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Single-Malt Scotches

So Many Single-Malt Scotches, but Which Dram Do We Drink?
Stuart Maclean Ramsay
From the Print Edition:
John F. Kennedy, Nov/Dec 98

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Balvenie (Founded 1892)
The Grants also own Balvenie Distillery next door, named after nearby Balvenie (pronounced Bal-VEN-ee) Castle, a substantial thirteenth-century ruin. Balvenie's single malts are a delicious counterpart to Glenfiddich, with rich, sherry characteristics and after-dinner qualities.

Balvenie Distillery, which is independently operated, retains its traditional floor maltings and has its own farmlands, where part of the barley used in the maltings is grown. An on-site cooperage repairs the casks and a coppersmith tends the stills. Its nine stills are taller than those at Glenfiddich, producing a heavier, fuller spirit.
Recommended bottlings Balvenie Founder's Reserve 10 year old, Balvenie DoubleWood 12 year old, Balvenie PortWood 21 year old (all distillery bottlings).
Tasting notes Balvenie DoubleWood 12 year old; 86 proof (distillery bottling). Medium- to full-bodied, rich, clean whisky; amber color; malty and sherry sweet in the soft nose; smooth, sweet and mellow palate with nuts, fruit and spices; lingering finish, warming with chocolate and some smoke. The DoubleWood spends most of its life in traditional Bourbon casks and is then transferred to finish the maturation in sherry casks.

Glenrothes (Founded 1879)
The hardworking whisky town of Rothes (pop. 1,400) is home to five distilleries, including Glenrothes, Glen Grant and Speyburn. Glenrothes (pronounced Glen-ROTH-ess) is another malt that is difficult to find but well worth the discovery. There's a cooperage for repairing casks on site, and about half the malt used comes from the Saladin maltings at Tamdhu, Glenrothes's sister distillery in Speyside. Glenrothes is prized for its marrying qualities and is closely associated with the Cutty Sark blend. The stills produce a new-make spirit packed with fruit and feints--the final fraction of the second distillation, which has a heavier, oilier character--ideal for blending and aging. The rare distillery bottlings from Glenrothes are the result of selected casks from a particular vintage or year of distillation. Glenrothes vintages tend to have lots of fruit, a hint of smoke and sherry, sweetness, and full, round flavors.
Recommended bottlings Glenrothes 1979 Vintage, Glenrothes 1982 Vintage.

Cragganmore (Founded 1869)
Hidden at the confluence of the rivers Spey and Avon is the distillery of Cragganmore. The distillery stands on the grounds of Ballindalloch Castle Estate, residence of the Macpherson-Grant family since 1546 and home to the oldest herd of Aberdeen Angus cattle in the world. Cragganmore is one of Speyside's smaller distilleries and has two of Scotland's most unusual stills: each spirit still has an L-shaped flat-topped head. Thus, some of the heavier, oily compounds in the vapors that rise from the pot condense at the head and fall back to be recondensed. The result is a cleaner, lighter spirit.
Recommended bottlings Cragganmore 12 year old (distillery bottling).
Tasting notes Cragganmore 12; 80 proof (distillery bottling). Medium-bodied, smooth and firm; rich, dryish and complex nose, fragrant and flowery with background notes of grass and smoke; a clean, round, malty and well-balanced palate; and a lingering malt and soft smoke afterglow. A serious and cerebral whisky from a much respected distillery.

Glendronach (Founded 1826)
Glendronach, which means "valley of the brambles (blackberries)" in Scottish Gaelic, is tucked away in gentle northeast Scotland terrain. Her spirit reflects the earthy traditions of Aberdeenshire more so than the Highland glens of Moray and Strathspey. Glendronach (pronounced Glen-DRON-ach) is one of Scotland's bonniest, most traditional distilleries, offering the visitor a chance to see a rare floor maltings (a process in which presoaked barley is spread on a floor, where it begins its conversion from starch to sugar) and kiln, in addition to traditional coal-fired distillation when Glendronach is producing. The distillery is currently silent. The gleaming pot stills are coal-fired, a method used by just a handful of distilleries today. The new-make spirit is poured into Spanish oak casks that have previously been host to oloroso sherry.
Recommended bottlings Glendronach 15 year old (distillery bottling).
Tasting notes Glendronach 15 year old; 86 proof (distillery bottling). The malt has a deep and rich sherry character that, combined with oak and Highland depth, places it emphatically in the after-dinner category.

