So Many Single-Malt Scotches, but Which Dram Do We Drink?
Stuart Maclean Ramsay
Posted: December 1, 1998
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The culture of whisky approaches perfection in the Speyside region of northeast Scotland. More than half of the country's single-malt distilleries are located here, by the banks of river systems that course down, northwards, from the great massif of the Grampian Hills to their estuaries on the Moray Firth. The principal whisky river is the Spey, the second longest and the fastest flowing in Scotland. With more than 60 of Scotland's single-malt distilleries located in the region, Speyside whiskies cover a broad spectrum of flavor characteristics. Speysides range from light, delicate and flowery to rich, full, fruity and robust. They are the most versatile of all the regions; a Speyside malt can be found to suit all whisky palates.
Macallan (Founded 1824)
The noble Macallan Distillery overlooks a glorious sweep of Strathspey and the village of Craigellachie across the River Spey. The distillery is both innovative and traditional, and has dedicated itself to a sophisticated pursuit of quality in regard to ingredients, production and maturation. The distillery has been using the Golden Promise variety of barley since the 1960s. Macallan believes that the barley, in conjunction with the fermentation and pot stills, gives its whisky a fruity, estery balance and longevity.
The direct, gas-fired stills are among the smallest in Scotland. The distillate that ends up in the casks (the heart of the run) is a remarkably small fraction of the whole distillate compared to other distilleries, about 15 to 17 percent. First- and second-fill Spanish oak casks, seasoned with oloroso sherry, are used exclusively for maturation of the whisky.
Recommended bottlings Macallan 12, 18 and 25 year old, Gran Reserva--18-year-old Macallan matured in first-fill sherry casks, recently available in the United States (all distillery bottlings).
Tasting notes Macallan 12 and 18 year old; 86 proof. The 12 year old has a full and smooth body; rich, honey-sweet and sherry nose; rich, full, sweet and nutty palate; warm, round and lingering. The Macallan 18 has all the qualities of the 12, with more richness, oak, spice and nuts. Regarded by many single-malt connoisseurs as the finest whisky in this, or any, style.
Glenfarclas (Founded 1836)
Situated on the south side of the River Spey, Glenfarclas sits in an exposed patch of farmland in the shadow of the bare, often snow-blanketed Ben Rinnes mountain. Still an independent distillery and run by the Grant family for five generations, Glenfarclas (or "Glenfirstclass" if you work there) produces a delicious range of rich, flavorful drams with a healthy dose of sherry character. The name, translated from Scottish Gaelic, means "glen (valley) of the green grassland." Glenfarclas has the largest stills on Speyside, gas-fired, and uses soft, cold, snow-melted water from a spring that rises in the heart of Ben Rinnes. Her single malts have a large percentage of Spanish oak in them.
Recommended bottlings The complete range of distillery bottlings, from the 10 to the 30 year old. The 17 year old is a personal favorite.
Tasting notes Glenfarclas 12 year old; 86 proof. Medium- to full-bodied; amber colored; rich, full sherry nose; palate is a delightful balance of sherry depth, malty sweetness and subtle peat smoke, with a teasing lick of Highland fire; finish is lingering and sweetly full. Glenfarclas is a classic Speyside and Highland malt, and one of Scotland's most versatile whiskies in her youth.
Longmorn (Founded 1894)
For many years, until it was mercifully introduced as one of the Seagram Co.'s Heritage Selection malts, Longmorn had been regarded as one of Scotch whisky's best-kept secrets. Blenders seek out Longmorn to use as a "top dressing" in their finest blends. The wash stills, which are used for the first distillation, are among the widest and lowest of all the whisky distilleries. (The heaviness of Longmorn is shared by Strathisla, its sister distillery and partner in the Heritage Selection. Located in the nearby town of Keith, the picturesque Strathisla is the oldest Highland distillery, founded in 1786.)
Recommended bottlings Longmorn 15 year old (distillery bottling). Gordon & MacPhail Longmorn-Glenlivet 12 year old.
Tasting notes Longmorn 15 year old; 90 proof (distillery bottling). Medium- to full-bodied; floral, full, fragrant aroma with some oil; clean, malty palate, smooth and round, flowery and rich; malty sweet lingering finish, clean with notes of nuts and sherry. A rich, deep, true-to-the-region Speysider.
Linkwood (Founded 1825)
Not far from Longmorn, Linkwood Distillery has shared her neighbor's predilection for secrecy over the years. The distillery is nestled in a tranquil natural setting, next door to sturdy, ancient farm buildings. A well-tended flower garden fronts the still house, and a pair of swans occupy the distillery pond just above. Opening a bottle of Linkwood is like unleashing a spring breeze. The aroma is flowery, clean and delicate. The body is surprisingly full, with malty sweetness and a hint of smoke. A versatile and elegant dram, Linkwood can be sipped for hours.
Recommended bottlings Linkwood 12 year old Flora & Fauna limited bottling series from United Distillers. Gordon & MacPhail Linkwood 15 and 21 year old.
Aberlour (Founded 1879)
The Speyside community of Charlestown of Aberlour (pronounced Abber-lour, as in hour) is one of the prettiest villages in Scotland. Aberlour Distillery, producer of one of those archetypal Speyside fireside and after-dinner whiskies, anchors the west end of the village. The current distillery was founded by James Fleming in 1879, on the site of an older distillery with origins in 1826. The distillery's output demonstrates the judicious marrying of whiskies from Bourbon and sherry casks. In the midst of the distillery grounds is Saint Drostan's (Dunstan's) Well. It's tapped now, but in the seventh century, as legend and public relations would have it, it was used by Dunstan for baptismal ceremonies.
Recommended bottlings Aberlour 10, 15 and 18 year old (all distillery bottlings).
Tasting notes Aberlour 10 year old; 86 proof (distillery bottling). Medium-bodied; amber color; almonds, honey and sweetness in the nose; rich sherry and malty sweet flavors and yet there is a lightness to the palate; round, clean and smooth, with a gentle, sherry-sweet finish.
Mortlach (Founded 1823)
Dufftown (pop. 1,700), is the self-proclaimed whisky "capital" of Scotland. "Rome was built on seven hills; Dufftown stands on seven stills," is how the saying goes. The first legal distillery to be established in the town was Mortlach (pronounced Mort-lach, the "ch" with a guttural sound, as in loch), producer of a heavenly, heavy Speyside dram. The meaty whisky is a great favorite with the blenders--Mortlach is an excellent marrier.
New-make Mortlach is one of the heaviest spirits in Speyside. When mature, the robust whisky displays the classic Speyside attributes of fruit, malt, light smoke and sherry, in a perfect balance of depth, roundness and complexity.
Recommended bottlings Mortlach 16 year old Flora and Fauna limited bottling series from United Distillers. Gordon & MacPhail Mortlach 15 and 21 year old.
Glenfiddich (Founded 1887)
The most famous stills in this heady whisky district are the coal-fired ones of Glenfiddich, established by William Grant. The Grant family, in its fifth generation, is still involved with the company, which has established Glenfiddich as the world's best-selling single malt. The Grants began the mass marketing of Glenfiddich in 1963, the first company to do so on such a scale with a single malt. A raising of the whisky glass is due to this pioneering family, filled preferably with the 15- or 18-year bottlings, soft yet complex reflections of the distillery's pedigree.
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