Christmas is a peak period for whisky sales, and the desire to maximise enjoyment means that many of those sales are of single malt. But what is a single malt and what should you look for when choosing?
What is it?
To be classed as a single malt, the whisky must have been distilled at a single distillery, aged for a minimum of three years in oak
casks and have an ABV of 40% or more. In Scotland the only grain used is barley.
It is rare that a single malt is bottled from a single cask – most are a blend of different ages – the age stated on the bottle being the
number of years the youngest whisky in the blend spent in casks maturing.
That blending, the distillation process, type of maturation casks and geographical location of the distillery all help to create the
distinctive nature of each single malt – thereby ensuring there’s a ‘special’ malt for every taste.
The main regions
Single malts are generally classified by the regions they come from.
Speyside – home of the vast majority of Scotland’s whisky distilleries. Production mainly falls into two styles – lighter malts like Glenlivet and the richer, sweeter sherried malts like The Macallan. Speyside produces the world’s bestsellers – The Macallan, The Glenlivet, Glen Grant and Glenfiddich.
Lowland – with little or no peat used in the drying of the malt, Lowland malts tend to be fresh, light and fragrant – perhaps an explanation for their “Lowland Ladies” moniker. An excellent aperitif and where beginners to Scotch whisky are often advised to start, the three main distilleries are Auchentoshan, Bladnoch and Glenkinchie.
Campbeltown – Famous for slightly salty, smoky, dry tasting malts, and once the most prolific whisky producing area in Scotland. Now home to just three distilleries – Glen Scotia, Glengyle – whereKilkerran single malt is produced and Springbank – which makes three completely different malts – medium peated, two and a half times distilled Springbank; heavily peated double distilled Longrow and non-peated triple distilled Hazelburn!
Highland – which includes Skye and Orkney. Big bodied, powerful whiskies, often smoky and peaty, including names like Oban, Dalwhinnie, Royal Lochnagar and Glenmorangie.
Islay – The Holy Grail for many single malt lovers, Islay’s distilleries produce some of the strongest flavoured whiskies in the world – thanks to unique combinations of smoke from peat used to dry the barley, different levels of peat in the water and exposure to salt laden sea air that penetrates the barrels and flavours the maturing whisky. The southern distilleries – Ardbeg, Laphroaig and Lagavulin are the most powerful, producing medium bodied whiskies full of peat smoke, brine and seaweed iodine overtones. Whisky from the northern Bruichladdich and Bunnahabhain distilleries is much milder, with a drier, mossy flavour, coming from the use of spring water before it has made contact with Islay’s peaty soil and use of lightly or unpeated barley.
And if you want something in the middle – look for malts from Bowmore and Caol Ila.
A taste for everyone!