Glenlivet (Founded 1824)
The glen of the River Livet is the most notorious whisky district in Scotland. Flanked by the Cromdale Hills and the Ladder Hills, with access to passes over the Cairngorms to the south, this remote high country was perfect for distilling illicit whisky. In the early 1800s, 200 illicit stills were said to be operating in the glen. The Glenlivet Distillery, the "father of all Scotch," is anchored on a limestone shelf in the austere heart of it all. Its founder, a doughty Highlander named George Smith, was the first distiller in the area to apply for a legal distillery license, in 1824.
Recommended bottlings Glenlivet 12 and 18 year old (distillery bottlings). The distillery has also recently introduced a series of vintage Glenlivet bottlings that includes five single malts distilled in 1967, 1968, 1969, 1970 and 1972. Limited to a few thousand bottles from each year, the collection is interesting not only for the extended ages of the whiskies (between 26 and 31 years), but also for the opportunity to compare subtle differences--flavors such as fruit, nuts and spice are more or less evident in each bottling--that can be tasted in the spirits from year to year.
Tasting notes Glenlivet 18 year old; 104 to 112 proof (distillery bottling). The flavors in the older Glenlivet have developed more depth and richness than the standard 12-year-old bottling. The body is firm and smooth, the nose has sherry sweetness and floral aromas; the palate is sweet, with nuts and peaches; the finish is lingering and sweet. The 18 blossoms with Speyside character and depth.
Other recommendations Speyside distilleries with widespread distribution--Cardhu, Singleton of Auchroisk, Knockando, Speyburn, Glen Grant (older bottlings), Tomintoul, Tamnavulin, Tamdhu. Speyside distilleries with limited bottlings and distribution-- Aultmore, Glen Elgin, Glendullan, Ardmore, Balmenach, Glenburgie, Ben Rinnes.

With a population of about 4,000 and eight distilleries, Islay is Scotland's preeminent whisky island and the most southerly of the Hebrides, measuring 20 miles east to west and 25 miles north to south. Most of Islay's malts are noted for their peat-reek, heavy, full and robust qualities. Islay's pungent, complex whiskies have long been popular with the blenders for these characteristics.

The peat reek--a Scottish word for smell--is a defining, important characteristic in certain, usually island, malt whiskies. The character is created during the malting of the barley. Peat is acidic, decayed vegetation made up of bog plants such as sphagnum moss, heather, sedges and grasses. In the malt kiln, the "green" malt is spread on a perforated floor above the furnace and exposed to burning peat smoke in varying degrees for up to 20 hours.

The amount of peating is measured by the concentration of acidic organic compounds called phenols that are found in the peat smoke. Most Speyside malts, for example, will have one to five parts per million phenols in them. Laphroaig, near the other end of the reek spectrum, has a formidable 35 ppm phenols.The higher the concentration of phenols, the smokier the spirit.

Lagavulin (Founded 1816)
Lagavulin Distillery is nestled into a small, rocky bay on the more sheltered southeast coast of Islay. The name Lagavulin (pronounced Lag-a-VOO-lin), is derived from the Scottish Gaelic, laggan mhouillin, which means "mill in the little dell." By the 1740s, the site was better known for the stills in the dell, with about 10 smuggler's bothies (huts) puffing away, making it one of Scotland's oldest whisky production locations. Lagavulin's malted barley, kilned in nearby Port Ellen, has 35 to 40 ppm phenols.
Recommended bottling Lagavulin 16 years old (distillery bottling).
Tasting notes Lagavulin 16 year old; 86 proof (distillery bottling). Full-bodied and rich; the nose is pungent with peat smoke, salt and some sweetness in the background. The sea and the sweetness make their appearances in the smooth taste, too, but the robust, dry flavor of peat dominates this sophisticated whisky; a gentle bite introduces the smoky finish, an afterglow of peat warms the soul.

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