is distilled from malted barley. Several tons of barley are soaked in water for a few days until it begins to sprout, whereupon it is drained and in the classic method, spread out on a warehouse floor to dry. After this “malting” it is further dried via a kiln which, especially on Islay, is fired by burning blocks of peat, which provides the smoky flavor. It is then distilled in a “pot still”, shaped like a pot with a funnel on top, which, along with the distinctive local water, enhances the flavor. A better, more scientific  treatise on how and why Scotch whisky becomes smokey and peaty is here.

Grain whisky, on the other hand, is distilled in a column still from other grains, such as unmalted barley, or corn, or wheat. It is cheaper to make and can be made much more quickly. And, I might add, it doesn’t taste as good. Unfortunately, it is used extensively to extend the production of Scotch whisky by making it less expensive and more plentiful, resulting in blended Scotch whisky. These are products that were designed in the mid-1800s, and particularly after Prohibition ended, to appeal to international and/or American taste, when most people knew nothing about real Scotch whisky (i.e., single malt), were not used to it, and therefore didn’t care for it.

Clever merchants like Berry Bros. & Rudd came up with Cutty Sark, Justerini & Brooks came up with J & B, and so forth. John Dewar was the first to use glass bottles for a blend. These blended Scotch whiskies garnered most of the world market and succeeded in spite of themselves, appealing to consumers who didn’t know any better.  Dewar's White Label and Chivas Regal are other famous examples of blended Scotch whisky.  They've done well solely, in my view, through savvy marketing; compared to a fine single malt, especially a good single cask bottling, they're swill.

John Walker & Sons markets Johnnie Walker Red Label and does well at it, and it is better than the other light blended whiskies. Johnnie Walker Black Label is, in my opinion, the best blended Scotch whisky on the market, largely because it seems to have a higher percentage of single malt whisky in its formulation than others. This is helped immeasurably by the fact that Caol Ila figures significantly in the blend. Thus, when an establishment doesn’t have single malts available—something that, today, would indicate a bar with little or no self esteem—ordering Johnnie Walker Black with one ice cube will give one a nice dram.

The age shown on bottles of Scotch whisky is sort of relative--in a good way.  It indicates the youngest whisky in the bottle.  Even single malts are blended, so to speak, in that the distillery will take whisky from numerous casks to come up with the flavor that it wants to portray.  Thus, 10-year old Laphroaig might have whisky much older than that in the blend.  10-year old Springbank had more 30-year whisky in it than 10-year old.

I think that 10 to 15 years, give or take, is an optimum aging period for Scotch whisky.  This is based on my tastings of numerous Society whiskies of about that age, but another good example is the bottle of whisky I bought from the then-proprietor of the Hunting Lodge Hotel in Campbeltown in 2005.  He had purchased a cask of Springbank from the distillery, just as we have done, and aged it for 15 years in a bourbon barrel.  He had Springbank bottle it at 86 proof, which I wouldn't do, but it was great whisky, with a wonderful nose and finish.  We paid for extra ageing of our Springbank when our ten years was up, and bottled it at 12 years. We had our Bruichladdich bottled at 11 years. All are incredibly good whiskies and since they are single cask bottlings, they are unique.

But, I digress. More descriptive pages on several of my favorite single malts are available in the links below. And, try the whisky! It’s wonderful stuff.

Caol Ila - Ardbeg - Bruichladdich - Springbank - Laphroaig - Lagavulin