So Many Single-Malt Scotches, but Which Dram Do We Drink?
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Highland Park (Founded 1798)
About 70 islands and islets make up the fertile, timeless Orkney Islands, 17 of them inhabited. The island capital, Kirkwall, is the biggest Orkney town, and the Highland Park distillery is located on its southern outskirts. Highland Park is a gem of a traditional distillery and an object lesson in how to integrate whisky making into a local culture. Scotland's northernmost distillery, her old, clustered stone buildings and slate roofs seem permanently and organically rooted in the townscape. Highland Park malts 20 percent of its own barley on five traditional malting floors, using Orkney peat for the purpose. The phenol content for this malted barley is 8 ppm, and it is supplemented with unpeated malt from mainland Scotland.
Recommended bottling Highland Park 12, 18 and 25 year old (all distillery bottlings).
Tasting notes Highland Park 12 year old; 86 proof (distillery bottling). Medium-bodied; peat smoke and heather honey in the nose; malty sweet, fresh, smoky and round in the palate with plenty of depth; honey finish. One of the most versatile single malts.
Clynelish (Founded 1819)
Clynelish Distillery enjoys a view of the glorious northern Highland coastal landscape. Clynelish (pronounced Kline-LEESH) occupies a narrow, coastal strip of farmland and whitewashed crofts, just outside the small coastal town of Brora--the renowned Royal Dornoch golf course is a short drive to the south. Because of its reputation with the blenders, it can be a very difficult malt to find. The distillery bottles a delicious, complex 14 year old as part of United Distillers' Flora & Fauna series. The malt is lingering, full-bodied medley of fruit, sherry, brine and smoke, with seven ppm phenols in the barley.
Oban (Founded 1794)
The bustling town of Oban (pronounced Oh-bin), a business and tourist center, is the capital of the western Highland. Oban Distillery, one of Scotland's smallest, is so well integrated to the townscape that a casual visitor may be unaware that whisky is being created just yards away. The distillery celebrated 200 years of production in 1994, making it one of Scotland's oldest continuously operating distilleries. It straddles the smooth quality of Highland malts and the heavy, smokey character of the Orkney Islands.
Recommended bottling Oban 14 year old (distillery bottling).
Tasting notes Oban 14 year old; 86 proof (distillery bottling). Medium-bodied, smooth and rich; fragrant, sweet nose with a whiff of smoke; round, warming palate, malty, with delicate peaty undertones; long, fruity and smooth finish, and an afterglow like a Western Highland twilight.
Talisker (Founded 1830)
The Isle of Skye, the largest island in the Inner Hebrides, captures the spirit of Gaelic culture and Highland beauty more than any other island. The sea is the island's lifeblood. Nestled on the seaweed-tangled shore of one remote western sea loch is Talisker, Skye's only distillery. A single-track road alongside Loch Harport leads to Talisker, within site of the majestic Black Cuillin hills and passing through a windswept landscape. Given this setting, it is perhaps not surprising that Talisker displays a "marine" character.
Recommended bottling Talisker 10 year old (distillery bottling)
Tasting notes Talisker 10 year old; 91.6 proof (distillery bottling). Full-bodied; a slightly sweet, phenolic and sea-loch aroma; full, pungent, peppery flavor explodes on the palate; a profoundly Gaelic finish and afterglow. A turbulent dram, yet well balanced.
Glenmorangie (Founded 1843)
Glenmorangie Distillery is located in the northern Highland on the shores of the Dornoch Firth, a jagged arm of the North Sea. It is one of the oldest and most traditional of Highland distilleries. The name Glenmorangie (pronounced Glen-MOR-anjee) comes from the nearby Morangie Burn and means "valley of tranquillity."
One of the smallest Highland distilleries, Glenmorangie's pot stills are the tallest in the Highlands. The water is rich in minerals and quite hard, and the distillery uses American white oak casks from the Ozark Mountains for aging. Several years ago, Glenmorangie introduced a series of wood "finishes" into its aging process that offers an insight into the effects different casks have.
Recommended bottling Glenmorangie 10 year old, Glenmorangie 12 year old sherry-wood finish, Glenmorangie 12 year old port-wood finish, Glenmorangie 18 year old (all distillery bottlings).
Tasting notes Glenmorangie 10 year old; 86 proof (distillery bottling). Light- to medium-bodied; a diverse and fragrant nose, with delicatefloral and grassy aromas; a refreshing palate with initial dryness, fruit and soft smoke, but a lingering, sweet finish. A very approachable malt and a grand social dram.
