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Issue 16 - The lifeblood of Scotland

Scotland Magazine Issue 16
September 2004

 

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The lifeblood of Scotland

It's often said that whisky runs through Scotland's veins. But it influences the country's culture and heritage, too. Dominic Roskrow introduces some of the country's greatest malts

Scotch whisky is tangible proof that miracles exist. Why make a pilgrimage to Fatima or Lourdes in the hope of witnessing something supernatural when you can find such proof in any distillery in Scotland and in any glass of single malt whisky?

Hyperbole? Possibly. But think about it for a minute: take three basic products – barley, water and yeast – brew, distil and mature them, adding nothing (with the occasional exception of caramel for colour) and what do you get? Hundreds – literally – of different flavours. And not just flavours that are subtly different but ones that span the extremes of taste. Flavours that science can’t even explain. Miraculous.

There is a place for American whiskey and for Irish. But when it comes to the vast diversity that characterises Scottish malts – from floral and light Lowland malts to weighty and fruity Speysides and to peaty Islay ones – then no other drink touches it.

And if you are one of those people who says they don’t like whisky then with all due respect, chances are you haven’t tried enough yet. Or drunk it in a way that best suits you.

A point here – don’t let anyone tell you how to drink whisky. There are many purists who will allow a little water but nothing else and certainly not ice. I personally don’t even add water.

But that is my taste and the ‘water only’ rule is theirs. If you want to add ice or indeed ice cream, that is a matter for you. If it suits you to fill your glass with Canada Dry or Coca-Cola, then so be it. It’s your drink after all.

There are hundreds of different malts, a large proportion of them ‘official’ distillery bottlings but many more bottled by independent companies who buy up casks of stock from a distillery and market it their own way.

The taste of whisky does vary depending where in Scotland it comes from, and there are several ways of classifying these taste profiles. In broad terms it is possible to talk about whisky in the following broad categories: Lowland, Highland, Speyside, and Islay and Islands. We might also add Campbeltown. While there are some broad geographical flavour characteristics you should beware of sweeping generalisations.

It would take a book to list all the malts available, but we have compiled a list of some of the very top malts.

We have done this by taking the scores given to these whiskies in whisky books written by the greatest whisky writers, and in our sister title, Whisky Magazine. To qualify for inclusion each whisky had to have been scored by three sources.

To put the list in context, these whiskies all scored an average of at least 87 out of 100 from the experts. They are pretty much all official bottlings and they all come totally recommended.

You will also notice that there is a huge disparity when it comes to pricing. While every whisky here is excellent, it tends to be the case that you get what you pay for, and the higher priced whiskies tend to be rarer and more collectible.

Finally we have tried to give the reader an idea of what each whisky tastes. This is of course impossible, and is meant to act as a guide only. And prices are broad and general and intended as a rough guide.

ABERLOUR A’BUNADH
Region: Speyside
Flavours: Sherry, sweet fruit
Taste: TT
Price: **

ARDBEG 1975
Region: Islay
Flavours: Sea salt, seaweed, peat
Taste: TTTT
Price: ***

ARDBEG 1978
Region: Islay
Flavours: Big, peat, vanilla, seaweed, pepper
Taste: TTTTT
Price: ****

ARDBEG PROVENANCE 1974
Region: Islay
Flavours: Big barbecue wood, bourbon vanilla, toffee, smoke
Taste: TTTTT
Price: +++++

AUCHENTOSHAN 10 YEAR OLD
Region: Lowlands
Flavours: Light lemon, cocoa oil
Taste: T
Price: *

BALVENIE PORTWOOD 21 YEAR OLD
Region: Speyside
Flavours: Fruits, sweet toffiness
Taste: TTT
Price: ***

BALVENIE 15 YEAR OLD SINGLE BARREL
Region: Speyside
Flavours: Orange, fruits, gentle wood
Taste: TTT
Price: **

GLEN GARIOCH 15 YEAR OLD
Region: Highlands
Flavours: Licorice, flowers, smoke
Taste: TTT
Price: **

GLEN GRANT 21 YEAR OLD
Region: Speyside
Flavours: Sherry, nuts
Taste: TT
Price: ***

GLEN MORAY 12 YEAR OLD
Region: Speyside
Flavours: Barley, soft vanilla, subtle
Taste: TT
Price: *

GLENDULLAN 16 YEARS WINE MELLOWED
Region: Speyside
Flavours: Rich cream, nutty dryness
Taste: TT
Price: **

GLENFARCLAS 12 YEAR OLD
Region: Speyside
Flavours: Honeycomb, fruit, peat notes
Taste: TTT
Price: **

GLENFARCLAS 21 YEAR OLD
Region: Speyside
Flavours: Raisins and sweet fruits, a touch of oak
and smoke
Taste: TTTT
Price: ***

