Fair warning 1: This piece is dedicated purely to the legendary brown spirits produced and bottled at the many individual distilleries in Scotland, also known as malt whiskies or single malt scotch whisky.
There are perfectly good reasons why blended scotch dominated the second half of the past century, and perfectly good reasons to drink it now. Also, there are terrific single-malt style “scotch” whiskies that are made outside of Scotland (Japan, India, and the U.S. come to mind), but again, those quaffs are outside the scope of this article.
Fair warning 2: When delving into the misty world of whisky, the common toeholds of spirits appreciation (what is it made of? where is it made? how is it made?) tend to sit comfortably alongside a bit of “dew on the heather”—that is, a tradition of embellishments and romanticism. We are talking, after all, about a national beverage, a point of pride for the same country that gave us the poet Robert Burns, who once wrote: “But pleasures are like poppies spread, / You seize the flower, its bloom is shed.”
Which is a fancy way of saying, “Enjoy it and don’t overthink it.” One can pull apart the mythology of single malts, but it is a lot more fun and interesting to just drink the McKool-Aid and surrender to it.
The Basic Recipe
No mythology here. To make single malt scotch you: Get some barley grain; cook or “malt” the grain to release the sugars; mix the malted grain with water and yeast and let it ferment; take the fermented “wort” and distill it; store the distillate in wooden barrels; wait.
The alchemy of whisky-making enters in at every single point of that very basic process, however. The qualities of barley, like most spirits sources, can vary greatly depending on the particular strain, the growing location, the agricultural practices of the grower, the local climate, harvesting, transporting, and on and on. Most scotch distillers pay abundant attention to and practically guard their barley sources to ensure consistency and quality in their end product. The method, time, and temperature of the malting process has an impact on the end spirit’s flavor, but so does the source of malting heat itself.
Again, the science and process of fermentation can yield various flavors, but the very source of the water used is also important. Distilling processes, practices, and machinery all come into play, as well as the location of the distillery itself. With the exception of Lowland-style malts, which are thrice-distilled, most single malts are double-distilled.
And aging and barreling? The artful nuances here are endless. But here are some things to keep in mind: The minimum barreling age for single malt is three years, and the maximum is pretty much undefined. Most malts are casked in former bourbon barrels made of American oak, but many use French Limousin oak for primary barreling. The term “single cask” refers to spirits rested in one barrel their whole life before bottling, but secondary and even further barrelings are perfectly acceptable, including “finishing” whiskey in other types of storage to add a touch of flavor and color. Former Oloroso sherry barrels, sauternes wine barrels, champagne barrels, rum casks, and even experimental finishing in IPA beer barrels have expanded the distillers’ art.
Finally, bless the Scotch Whisky Association, which offers this succinct definition of single malt: “A Scotch Whisky distilled at a single distillery from water and malted barley without the addition of any other cereals, and by batch distillation in copper pot stills.” It perhaps goes without saying that the product must be bottled in Scotland, at a minimum 40% ABV.
The SWA recognizes five distinct regions for whiskey-making. Depending on your point of view, these classifications are either on the money or fairly arbitrary, but single malts that share a region, or better, tradition, do tend to also share some common characteristics.
This southern “terroir,” roughly from the English border north to a line that connects the cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow on each coast, is noted for softer, smoother, more floral malt whiskies. Auchentoshan and Glenkinchie are probably the most well-known of Lowland makers, but the common thread is superb products that lean toward a less-aggressive drinking experience.
This small region within the geographic Scottish Highlands’ east coast is the newest separate official whiskey region, but is actually home to the largest density of distilleries. Speyside derives its name from the River Spey that runs through the area and serves as the water source for most of the distilleries. “Spey” is Gaelic for “maidenhead,” and the promise of virginal aqua figures prominently into the back stories of the whiskies from here. Speyside whiskies are among the most well-known globally and include the “Glens” (Glenfiddich, Glenlivet, and Glenrothes among them) as well as notable best-sellers like the Macallan and the Cragganmore. Speyside malts are known for striking an appealing balance of smokiness, sweetness and complexity.
Highlands & the Islands
The islands that crown the Northern Scottish mainland (from the Orkneys to the Isle of Skye) are included in the larger Highlands on the mainland, but may someday define a separate official region (some maps already mark it that way). Between the islands and the mainland, this region boasts notable distilleries like the Dalmore, Glenmorangie, Highland Park and Talisker. Some may be tempted to categorize Highland-style malts as similar to their Speyside cousins, but less complex. I prefer: Reminiscent of Speyside, but more rugged and bold.
This southerly western seaside region was once home to a large number of distilleries, but only the superb Glen Scotia, Glengyle (with a single malt product known as Kilkerran) and Springbank remain. A Campbeltown’s defining characteristic could be poetically drawn by the term “sea-kissed.” But expect a hint of fruit and smoke as well.
The island of Islay stands as it own official region, and for good reason: The nine distilleries on the island, which include stars like Lagavulin, Laphroiag, the Bowmore, and Ardbeg, produce some prize-winning whiskies that can vary from light and sweet to the more commonly associated flavor profile of heavily-peated smokiness with a touch of sea brine and iodine.
Finally, how best to enjoy them? In a glass.