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Singular Sensation

So Many Single-Malt Scotches, but Which Dram Do We Drink?
Stuart Maclean Ramsay
Posted: December 1, 1998

These generous whiskies, with their individual flavours, do recall the world of hills and glens, of raging elements, of shelter, of divine ease. The perfect moment for their reception is after arduous bodily stress--or mental stress if the body be sound. The essential oils that wind in the glass then uncurl their long fingers in lingering benediction and the nobler works of creation are made manifest. At such a moment, the basest man would bless his enemy. --Whisky and Scotland, by Neil M. Gunn, 1935.

Mr. Gunn, a Highland Scot, was referring to single-malt Scotch whiskies, the individual products of copper pot stills with the ability to arouse passion and acts of pilgrimage from whisky drinkers around the world. * But all revelry aside, it can, nevertheless, be a bamboozling experience these days to enter a reputable whisky shop or well-stocked bar, and encounter the plethora of tongue-twisting Scotch brands created by more than 100 distilleries. My local pub in Portland, Oregon, displays more than 60 single malts along its back bar, each one with a story to tell and a place to discover. At one end of the bar is a handful of gentle Lowland malts: soft, floral whiskies that reflect the rolling hills and fertile farmland of their birth and maturation. Emphatically anchoring the other end is the robust family of Islay whiskies. Uncorked, these island malts release a peat reek, salt spray and perhaps a hint of bagpipes, carrying the drinker back to the windswept speck of Hebridean land. * The rest of Scotland lies between these two extremes: brine and sea loch flavors from island whiskies, smoke and spice from distilleries on the edges of the country. In the center of this spirituous row are the heartland malts--the Speysiders. Kissed by sherry and Bourbon oak casks, nestled by the banks of whisky rivers and bounded by mountain and sea, Speyside malts comprise an aristocratic majority of Scotland's whiskies. The whole culture of whisky permeates the landscape and people of this region, creating complex, round malts of aromatic, fruity sweetness. * Nearly 90 single-malt distilleries are currently producing whisky in Scotland, most of it available as a bottled single malt. (Around 30 additional distilleries are closed, either demolished or "silent"--presently inactive, but often capable of resuming production Their malt whiskies can be found in limited bottlings.) In the past few years, an increasing number of distilleries have introduced a range of bottlings, usually in a variety of ages, and more recently with different alcohol strengths, vintages and wood "finishes." In addition to these distillery bottlings, independent merchant bottlers offer a liquid treasure trove of often rare, limited malt whiskies under their own company labels.

In every bottle of malt whisky rests the spirit of a place. Each one is unique and often has its own band of faithful admirers. Yet, whenever a group of whisky drinkers gather, it seems that certain distilleries dominate the discussion, rising to the top by merit more than by the marketing wiles.

If there are classic single-malt distilleries that consistently produce great whiskies, a sensible place to begin a search may be the blending rooms of the Scotch whisky companies. It has been the international success of blended Scotches--the likes of The Famous Grouse, Johnnie Walker and Chivas Regal--that has kept the diverse family of single malts in existence for more than 100 years.

A blended Scotch can include up to 40 individual single malts and two or three grain whiskies, married together to create a unified, whole spirit. Typically, a blend will include several "core" malts in the recipe, whiskies that marry well with the other whiskies, and add character and sophistication to the blend. Most of these core, or component, malts are outstanding whiskies in their own right, sought after by the blending companies that pay a premium price for their unique character. Top class, first class, top dogs and crack drams are some of the descriptors used for these great producing distilleries. (A dram is a measure of whisky in Scotland, the quantity often determined by the sobriety or generosity of the dram giver.)

When I asked one worthy whisky maker why some distilleries have a heritage of creating great whisky, he replied: "Och, it's all in the genes." There may be a wee bit more to it than genetics, so let's take a brief look at how the cratur is made. A single malt, very simply, is the product of an individual distillery in Scotland. It is made from a sugary liquid extract of 100 percent malted barley that is fermented by yeast and double distilled in small batches in copper pot stills. The new spirit then matures in oak casks before bottling. The characteristics that shape a single-malt whisky are derived from its ingredients (water, malted barley and yeast), production methods and maturation.

Of the many scientific, mystical and genetic factors that are responsible for the character of a single malt, the oak cask is perhaps the most important. It can account for as much as 60 percent of the whisky's flavor and ultimate character. Each oak cask used to mature Scotch whisky imprints its personality on the spirit. Identical new-make spirit--the white spirit that's been distilled but not yet aged--made in the same distilling season at one distillery can have quite different characteristics as a mature spirit, depending on the cask.

A distillery that embarks on a high-quality, oak-cask program for its single malts may not be genetically well endowed, but it can end up with great whisky. This is what makes the exploration of single malts such a lifelong pleasure for the whisky drinker, and the decision to exclude certain distilleries from a top-class list so difficult.

A number of the top-class malts reviewed in this article may not be widely available as distillery bottlings. It is thanks to independent merchant bottlers such as Gordon & MacPhail in the Speyside town of Elgin and Cadenhead's of Campbeltown that we can enjoy these rare treats. These two companies have traditionally bought "fillings" of new-make spirit from individual distilleries, supplied their own casks to mature the whisky, and bottled it in a variety of ages in limited quantities. Their retail shops--Gordon & MacPhail in Elgin; Cadenhead's in Edinburgh, London and Campbeltown--are places of pilgrimage for the serious whisky drinker. Of the other independent bottlers that have started up in the past 10 years or so, Adelphi and Signatory have established a reputation of quality.

Not every occasion or mood calls for a complex malt whisky like the ones we'll discuss on our top-class journey. If you seek an everyday, all-purpose whisky, a restorative dram at the end of a hectic day, or prefer a lighter, less complex spirit before dinner, these are that scores of single malts may be better suited to the task.

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