The key to understanding the diverse and complex world of single malt Scotch whisky, lies in Scotland’s geography, says Brian Robinson of Ballindalloch Distillery.
When was the last time you poured yourself a glass of single malt? Is it a rare treat at Christmas or a staple of the drinks cabinet that warrants pride of place? In either case, for many, it is often the familiar on which we rely, something tried and tested which we know will not disappoint. Yet single malt Scotch whisky is more diverse and complex than almost any other style of spirit. And therein lies the problem. For many, the task of fully understanding the wide range of characters and flavours the various distilleries offer can be, at best, complicated and, at worst, insurmountable.
As can often be the case with any subject, it can be as complicated as you wish to make it. That said, it can be simple, too. Once you know which path to take, the journey is easy. It is often a question of how far you wish to go in your pursuit of understanding. After all, drinking whisky should, first and foremost, be a pleasure.
The question asked at the beginning of this missive was deliberate. Single malts differ from blended whisky in a number of ways and, for now, it is the single malts we are concerned with. Indeed, to be even more specific, single malt Scotch whisky. While whisky can be produced anywhere in the world, when ‘Scotch’ appears on the label, it should be a byword for quality. The history of whisky-making in Scotland does much to set the scene and many brands still play on the image of the babbling burn in the heather-clad hillside. The truth is often quite different, with many distilleries now measuring their output in the millions of litres each year.
In contrast to the large global names known to many, in recent years there has been a number of distilleries that do fit more closely to the image from days of yore. A more artisan, craft approach from small producers is gaining popularity and will, in time, provide a robust alternative to volume producers. The desire for the modern whisky drinker to seek out something that has been made by craftsmen, not just produced within an automated process, is strong and growing. Indeed, in every region across Scotland, there are a good number of new distilleries which are either under construction or have recently been completed.
Regardless of size, one thing remains true and that is that single malt whisky needs somewhere to call home. The ‘single’ in single malt refers to the fact that the contents of the bottle were made in one place, it’s spiritual home if you will (pun firmly intended). Many a wine drinker will know their Burgundy from their Bordeaux, but can the same be said of someone when it comes to the various regions applied to whisky-making? What follows is by no means exhaustive, rather an introduction to the range of styles and characters that is available.
The most densely populated area of whisky production and home to many of the most well-known distilleries.
Historically a hotbed for illicit distilling, many of the whiskies made here grew from illegal beginnings in the 19th century. In whisky terms, this is the land of the giants. Some of the big distilleries here are expanding to become bigger still. While this is a barometer for the global popularity of Scotch whisky, for many, it also represents the opposite of what they look for in a whisky. Do not discount the ‘big boys’ however, as they are popular for a reason. The quality is there but for many, the high production volumes are a turn off. If that is true for you, then look for offerings from those with smaller outputs such as Longmorn, Tomintoul or Benromach. They often share the fruity or floral base character present in big Speysiders such as Glenlivet or Glenfiddich, but perhaps cannot be found in your local supermarket. If you want to get a real feel for the area, the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival is a wonderful opportunity each year to visit some of these less well-known distilleries which are often closed to the public for the rest of the year.
The historical view of the Lowland region would offer descriptions of light and delicate flavours often delivered as a result of the use of triple distillation. Far fewer distilleries use this method now, Auchentoshan being the most notable for retaining full production this way. The lighter style, though, is still evident in expressions from Glenkinchie, while Glengoyne tends to present a more complex range of flavours. Certainly, the landscape here has lost a number of well-known producers over the years as the perception of more flavourful offerings from the north became more dominant.
When you consider that the two major Scottish hubs of Glasgow and Edinburgh occupy this region, it would seem a little curious as to why more distillers do not have a production base here. A good number of bottling facilities are based here, though, together with the administrative support for some of the larger companies.
Geographically speaking, the largest region in terms of area, but not as densely populated as the romantic view of Highland distilling might suggest. A combination of inland and coastal locations offer a wide range of choice here. Popular names such as Glenmorangie and Dalwhinnie offer a light and delicate base character while the slightly less well-known Glendronach and Tomatin tend to present a more robust, sweet style. When looking towards the coast for your chosen dram, you might find that those who mature their spirit there, such as Old Pulteney, may offer a little of the ozone character drawn from the sea air. When travelling in the Highlands, once you are north of Perth, you will see familiar names in almost every direction you look. Often located in areas where populations are small, it is easy to see how many of these distilleries were once the heart of their local community.
Located on the West Coast, this area of whisky-making is, sadly, a shadow of its former self. Its inclusion is based more on a rightful place in the history of whisky-making than the current reality. The downfall of Campbeltown was driven by a number of factors and, by and large, it was a victim of its own success. But, despite the numerous closures of the 1920s, a presence still remains with Glengyle, Glen Scotia and arguably the most well known, Springbank. Flavours from these distilleries offer a bridge from a light spicy character to the more full-blown peated style of their near neighbours on Islay. Springbank in particular can offer an interesting range by virtue of clever use of their stills to create three distinct brands. If you know what to look for, many of the buildings in use across the town today still show signs of their original use.
Without doubt, the most divisive of regions among whisky drinkers. Renowned for heavy, peaty, medicinal flavours; to introduce someone to whisky by offering them a Lagavulin or Ardbeg would be tantamount to offering a vindaloo to someone who had never eaten curry before. Many drinkers move to these pronounced flavours over time, but once there, they rarely leave.
Much has been written about the powerful smoky nature of the majority of whiskies from this small western isle, but subtlety can be found here too. Look at Bowmore, for example, and you will find that a delicate warmth, light smoke and rich spice can also be on offer. The annual Feis Ile festival is considered by many as a pilgrimage to the home of ‘peat reek’, and is not to be missed.
This may be a contentious addition to the list, but a necessary one in my view. Can the whisky from Jura be realistically offered in direct comparison to Orkney’s Highland Park? Possibly not, but for those who chose an island life, it is often argued that their natural disposition towards tradition and heritage is more deeply rooted than on the mainland. This is important, as many drinkers of whisky enjoy the idea that their dram is untroubled by the modern world. Invariably smaller in size than many distilleries, an old-fashioned approach to production is perhaps more common on the islands. Flavours range from the peppery spike of Talisker on Skye to the sweeter honeyed flavours of Scapa.
With the march of time and ever refined marketing, one could ask if the regions are still as valid as they once were. It is not too difficult to find crossovers where whisky from one region mirrors the flavours more closely associated with another. The Balvenie, for example, has over recent years successfully released a number of peated expressions more akin to the Islay whiskies. One needs to decide where tradition should be upheld and where convention should be challenged. While this is a decision for each of us as consumers, the idea that there can still be clear regional identity is still a pleasant one.
There remain many variables that have not been addressed here, principle among which are the variety of casks used and the length of time that can be involved in the maturing of your whisky. Perhaps a conversation for another time, but regardless of whether you are setting out to discover more or you are a confirmed whisky buff, always take the time to enjoy what is in your glass. Should you choose to embrace the rich diversity of the whisky palate, take time to look around. Don’t always reach for the names you know. There are some outstanding offerings from smaller, less prominent names that should not be ignored.
I am often asked what I would put forward as my favourite whisky. The truth is it depends on so many things, such as where I am, who I am with, what we are doing, the time of day, etc. Mood can play a huge part in what we choose to drink, but rest assured, with such variety and quality on offer, I can always find a single malt Scotch whisky worthy of toasting your good health – Slàinte Mhath!