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Single Malt's Success

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

(continued from page 2)

Jura is separated from Islay by narrow strait called the Jura Sound. An old landing craft serves to bring the inhabitants to Islay, an island that is positively cosmopolitan by comparison. As the boat crosses the water you can see the giant stills of Caol Lla, a whisky used chiefly in blends, to which it imparts a light phenolic character. Its nearest neighbor is BLinnahabhain (pronounced: Burmahaven), a whisky with a Speyside character and a little Sherry smoothness under its virtually peatless malt. In a similar style is the almost equally tongue-tying Bruicliladdich (pronounced: Brooichladdy); the best whisky here is a delicately fruity 15 year old.

Bowmore, in the island's eponymous capital, is something of a compromise between the no-peat school of northern Islay and the phenolic bruisers of the south. It is a model distillery; it still kilns part of its malt, although the peat-reek is only half that of Ardbeg. The bare hint of Sherry adds a comforting richness to Bowmore malts such as the 12 year old and 17 year old. A further flavor factor must derive from the distillery's practice of leaving casks out on the quay by Loch lndaal where they are lashed by the waves. This practice gives the whisky its briny taste.

The south coast of Islay used to boast four distilleries, but the stills at Port Ellen have been sadly silent these past few years. The style of the remaining whiskies-Lagavulin, Laphroaig and Ardbeg-is powerfully phenolic. The 16-year-old Lagavulin is a whisky mellowed by age; Grant Carmichael, the distillery manager, calls it the llcpitome of the classic Islay malt with a very round taste compared to some others." He is defensive when you bring up United Distillers' decision to lower the peating of the malt, or some would say, to tame the brand's wild horse, United Distillers themselves have said nothing either, but it seems a pity that they should tamper with this great classic for the sake of a broader market.

Fortunately, there has been no change of heart next door at Laphroaig. Lain Henderson attributes the character of his whisky to four things: "water, the specification of the malt, the shape of the wash still and Kentucky casks. There is no Sherry, not even in the 15 year old." Those four extra years, however, make the 15 year old much smoother than the pungent 19 year old.

A trickle of whisky leaves the stills at Ardbeg every year, but not nearly enough to please its many fans. "The greatest Islay malt whisky of all nine," Milroy calls it. "A knife-and-fork job." Then with a sigh, he adds, "I'd leave home for Ardbeg." It is the most peaty whisky of all, and if you can lay your hands on a bottle you should buy it, whether or not you personally enjoy its aromas of bonfires and antiseptic.

Neoprohibitionists and health pundits have managed to nibble a chunk out of the world's consumption of spirits. Blended whisky sales are in decline. But as the broader market shrinks, the big spirits companies show an increasing readiness to put their efforts behind the single malts.

Each new release is a revelation: the taste and aroma of Scotland's wild and varied landscape come to life. And these are quality drinks in the way no blend was or is. They demand to be savored as they come-at most with a splash of spring water, nothing more. The lighter styles make perfect aperitifs, while the richer malts arc wonderful with a fine cigar after the meal. Let us hope that the inscrutable dictates of corporate edict allow us to continue to enjoy as many of them as we can; our children, too, and their children and their children's children-for the next 500 years of Scotch's first millennium.

Giles MacDonogh writes about spirits for the Financial Times.

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