GLENFARCLAS 25 YEAR OLD
Region: Speyside
Flavours: Fruit, honey, smoke
Taste: TTT
Price: ***

GLENFIDDICH 15 YEAR OLD SOLERA RESERVE
Region: Speyside
Flavours: Pear, white chocolate
Taste: TTT
Price: **

GLENFIDDICH 21 YEAR OLD HAVANA RESERVE
Region: Speyside
Flavours: Bitter chocolate, dried fruit, smoke notes
Taste: TTT
Price: ***

THE GLENLIVET 18 YEAR OLD
Region: Speyside
Flavours: Lots of rich fruit
Taste: TTT
Price: **

THE GLENLIVET 30 YEAR OLD AMERICAN OAK FINISH
Region: Speyside
Flavours: Bourbon spices and fruits
Taste: TTTT
Price: *****

GLENMORANGIE 10 YEAR OLD
Region: Speyside
Flavours: Complex flower, butter, spices
Taste: TT
Price: **

GLENMORANGIE 1981 SAUTERNES FINISH
Region: Speyside
Flavours: Grape, oak, malt balance
Taste: TTT
Price: *****

GLENMORANGIE FINO SHERRY FINISH
Region: Speyside
Flavours: Rhubarb and other fruits, touch of spice
Taste: TT
Price: **

GLENMORANGIE MADEIRA WOOD FINISH
Region: Speyside
Flavours: Butter, toffee, spices
Taste: TTT
Price: **

GLENTURRET 1972
Region: Highlands
Flavours: Sherry, nuttiness, honey, vanilla
Taste: TTTT
Price: ****

HIGHLAND PARK 18 YEAR OLD
Region: Orkney Isles
Flavours: Honey, smoke, oak, spices and sherry all balanced
Taste: TTTT
Price: ***

HIGHLAND PARK 25 YEAR OLD
Region: Orkney Isles
Flavours: Chocolate, melon and citrus fruits, sherry
Taste: TTTT
Price: *****

HIGHLAND PARK BICENTENARY VINTAGE 1977 RESERVE
Region: Orkney Isles
Flavours: Bitter dark chocolate, bitter orange, rich coffee
Taste: TTTT
Price: ***

LAGAVULIN 12 YEAR OLD
Region: Islay
Flavours: Sweet peat, barley, sherry tones
Taste: TTTTT
Price: **

LAGAVULIN 16 YEAR OLD
Region: Islay
Flavours: Sherry, lots of peat, salt
Taste: TTTTT
Price: **

LAGAVULIN 1979 DOUBLE MATURED DISTILLERS EDITION
Region: Islay
Flavours: Strong peat smoke, seaweed, spices
Taste: TTTTT
Price: ***

LAPHROAIG 10 YEAR OLD
Region: Islay
Flavours: Peat, fish, phenols
Taste: TTTTTT
Price: *

LAPHROAIG 10 YEAR OLD ORIGINAL CASK
Region: Islay
Flavours: Sea spray, iodine, shell fish, smoke
Taste: TTTTT
Price: **

LAPHROAIG 30 YEAR OLD
Region: Islay
Flavours: Sweet peat, sea notes, touch of lemon
Taste: TTTT
Price: ++++

LINKWOOD 12 YEAR OLD
Region: Speyside
Flavours: Clean malt, a touch of smoke and vanilla
Taste: TT
Price: **

LONGMORN 12 YEAR OLD
Region: Speyside
Flavours: Classic Speyside subtlety and fruitiness
Taste: TT
Price: **

LONGMORN 25 YEAR OLD
Region: Speyside
Flavours: Complex and balanced fruit, smoke sherry and peppery spices
Taste: TTT
Price: ***

LONGROW 16 YEAR OLD
Region: Campbeltown
Flavours: Pine, phenols, peat
Taste: TTT
Price: **

THE MACALLAN 10 YEAR OLD
Region: Speyside
Flavours: Rich sherry, sweet fruits
Taste: TTT
Price: **

THE MACALLAN 18 YEAR OLD
Region: Speyside
Flavours: Nuts, raisins, marmalade
Taste: TTTT
Price: ***

THE MACALLAN GRAN RESERVA
Region: Speyside
Flavours: Sherry, oranges, oak, flowery notes
Taste: TTTT
Price: ****

THE MACALLAN 25 YEAR OLD
Region: Speyside
Flavours: Fruit, smoke and oak
Taste: TTTT
Price: *****

THE MACALLAN 30 YEAR OLD
Region: Speyside
Flavours: Full fruits, honey, a hint of smoke
Taste: TTTT
Price: ++++

