The subtle pleasures of single malt whisky come alive in the wilds of Scotland. Brian Noone explores the country’s leading distilleries
Just as the sparse, immense Russian steppe created vodka and the sun-dappled plains of Western Mexico resulted in tequila, so the blustery hills and heather-strewn hummocks of Scotland birthed whisky. The most ruminative of spirits, uisge beathe (Gaelic for “water of life”) is best explained not by the brute facts of the distilling process, but by the cold, isolating – yet often sublime – Scottish landscape, where the winter mists hang low and the grey clouds are everpresent. A brief walk through the Highlands offers a model for understanding: after a bracing start through hair-tussling wind and Arctic temperatures, the terrain slowly reveals its treasures, from pinpoint wildflowers growing close to the soil to a whirlwind range of scents from both land and sea. The spirit, too, begins with a sharp punch – the result of so much concentrated alcohol – which gives way to a host of subtle perfections for those who approach with their eyes, nose and palate open.
Single-malt whiskies are the connoisseurs’ choice: good blends like Johnny Walker offer a smooth package of flavours, but only the single malts combine such distinctive and evocative savours, from candied fruits and marzipan to peat smoke and dark chocolate. The world of Scottish single malts can be traversed by many routes: we’ll go geographically, looking at each region and its whisky highlights in turn.
The heartland of Scottish whisky, Speyside is home to nearly two-thirds of the country’s distilleries. Its softly sloping hills, cleaved by the river Spey, seem to conceal a distillery in every tree-lined glen. The whiskies are marked by a sweet, fruity character which dominates the blended whisky market but also allows for superb single malt expressions. The lighter varieties, such as Cardhu, Glenfiddich and Glenlivet, are the most floral of Scottish whiskies. The heavier malts, very often aged longer in Spanish oak sherry casks than other whiskies (which are aged predominantly in American oak bourbon casks), have a richer, thicker, more toffee-like flavour. Of these, Glenfarclas, Macallan and Mortlach offer the most interesting varieties. Another Speyside whisky that doesn’t quite fit in either category, The Balvenie, is notable for its honey notes and fresh, buoyant character.
The most diverse of the Scottish whisky regions both geographically and on the palate, Highland whiskies offer something for everyone. Just east of Speyside, the Balmoral-bordering Royal Lochnagar and anCnoc (from the equally impossible to pronounce Knockdhu distillery) produce sweet, well-rounded whiskies, much like their Speyside counterparts. Farther south, in Perthshire, Dalwhinnie and Aberfeldy offer similarly smooth spirits, with a touch more body – all qualities shared by Glenmorangie, which is located in the north, some 50 kilometres above Inverness. The Dalmore, also at high latitude, has perhaps the most sherry influence of all Scottish whiskies, while Clynelish pairs its honeyed body with a touch of smoke and maritime saltiness.
Spreading north and west from the Scottish mainland, the islands were once full of small distilleries, but now have reduced their concentration considerably (with the exception of Islay, which comprises its own category – see below). Highland Park on Orkney is characterised by smoky notes paired with fruity sweetness. Talisker and Scapa have similar touches of smoke, but with considerably less sweetness and just a hint of salty sea breeze. Tobermory and Jura, in contrast, emphasise their delicate fruity notes without any smoke at all.
Set below the mountains near the commercial centres of Glasgow and Edinburgh, the lowland distilleries were also once numerous but have declined precipitously. Only three now release single-malt bottlings, all of which are light, grassy and slightly dry. Auchentoshen, near Glasgow, is nuttier and creamier than the rest, while Bladnoch has a little more body and Glenkinchie, not far from Edinburgh, offers both floral and fruity accents.
Once the distilling capital of Scotland, with dozens of distilleries, the Kintyre peninsula is now home to just three. And though new distillery Glengyle shows promise with Kilkerren, the only distillery of current significance is Springbank, with its rich, slightly peated spirit. The same distillery also produces the excellent heavily peated Longrow from the same stills, as well as the softer, entirely unpeated Hazelburn.
The most southwestern of the Hebridean isles, Islay calls itself the original home of whisky, but for aficionados it might well be Valhalla. The island is best known for its heavily peated malts, whose earthy, smoky flavours can be offputting to newcomers but are irreplaceable for fans. A three-kilometre stretch of the south coast is home to a trio of excellent distilleries that define the Islay type: Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg. But they are not everything the island has to offer: Bunnahabhain makes largely unpeated whisky with a distinctive toffee spiciness, and Bowmore combines light salty and peaty flavours with a surprising sweet smoothness. The true outliers, however, are Kilchoman, a relatively new make just finding its feet, and Bruichladdich, the most irreverent distillery in Scotland, with a huge range of small-batch bottlings, from heavily peated to all organic to Bordeaux-cask finished. And, after all, why not experiment with tradition? Scotland itself is changing rapidly in so many respects – it only makes sense that whisky will too.
March 2013, ONLY Magazine