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Single Malt's Success

Giles MacDonough
From the Print Edition:
maduro issue, Winter 93/94

(continued from page 1)

The Highland region can boast two of Scotland's cutest distilleries: Glenturret and Edradour. Lain Stothard of the blenders Matthew Gloag in Perth waxes lyrical about Glenturret. He calls it "smooth and creamy with a hint of sweetness and a long stimulating finish." Both Glenturret and Edradour are practically working museums; the latter contains a rich drop of honey and heather. It is best obtained from the distillery shop above the touristy little town of Pitlochry. In 1986, the owners decided to age all the whisky in first-use Sherry wood. From 1996 on, it will join the Macallan as the second-most extreme example of the Sherry school.

Up on the Dornoch Firth, north of the Highland capital of Inverness, is the Glenmorangie distillery, one of the best-known and most widely distributed whiskies in the world. Alex Nichol, who works for the brand owners, Macdonald & Muir, points out that Glenmorangie is made by one of the most traditional distillers in Scotland: "We have earth floors, slate roofs and stone buildings." He is not worried by the lightness of the whisky, which is made in the tallest stills in Scotland. In the standard 10 year old, the company maintains an uncompromising adherence to Bourbon oak, although the 18 year old is rounded off with a final two-year period in old sherry casks.

As far as malt is concerned, the heart of the Highlands is Speyside, which is on the banks of the River Spey as it flows northeast toward Lossiemouth. The cachet' of Speyside is such that every distillery between Inverness and Peterhead would gladly make off with the appellation; but the experts limit it to the area between the rivers Findhorn in the west and Deveron in the east.

Speyside can boast many of the great names of malt: Glenfiddich, Macatlan, Cardhu, Glenfarclas, the Glentivet, Glen Grant, Cragganmore and Aberlout. Wallace Milroy calls them "the gentlemen among malts. They have a slight sweetness that one associates with Speyside. They are not the big heavy ones." Sherry casks are the tradition here, but the degree to which distilleries use old Sherry casks varies from place to place. Macallan is a 100 percent Sherry whisky, making it a richly fruity after-dinner dram, an alternative to a good Cognac (with a cigar).

Other Speysides may use Sherry with such a light touch that it could be compared to a good bartender waving the vermouth over the gin for a dry Martini. Glenfiddich is one of the lightest: it uses about 1 0 percent Sherry in its fairly youthful amalgam of eight- and 10-year-old malts. Also in the lighter style are the whiskies from J&B's Speyside operation: Knockando and Auchroisk (the malt from Auchroisk has been dubbed "the Singleton"; the company decided "Auchroisk" was too much of a mouthful). Auchroisk occupies an ugly modern building, but Knockando is in one of the prettiest old stillhouses on Speyside with its fine, pagoda-roofed maltings. The whisky is made by the dour Innes Shaw, who tends to bark at the fermenting liquid with the stentorian tone of a sergeant major from a Highland regiment.

Across at Aberlour, Innes' cousin, Kenny Fraser, is a self-effacing man. Asked what it is that makes the whisky special, he tells me, "it must be the water." On this occasion he is too coy to allude to his own special touch: he serenades the casks nightly with his bagpipes. There is quite a bit of Sherry-cask aging on the finished Aberlour (Fraser won't tell how much), which makes it a big, rich whisky like Glenfiddich's stablemate, Balvenie. In character no two whiskies could be more unalike than Gtenfiddich and Balvenie. No list of Speyside malts would be complete without Cragganmore, the Glenlivet and Longmom. Sadly, Longmom is awfully hard to find as its owner, Seagram's, use it chiefly in its blends. This is much to the chagrin of Invergordon's chief blender Trevor Cowan, who freely admits that Longmorn is his favorite malt.

With the notable exception of Islay, whisky production is rare on the islands. On Shetland, I was assured that there had never been distilling because it was just as easy to get hard drink from a passing Russian trawler. Orkney, however, still possesses two malts: Scapa and Highland Park. Scapa is chiefly used for blending, though brokers Gordon and MacPhail do bottle a 1979. Milroy finds it has the "body of an island malt," but because it has not been intended for release as a single, it is less impressive than its neighbor Highland Park. At Highland Park, large parts of the malt are kilned over local peat and heather, giving what Lain Stothard calls a full, mature aroma with hints of peat smoke." It also has a discrete phenolic note to a discerning palate.

Talisker is the only distillery left on Skye. Milroy enthuses over its "unique" flavor, says that United Distillers has "tamed" it over the years with Sherry casks, giving it a sweet, polished character. In the past, says Milroy, "it used to be for masochists." He reminded me of a tasting note I once wrote for a cask sample I was offered: "like walking through a hospital ward."

South of Skye is Mull, which occasionally makes Ledaig and a vatted malt called Tobermory. The next whisky island is Jura: a wilderness vaguely bisected by a dirt track with one pub and one distillery, The few dozen inhabitants are vastly outnumbered by wild goats. In this unlikely environment, George Orwell wrote his most famous book, 1984.

When asked why the malt seemed to turn its back on the phenolic island style, the manager of the distillery, Willie Tait, responded: "For a couple of reasons. We use only lightly peated malt, which gives it more of a Highland character. Also the size and shape of our stills make it lighter and more fragrant." Some of the older releases can be wonderful, such as the 25-year-old Stillman's Dram or the Cask Strength 20 year old.

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