Dalmore (Founded 1839)
Dalmore, another emphatic, sherry-kissed malt from the Easter Ross district in northern Highland, lies just down the road from Glenmorangie, by the village of Alness. The distillery overlooks Cromarty Firth and the fertile Black Isle. Dalmore has cobblestone pathways and a fascinating still house. The 12-year-old distillery bottling is a vatting (blending) of whisky from sherry casks and American white-oak and oloroso-Bourbon casks and the result is a cracker of a dram: amber-colored, fruity and complex, rich, round, sweet and spicy, with a lingering finish. Dalmore recently introduced the Dalmore Cigar Malt, a vatting of casks that originally contained 15-year-old sherry; mahogany in color, full-flavored, sweet and rich.
Other recommendations Highland distilleries with widespread distribution-- Scapa, Dalwhinnie, Royal Lochnagar, Glen Ord, Glen Garioch, old Pulteney, Glengoyne, Isle of Jura, Deanston. Highland distilleries with limited distribution--Aberfeldy,Glenturret,Edradour.
The main town on the western Scotland peninsula of Kintyre is Campbeltown, a tightly knit community of 6,500, set picturesquely round Campbeltown Loch. At one time Campbeltown was the whisky capital of Scotland, with more than 30 distilleries recorded in the 1830s. Now there are two, one of which is silent. Campbeltown whisky is still known for its distinct regional style. The old Campbeltown malts were noted for their depth of flavor and peaty, briny taste and aroma. Happily, these characteristics (and some new ones) pervade the malts produced by Springbank.
Springbank (Founded 1828)
Fiercely independent, Springbank is the only distillery of its age still owned by descendants of the original owner. Springbank is a spirituous time capsule that maintains floor maltings, bottles its own whisky, adds no color and does not chill-filter its whisky, a process that filters out proteins but also removes character from the whisky, the distillery maintains. The malt is peated for about six hours in the kiln, resulting in around eight ppm phenols. Springbank is one of several Scottish distilleries that does a partial triple distillation, or a "two-and-a-half distillation," as they call it, using three stills.
The distillery bottlings include a wide range of ages and casks, all of them delightful to explore and experience. The "introductory" Springbank C.V. (Chairman's Vat) has a light floral nose, while the older bottlings--the 21 year old is highly recommended--evolve in waves through a complex melody of brine, malt sweetness, Bourbon, sherry and smoke. The 15-year-old, 92-proof bottling is medium-bodied, round and deep, with a sweet nose and palate, evolving into a briny, salty character with a hint of peat; the lingering finish is a mingling of sea spray, smoke and sweetness.
The rare and formidable Longrow, also made by Springbank,is an entirely different animal: a bottle of Longrow is not opened, it is unleashed. The 16-year-old distillery bottling at 92 proof is a conflagration of flavors--oil, smoke, sherry--a robust, lingering spirit. The barley malt for Longrow is dried by peat for about 50 hours, and is double distilled.
Once a major distilling region in Scotland, the Lowland region has only two distillers that currently produce. Although eclipsed by Highland malts in number and in range of taste, Low-land whiskies have unique characteristics and subtle flavors that have endowed this region with a style of its own. Lowland malts are characterized by their light, clean floral aromas and smooth, mellow palates.
Auchentoshan (Founded 1823)
Auchentoshan (pronounced OCH-in-TOSH-in) means "corner of the field." Located northwest of Glasgow and a mile from the River Clyde, the whitewashed distillery sits precariously close to a local government-built housing development. Although a Lowland distillery, it draws its process water from Kilpatrick Hills, north of the Highland Line. The potable spirit, destined for the oak cask, is collected from the third still at a higher alcohol strength, around 81 percent alcohol by volume. This is a more refined alcohol: crisp, fresh, and lighter in body, and can mature earlier than whisky that is double distilled. Younger bottlings from the distillery are soft, light whiskies, fresh and malty sweet with citrus and spice notes--grand aperitifs. Older bottlings, in particular the recommended 21 year old, can be complex and voluptuous.
Other recommendations Lowland distilleries with limited bottlings and distribution: Rosebank (closed), Bladnoch (closed).
Stuart Maclean Ramsay is a writer based in Portland, Oregon, and editor of Dram, a quarterly dedicated to Scotch.