Single-malt Scotch whiskey, once a well-kept secret of Scotland, is now the choice of many Americans, with tastes that range from almond to coconut to cinnamon to vanilla. Single-malt sales are up 11% from last year, an industry bulletin reports, for the third consecutive year. Sales of single-malt Scotches--Scotches not blended with other whiskeys--make up 35% of the revenue generated in U.S. Scotch sales.
"The single, or unblended, malt whiskeys of the Highlands are to Scotch what chateau-bottled classed growths are to Bordeaux," wrote Hugh Johnson, England's leading wine writer. "Each is superb, recognizable, consistent and exactly like no other whiskey on earth."
Although every single-malt Scotch whiskey has the same ingredients--malted barley, water and yeast--taste differences are born of geographical and geological influences. There are four regions of production: the Lowlands, in the south; Campbeltown, northwest of the Lowlands; Islay, on the West Coast, and the Highlands in the north, which includes Western and Speyside. There is little mystery to the pungent sea-spray influences of Islay malts or of the Highlands, where the waters' tumbling cascades flow through glens and heather-scented vales.
Then there is the malting process of the barley, steeped in the water to trigger the germination process within the barley grains. The germination is halted by kilns fired with peat, which adds an overlay of smoky flavor. Mashing the barley converts the starches into sugars, allowing fermentation. This then leads to distillation, the route to crystal-clear spirits, to be aged in oak barrels, like wine. The wood, particularly if it had once held sherry, can lend further exotic tastes to the whiskey.
And we, panelists who had assembled for a three-hour blind-tasting of whiskeys, learned that taste differences are influenced also by the glass in which the whiskey is served. With George Riedel, of the Riedel Glassworks family of Austria, we tasted three whiskeys, one of them Laphroaig, in the Riedel Single Malt-Whiskeyglas. In the snifter, the powerful Islay malt delivered an almost knockout punch, but from the flared-lip, straight-sided, thistle-shaped Riedel glass, the Laphroaig landed on the tongue with a subtle touch of sweetness, followed by a virtual explosion of aromatic intrigue. In a traditional tumbler, aromas are lost, Riedel explains, and snifters emphasize alcohol at the expense of finesse. But the shape of the Riedel glass directs the spirit onto the tip of the tongue, where sweetness is perceived, arriving onto taste buds gently, accentuating softness, roundness and silkiness.
For this tasting, we tried 42 whiskeys by region, first nosing neat, then splashing with pure water (one part water to two parts whiskey). Our tasting session resulted in extraordinary unanimity of appraisal, albeit some differences. A 20-point scale was used, with 20 being the best. Tasters were wine and spirits authority Mark Salter, Henry Preiss, importer of connoisseur-quality wines and spirits; Steve Wallace of Wally's West, leading L.A. wine and spirits merchant, and myself. Here, by region and order of perceived excellence:
ROSEBANK1980. 60.1%/vol. Single Cask Cadenhead bottling. $66; scored 16.6/20. Distilled at the Rosebank Distillery, Camelon, Falkirk, Stirlingshire. Imported by Preiss Imports, Santa Fe Springs, Calif. Gentle, golden whiskey, hints of wood, with a light smoky nose.
GLENMORANGIE1971 Vintage--86 Proof. $165; scored 19. Distilled by the Glenmorangie Distiller, Coy, Tain, Rossshire. Imported by Brown Forman, Louisville, Ky. This sipping nectar, with traces of butterscotch, has lingering, incomparable richness.
BALBLAIR1965. 44.6%/vol. Single Cask Cadenhead bottling. $260; scored 18.9. Distilled at the Balblair Distillery, Edderton, Tain, Rossshire. Imported by Preiss Imports, Santa Fe Springs. I gave it a full 20 for its almost buttery richness, balanced elegance.
GLENGOYNE17 Years Old--86 Proof. $65; scored 18.5. Distilled, matured, and bottled by Lang Brothers Ltd, Glengoyne, Sterlingshire. Imported by Paterno, Chicago. Time-distilled poetic concentration with no peat influence. The Queen Mother's choice. Intriguing taste from extended wood aging.
GLEN MHOR1976. 43%/vol. Single Cask Cadenhead bottling. $84; 18. Distilled at the Glen Mhor Distillery, Inverness, Invernessshire. Imported by Preiss Imports. Light golden whiskey with surprisingly exotic aromas.
GLENMORANGIE18 Years Old--86 Proof. $55; 17.5. Distilled by the Glenmorangie Distillery, Coy, Tain, Rossshire. Imported by Brown Forman, Louisville, Ky. Smooth, subtly aromatic with engaging complexity.
MACDUFF1978. 57.8%/vol. Single Cask Cadenhead bottling. $72; 17. Distilled at Macduff Distillery, Banffshire. Imported by Preiss Imports. Unfiltered whiskey may cloud with water, but remains rich in taste.