Single Malt Scotch Celebrates its 500th Birthday in 1994
There is a popular image of Scotland displayed in 1,000 calendars. It shows the Highlands ringed by soft-green mountains with heather in full autumnal flower and herds of deer on the hill. But there is more to the Scottish landscape, and each panorama along the journey through its Highlands and Lowlands, seashores an,] islands, spells out part of the puzzle for one of the region's most prominent exports: single malt Scotch.
The windswept islands to the west and north are thickly coated with peat and crisscrossed by trickling brooks, or "burns," as the Scots call them, and they are so exposed that they are practically treeless. North of Loch Ness, Scotland's landscape is almost lunar; settlements have hugged the coast and only deer, rabbits and hares live on the plateau. To the east the landscape is tamer: on Speyside there are tight valleys or glens running down the fast-moving river. In the South, the land is sleek and the hills soft.
Go any farther and you reach England. That's where the whisky trail finally peters out. But along the way, you wilt have passed the great names of single malt whisky: the Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, Aberlour, the Macallan, Laphroaig, Cardhu, Knockando, Glenmorangie, and a host of much smaller others such as Lagavulin, Oban, Bowmore as well as the ever-difficult-to-find Ardbeg. These grand names are the modern-day descendants of an industry that, according to available documentary and archeological evidence, started half a millennium ago. The entire industry celebrates its 500th anniversary in 1994.
For much of the past five centuries, these different Scottish regions have given character to the whiskies produced in them. Wallace Milroy, whose Malt Whisky Alamanach is one of the most popular guides on the subject, believes in studying the role of regional influences on whisky. He sorts Scotland out into the Lowlands, east and northern Highlands, Speyside Islands, Campbeltown and Islay. Milroy, however, would be the first to agree that there are no hard-and-fast rules about how you make your whisky: "Jura is an example. It is a Highland malt, even though it is made on an island." In that the same contradictory style, the heavily peated Clynelish made on the northeastern coast is "more an island whisky" with its "smoky, peaty character."
Of all the whisky-producing regions, the Lowlands have suffered most from closures since the Second World War. If you take the train from Edinburgh to Glasgow, you pass the derelict shell of the St. Magdalene distillery in Linlithgow. Farther down the line at Falkirk was Rosebank, a triple-distilled whisky that used to come from here and which many considered a benchmark Lowland malt. Last year United Distillers closed it down. The Bells' "brand ambassador, Gordon Bell, explains that the sheer ugliness of the town itself contributed to the shutdown: it is no longer easy to market a malt if tourists won't visit the distillery. Bladnoch in Wigtownshire used to be the most-southern distillery in Scotland, but United Distillers closed it last year, too.
The light, malty Lowland style was what made those whiskies dispensable when it came to blending, Belt says, because if the whisky does not have sufficient personality, it is unlikely to do well. He says that there had been an attempt to sell off one of the Lowland distilleries, but at the last moment, the buyers failed to come up with the cash. Not so long ago Japanese firms acquired both Tomatin on Speyside and Ben Nevis in the western Highlands.
Asked whether other "white knights" could be found to keep the stilts going, Tim Hailey of Invergordon Distillers answers that this is "not very viable." The closest example he could think of is the French giant Perliod-Ricard's purchase of Campbell Distillers, which owns both Abertour and Edradour. "You've got to be able to sell whisky for blending," he says. It might be possible to market a malt whisky on a particular market, but Hailey points out, whisky brokers wilt have supplies of it and "you would have to purchase that back in cash" to protect Your brand image.
A faint whiff of hay and a refreshing lightness are the characteristics attributed to the Lowland malts, but to say they are light doesn't mean they lack character. United Distilters' flagship Lowland malt is Glenkinchie near Edinburgh, which has a seductive, nutty aroma. Auchcntoshan on the outskirts of Glasgow would be on every whisky lover's list of great malts. Yet there is definitely a stigma attached to the Lowlands. For example, Bell thought that Deanston near Callalider was really a Lowland malt, but the label marks it as a Highland: it sells better that way.
The Mull of Kiatyre is neither in the Lowlands nor the Highlands. It is a long finger of land that points to the Antrim coast of Ireland. A century ago, there were as many as 32 distilleries here and the place enjoyed a similar status to Speyside. Now just three malts are made. The best of them is probably Springbank, a whisky that has a habit of coming out on top at blind tastings. The distillery manager, John McDougall, is a tight-lipped Scot. I asked him what was special about Springbank, to which he answered, "strictly traditional methods of production." He defined the whisky as "a sweet-salty, slightly peaty product with a long lingering aftertaste."
There are enormous variations in taste among the Highland malts. Those nearest to the sea often have a more emphatic character; a touch of brine underpins their aromas. 0ban is rare for being smack in the middle of a seaside town that doubles as the gateway to the western Isles. The whisky is fruity and floral at the same time. As Milroy points our, Clynelish is actually phenolic. Its stills lie alongside the hulk of the mothballed Brora Distillery, which used to make superb whiskies.
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.
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 spiritsfor the Financial Times.