Although single malt Scotch still constitutes a small percentage of overall whisky consumption in this country, the category continues to rise dramatically in popularity each year. As a category unto themselves, for instance, single malts almost double the consumption of Irish whiskies. In 2000, according to Adams Liquor Handbook, single malt consumption increased 7.1 percent to 709,000 cases, with a number of brands showing even greater increases.
Glenlivet and its brand extensions (French Oak Finish, Archive 21 Year Old, etc.) still leads the pack in the US with a 26 percent share of single malt sales. Last year its volume rose 2.8 percent, while second most popular single malt Glenfiddich grew by more than 6 percent. The next three most popular single malts, The Macallan, Balvenie and Glenmorangie, continued impressive growth, and together the top five accounted for more than 60 percent of single malt sales in the US.
Making malt whisky is an expensive, labor-intensive process that involves several general steps. The grain used in the mash for making single malt whisky is specially selected barley, which has been soaked in water for sprouting. The sprouted barley is then dried in kilns fired by peat and/or coal. This kilning process can impart a distinctive smoky character to the spirit. As is the case with other whiskies, the malted barley is then mixed with warm water to produce a mash which is then fermented with the addition of yeast and distilled. The newly distilled spirit (about 70 percent alcohol) is then pumped into casks. At this point it is designated as “plain British spirits,” but after three years in the barrel, it can be called whisky.
Produced by more than 100 Scotch distilleries, each single malt has a style and flavor all its own. It is also important to note that each single malt is the product of a single distillery and comes from a single batch of whisky.
To simplify matters, single malts are often grouped according to the region where they are produced. The four main geographical areas are the Lowlands, Islay, Campbeltown and the Highlands, the latter including Speyside.
According to Dave Broom in his new book, Handbook of Whisky: a Complete Guide to the World’s best Malts, Blends and Brands ($19.95, distributed by Sterling Publishing), in most malts, flavor begins in the washbacks, the large vats where the wort (the liquids extracted from the mashed grain) is fermented by yeast. Ferment for fewer than 48 hours, he says, and the resulting spirit will have nutty and spicy characteristics. Longer fermentation means more complex flavor compounds.
And ultimately, Brown says, up to 60 percent of a malt’s flavor comes from the wooden barrels in which the spirit ages. With distillers offering new combinations all the time Glenmorangie continues its experiments with wood, recently adding a 1975 vintage bottling finished in Cote de Nuit burgundy casks, and Balvenie recently released a 17 Year Old finished in casks that once held single malt from Islay the quality, condition, origin and provenance of the wood is increasingly important.
BASIC FACTS ABOUT SCOTCH WHISKY
Scotland is undoubtedly one of the world’s classic whisky-producing regions. It is blessed with a combination of natural resources and climate that has proven ideal for making whisky. And as Scotland’s chief export, whisky is inextricably bound to the fabric of the nation’s culture and economy.
Scotch whiskies age at different rates depending on where they were distilled as well as the location and the conditions in which they mature. Throughout the years of maturation, the whisky, which coming out of the still is a colorless spirit, gradually becomes more complex. Its color changes too, taking on an amber tint from the wood of the cask.
By law, all Scotch whisky must be aged at least three years, and few brands enter the U.S. without being aged at least four years. Those that are less than four years old must carry an age statement on the label. The spirits are normally aged in oak casks, frequently casks that have been used for bourbon aging in the U.S. Many distillers also use barrels that once held sherry or wine. The majority of single malts spend a minimum of five years in casks, although most are aged at least eight years, and some for much longer.
Malted barley is the primary grain used in making Scotch whisky.
Drying the barley in kilns heated by peat fires gives Scotch its smoky flavor.
A single malt Scotch is the product of a single batch produced by single distillery.
Blended Scotch accounts for 95% of all consumption in the U.S.
Scotch is often aged in casks formerly used to age sherry, port or bourbon to impart certain flavor characteristics.
2001 SINGLE MALT SCOTCH TASTING NOTES
BALVENIE ISLAY CASK 17 YEAR OLD
43% alcohol by volume, Speyside; imported by Wm. Grant
The Islay smokiness obscures the classic Balvenie Speyside nose, but not aggressively so. Sweet spicy opening, followed by mild lemon peel and drying grass notes. Soft, supple and honeyed, with flowery essences bubbling up. Distinctive and lush, without the potency of classic Islay seaside smoke.
(12 years in bourbon barrels, two years in port pipes) 51.5% ABV, Islay; imported by White Rock Distilleries.
Expected smoke and sea aromas moderated by softening Port addition. Typical lanolin unctuousness with a slight lavender and violet perfume opening. Toasted nuts and ripe figs join with an integrated supple mouthfeel and a dash of peatfires at seaside. Persistent and lush.
THE BRUICHLADDICH 15 YEAR OLD
46% ABV, Islay; imported by Winebow.
Fresh nose of sea, cinnamon and lavender. Flavors of lemon peel, light seaside smoke and sweet and bitter oranges. Hints of almond and iodine and a classic bracing Islay finish.
THE DALMORE 21 YEAR OLD
43% ABV, Northern Highlands; imported by Future Brands.
Fully integrated aromas of heather, leather and oak. Lean, tea-like opening flavors yield to refined confectionery sweetness. Notes of apricot pits, citrus peel and a touch of sea air complete the well-balanced core flavors and yield to a subtle and elegant finish.
GLENFARCLAS 17 YEAR OLD
43% ABV, Speyside; imported by Sazerac.
Pale black tea color and a nose with a hint of fresh fruitwood smoke. Mouth-filling honey and butterscotch flavors with a peppery yet sweet sherried fruit attack. Bold and assertive without being overwhelming.
GLENGOYNE 17 YEAR OLD
43% ABV, Highlands; imported by Skyy Spirits.
Fruity, estery nose with strong oak and sherry flavors, some cooked apple sweetness. Slowly unfolding and long lasting vanilla and maple sugar finish. Supple and persistent finish.
THE GLENLIVET CELLAR COLLECTION 1967
46% ABV, Speyside; imported by Seagram.
Pale amber hue and restrained nose with hints of fruited sherry and grilled apples. Flavors of nuts and oatmeal with butter, honey and sweet spices. Powerfully lush with a peppery finish and persistent clean finish that asks for more.
THE GLENROTHES 1989
43% ABV, Speyside; imported by Skyy Spirits.
Lovely though markedly different from previous vintages. In comparison it does show a tad less complexity and depth, less fruity, less warmed by vanilla and dried fruits, and instead owes more to earth than fruit. It attacks with a touch of sweet, sun-rich apricots and quickly glows to a lingering soft pine smoke.
THE MACALLAN 1961
54.1% ABV, Speyside; imported by Remy Amerique.
Classic Macallan nose (coffee, oranges and a touch of sweet smoke) plus lots of oak and spices. Flavors of citrus and vanilla with loads of toasted oak. Oddly bourbonized, with lean and drying finish, leaving behind puckery hints of sandalwood and tea.