So Many Single-Malt Scotches, but Which Dram Do We Drink?
Stuart Maclean Ramsay
Posted: December 1, 1998
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Bowmore (Founded 1779)
The harbor village of Bowmore (pronounced BOH-more), population 1,000, was built in the 1760s and is the island's commercial and social center. Few distilleries are as architecturally integrated with a community as the whitewashed buildings of Bowmore, Islay's first legal distillery. The distillery tour is especially worthwhile; visitors can watch traditional floor malting, which accounts for about 40 percent of the malted barley in the whisky. The kilning at Bowmore results in a medium-peated malt of around 20 ppm.
Recommended bottling Bowmore 17, 21 and 25 year old (distillery bottlings). My favorite is the 17 year old.
Tasting notes Bowmore 17 year old; 86 proof (distillery bottling). Heavier and more robust than the younger Bowmores, which have a citrus note to them, the 17 displays Bowmore's peaty character emphatically and harmoniously throughout, yet it does not overwhelm the whisky's underlying sweetness. There's vanilla and chocolate in the nose and a warming, smoky glow from start to finish.
Laphroaig (founded circa 1820s)
The name Laphroaig (pronounced La-FROYG) is taken from the bay around which the distillery was built. Whitewashed buildings skirt the shoreline, the sea lapping a warehouse wall at high tide. Laphroaig Distillery presents an opportunity to explore unchanged whisky buildings, to view traditional floor malting, and to smell the peat reek firsthand, which is formidable. Thirty percent of the malted barley in Laphroaig is made at the distillery, resulting in a pungent dram of around 35 ppm phenols.
Recommended bottling Laphroaig 10 and 15 year old, Laphroaig Cask Strength (all distillery bottlings).
Tasting notes Laphroaig 10 year old; 80 to 86 proof (distillery bottling). Straight 10-year-old Laphroaig is an outdoor malt, to be sipped from a flask as an antidote to hellish, or just Scottish, weather. A splash of spring water mellows the whisky. It has a long and balanced aroma of seaweed, phenols, peat, heather smoke and vanilla notes; the palate is a complex melody of peat, salt, iodine, oil and oak; the finish is round, dry, warming and lingering. The 15-year-old Laphroaig is a quintessential, complete Islay whisky.
Ardbeg (Founded 1815)
Whisky drinkers can rejoice now that Ardbeg, one of Scotland's truly great drams, is producing once more. The distillery was bought by Glenmorangie in early 1997 and the stills were singing their pungent sea chanteys by the summer of that year. The bottlings from the new owners should reach the United States in early 1999. Bottlings of Ardbeg from the previous owner and independent bottlers can still be found and they are worth tracking down.
Ardbeg is perhaps the island's most magical distillery site: an ancient, stone-slab pier reaches into a bay dotted with craggy rocks; swans, otters and seals swim by; and the sea's aroma is everywhere. When Ardbeg's maltings were operating, the whisky had a formidable 53 ppms phenols from the local peat. Yet it does not overwhelm the heaviness and depth of the whisky. When Ardbeg is sipped from a good bottling, brine and smoke envelop you like a damp sea fog.
Other Recommendations Islay distillery with widespread distribution-- Bunnahabhain (Boon-a-HA-ven). Islay distilleries with limited bottlings and distribution--Caol Ila (Cull-eela); Port Ellen (closed).
The Highland region comprises single-malt distilleries to the north of the Highland Fault, or Line, a geological boundary that stretches from Greenock, a town northwest of Glasgow, to the city of Dundee on Scotland's east coast. Highland includes the spirituous Speyside region, as well as various subregions that contain an additional 30 or so Highland malts. These distilleries are scattered in diverse locations and landscapes, from the moorlands of the Monadhliaths to the Perthshire glens and along the eastern coastlines and firths. The characteristics of the whiskies are just as diverse, and it is difficult to pinpoint a shared regional style for such a widespread area. Most have a firm, malty body.
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."
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