MORTLACH 16 YEAR OLD
Region: Speyside
Flavours: Melon, peat, mixed fruits
Taste: TTT
Price: **

ROSEBANK 1978 20 YEAR OLD RARE MALTS
Region: Lowland
Flavours: Malt and flowers with the merest hint of fruit and smoke
Taste: TT
Price: ****

ROYAL LOCHNAGAR 23 YEAR OLD RARE MALT
Region: Speyside
Flavours: Honeycomb, sherry fruits, oak traces
Taste: TTT
Price: ***

SCAPA 25 YEAR OLD OLD MALT CASK
Region: Orkney Isles
Flavours: Tangerine, spices, cocoa, hint of smoke
Taste: TTT
Price: ***

SPEYBURN 12 YEAR OLD
Region: Speyside
Flavours: Sweet malts, heather, herbs
Taste: TT
Price: **

SPRINGBANK 25 YEARS 1977
Region: Campbeltown
Flavours: Sherry, nuts, coconut hints, an array of fruits
Taste: TTTT
Price: ***

SPRINGBANK 35 YEARS
Region: Campbeltown
Flavours: Sherry, grapes and other fruit, oak,
Taste: TTTT
Price: *****

TALISKER 10 YEAR OLD
Region: Isle of Skye
Flavours: Smoke, spices and malt
Taste: TTTTT
Price: **

TALISKER DOUBLE MATURED 1986
Region: Isle of Skye
Flavours: Toffee then sea notes and pepper
Taste: TTTTT
Price: **

TALISKER 20 YEAR OLD
Region: Isle of Skye
Flavours: Full sherry, aggressive peat, lots of
explosive pepper
Taste: TTTTT
Price: *****

How malt whisky is made

STAGE 1
Single malt whisky is made by taking fine barley and allowing it to ‘malt’. This means seeping it in water, allowing it to start germinating and then drying it. How it is dried – over peat fires or not – will make a major difference to its eventual flavour profile. The grain is then milled and mixed with hot water in special stills, allowing the starches in the barley to turn to sugar. The resulting liquid is moved to new vessels and yeast added. Effectively this process is the same as beer making.

STAGE 2
The now alcoholic ‘wash’ is then transferred to distilling tanks and distilled at high temperatures twice. The alcohol is separated from the water because they boil at different temperatures, and the strong spirit is separated out and collected. This spirit is ‘new make’ whisky and it is clear. Many of its eventual taste characteristics are already defined by a myriad of factors from the distilling stage, including how long the spirit stays in contact with the copper still and what water is used in the process.

STAGE 3
The spirit is now transferred to oak barrels, and the process of maturing the whisky and giving it its unique character begins. Casks come from two principle sources: America, where they have been used once before for maturing bourbon, and Europe, where they have most probably been filled with sherry, though European oak casks used for other purposes may be used.

STAGE 4
Scotch whisky must be matured for at least three years but a standard aging (from p70) would probably be seven years and premium whisky is often, though not necessarily so, 12 years or older. The spirit in the barrel will react with the wood, and it is a two way process with the wood taking out of the spirit as well as adding characteristics to it. As a rule of thumb, the longer the maturing process and the newer the barrel, the greater the reaction between wood and spirit. Every barrel will react differently, and although there has been a growing interest interest in single cask bottlings, most malts are a combination of different barrels often from different years. As long as the barrels come from the same distillery the whisky can be described as a single malt.

STAGE 5
Matured whisky will leave the cask with an alcoholic strength of anything between 50% ABV (100 proof) and 70% ABV (140 proof), depending how long it is left in the cask. It is watered down for bottling to somewhere between the legal minimum strength of 40% (80 proof) and normally 46% ABV (92 proof).

Price Index
* Under £25 ($45)
** £25-£40 ($45-$75)
*** £41-£75 ($70-$140)
**** £76-£120 ($141-$220)
***** £121-£200 ($221-$370)
+++++ £200 or more ($370+)

Taste Index
Each whisky has been given a T rating to give the reader an idea of how intense it is, from one T meaning easy drinking and light, to five meaning weighty and robust or heavily peated. The rating does NOT rate how good it is.

Whisky Definitions
A single malt whisky is a whisky from one distillery and may contain many different barrels and whiskies from different years. But the age on the label refers to the youngest whisky in the mix. It doesn’t follow that where there is no age statement the whisky is necessarily poorer – often a single malt will be made up of some very good and old whiskies but a younger one is used for the purpose of balance. In these cases the distiller may choose to have no age statement rather than put the misleading age of the younger whisky.

A vatted malt is a combination of single malts from different distilleries. These bottlings may or may not have an age statement but again, the age refers to the youngest whisky.

A blend is a whisky that contains single malt whisky and whisky produced from another grain.