As drink categories go, whiskey isn’t always the easiest to make sense of. Blends, Malts, Blended Malts (which are altogether different beasts); the list goes on. The seemingly unstoppable emergence of "Single Malts," however, does make things a bit simpler.
Whilst blends are the product of malt and grain whiskies distilled at dozens of distilleries undisclosed to the drinker, single malts are whiskies distilled at just one distillery. From the barley they use for distillation, to the cask types in which they age their spirit, no two distilleries do things quite the same way. Each single malt is therefore unique; its flavour and spirit ‘character’ being a metaphorical (and actual) reflection of the place and people who crafted it.
In some ways, that makes things easier; we can pin down exactly why some whiskies are powerful, smoky drams whilst others are much lighter and floral. On the other hand, Scotland alone has over 130 malt distilleries, many of which craft several styles of whiskey under one roof.
Okay, okay, so there may not be a way of keeping Scotch simple, but at least we can’t bemoan a lack of choice when stocking up on some cracking whiskies to make it through the winter. Since we at Modern Luxury are always ones to be helpful, we thought we’d make the task easier and share five Scotch single malts we just can’t put down.
AnCnoc (‘a-nock’) is not a distillery itself. (Good start on the whole “keeping it simple” stuff, right?) It’s the name of the single malt distilled at Knockdhu Distillery, a choice to avoid confusion with Knockando, a neighbouring distillery to the west.
Now, we have a bit of a soft spot for AnCnoc. There's a lot to be said for drink brands that concentrate on getting the liquid right and leave the overdone marketing nonsense to the other guys. The house style of this understated malt is one of an unpeated, fruity and floral dram, usually on the sweeter side of things.
Their 18 Year Old is no exception. The tactful use of refill bourbon and oloroso sherry casks leaves out the overly woody, spicy notes which define heavily-sherried malts whilst preserving a sweet and grassy character. The most adventurous style of single malt out there? Perhaps not, but this is substance over form at play; a traditional Highland style done properly and, in any event, one of the best 18 Year Old Scotches we have ever tried.
To the envy of many other distilleries, we’re sure, Balblair has somewhat of a cult status amongst seasoned scotch drinkers. We reckon that’s largely down to consistency, as Balblair’s spirit character is always towards the weightier, full bodied end and is renowned for being slightly creamy in texture.
That heft of Balblair’s ‘new make’ spirit - the raw, high-proof alcohol which flows off the stills which only becomes Scotch whiskey after three years of aging - is partly down to the way they “cut” the spirit. During distillation, some of the spirit which runs off the copper stills is too rough and volatile to make good whiskey, but a well timed selection or “cut” captures some of the heavier oils and flavour compounds which are otherwise lost.
With their 18 Year Old, Balblair pairs that flavourful, richer new-make spirit with the wood to match. American oak ex-bourbon casks are used for the primary maturation before the spirit is introduced to European ex-sherry oak casks. A lighter style of spirit may struggle to draw out the earthy and spicy notes for which those European oak casks are known, but Balblair’s weighty and bold distillate manages with ease.
One of our harshest contentions with whiskey-based snobbery is age. The notion that single malts have to be 20, 30, 40 years old or even older is lazy and baseless. Aging whiskey is more art than science, and it's down to distillers to keep a watchful eye over their stocks and bottle casks. Only they can decide when the spirit has reached its “peak;” the point at which it has drawn all of the desired flavours from the wood. Act prematurely, and you’ll have a rough, immature spirit void of character. Leave certain whiskies “on wood” for too long, and they’ll be excessively oaky and unpleasant.
When lecturing that point, we often find ourselves using Bunnahabhain as an example of how to strike that balance perfectly. Distilled on Islay, a hauntingly beautiful and rugged island off Scotland’s western coast, ‘Bunna is known for the sheer quality of its younger releases. Indeed, their entry-level 12 Year Old which is our go-to; a nutty, well-sherried style rounded off by an unmistakable whiff of sea-spray salinity.
Up on the north-east Scottish coast sits another coastal distillery known for crafting a style of whiskey reflective of its place; Pulteney. Having largely grown around a herring fishing boom in Victorian times, the town of Wick is all but defined by the sea.
Its local whiskey is no exception. Old Pulteney’s hallmark is its subtly drying salinity which points to a classic maritime style. Their 18 Year Old retains that nod to the coast, but only just. First-fill sherry seasoned wood has been used to focus on an altogether much richer and spicier side of Pulteney’s house style.
The only distillery on the Isle of Mull, Tobermory falls within the “Islands” category of Scotch whiskey, perhaps the most problematic of the regions. It's tricky at the best of times to group single malts into certain profile types purely based on the region in which they were distilled. Trying to do so when that region captures islands all over Scotland with entirely different geographies is little short of a hopeless endeavour.
Tobermory illustrates why. Both peated and unpeated styles of malt are distilled, and a breathtaking varied selection of cask types are used to explore various flavour profiles. Their 23 Year Old is hands down our top choice from the range and has a curious production story behind it. Some of the same liquid used for their 15 Year Old was held back and transferred into casks imported from Gonzalez Byass’ sherry bodegas in Spain in Summer 2014 for a further period of aging until recently bottled.
Those casks have imparted Toberymory’s slightly-salty spirit with those nutty and rich flavours archetypal of oloroso sherries to produce a dram which has a bit of everything going on without overcomplication.