Scotch Single Malt Whisky. Arguably the most celebrated, collected and venerated of alcoholic drinks around the world.
It’s a fairly simple spirit though, and the process of distilling the uisge beatha has remained largely unchanged for hundreds of years and the ingredients – malted barley, water and yeast – are the same as they were at the very origins of whisky production. That is not to say that there has not been progress made in the refining of production or experimentation in whisky. This hasn’t always been positively received though, as can be seen in the now widely used E150a which has been approved by the Scotch Whisky Association – but that’s a whole other article in itself!
I recently went to a tasting night hosted by Paul John Indian Whisky in Chester organised by the City Club. As it turned out, this event was organised to attract new, younger members to the club and was not really aimed at whisky connoisseurs and this gave me an interesting insight into how newcomers look at the somewhat daunting prospect of buying quality single malts for the first time. Paul John happens to make it quite easy in their range – all of their whiskies are distilled in American white oak casks, are non age-statemented, and obviously avoid the ‘regioning’ of scotch (e.g. Speyside, Islay, Highlands etc.). It meant that everyone there could just taste the whiskies and decide on their favourite. Isn’t that the way whisky should be bought after all?
Sadly, this isn’t the case and you can sometimes be left with somewhat of a guessing game before spending your hard-earned money on a decent dram. Many good whisky shops do give you the chance to try before you buy, but that certainly isn’t available on every single bottle and whisky festivals offer a gluttony of choice but may still not have the one you were angling after originally! So what do you do if you’re looking for that perfect celebratory drink or ideal present for a loved one? Eeenie, meenie, miny, moe? I don’t think so!
So the time-tested methods to indicate what will best suit your nose and palate have always been those that I’ve mentioned already – age, barrel and region (or distillery). So what one is the best to go with, or do you really need a combination and a copy of Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible under your arm? I don’t think so, but let’s have a look at he pros and cons of looking at each!
What’s in an age? Age is probably the oldest (no pun intended) indicator to the quality of whisky and refers to the minimum age a whisky has sat maturing in a barrel. With single malts this is obviously pretty straightforward, but with blended whiskies or blended malts, it is the minimum age of the youngest whisky.
Why you SHOULD judge a dram by its age: Age statements have been on the decline recently, especially in big brand whiskies. That’s not to say that they aren’t around to stay or don’t give a decent indication of a whisky’s quality. Speaking generally, the older a whisky, the more care and attention has been given to it by the distiller – after all, it’s a hefty investment to leave a barrel full of whisky to mature for 30 or more years in a warehouse.
From an investment point of view, more mature whiskies will tend to hold their value really well and for collectors, this can be the ultimate point of a whisky. For those of us who prefer to buy two, or just drink what we buy, that may not be a good enough reason. Surely a bottle of whisky that holds its value is actually worthless if it tastes rubbish!
Why you SHOULDN’T judge a dram by its age: If the top distilleries are stopping age statements across the board, there must be some logic to it. Whether it is purely business sense or just a way of encouraging broader thought when it comes to selecting whiskies, it is unavoidable that even the big names such as The Glenlivet, Dalmore, and more are moving away from simply putting the age on the bottle. It is now, realistically, more difficult to judge the quality of a whisky by looking at the age of it and this means that judging cost can also become that wee bit more difficult. After all you expect to pay a substantial amount for a 25 year old, but would you also instinctively think that a Reflexion costs almost 5 times as much? I somehow don’t think so…
What’s in a barrel? Obviously I’m not just talking about the whisky on this one! The barrels that store the raw spirit can vary substantially but are almost always made from oak. It means that the most important question is not what is in the barrel, but what was in the barrel. The barrel is, ultimately, the most important factor involved in creating the unique nose, taste and colour of the whisky you are sitting with. To start with, it is important to split barrels into two broad categories: first-fill and pre-fill. First-fill barrels are best understood as ‘new’ barrels. They have never stored any liquid in them prior to the one it now holds and are therefore less likely to imbue the whisky with a taste familiar to other spirits/liquors. Pre-fill barrels on the other hand have stored another liquid in them and it makes it far easier to understand the probable taste of the whisky. Casks that have previously held sherry for example will generally give the whisky a sweeter, less oily taste. Bourbon casks are going to give a more spiced, nutty flavour to the whisky. Go Bourbon has an excellent summary on their website if you want to understand a little more about the ins and outs of different barrels.
Why you SHOULD judge a dram by its barrel: With this information in mind, it can become a little easier to discern the likely taste of a whisky before you buy it. I personally tend to favour whisky that has been aged mainly in Olorosso Sherry casks as they tend to offer more floral, caramel notes than anything aged in Bourbon casks. It is an instinct which can take a little time to work out and makes you feel somewhat smug about the fact that you can tell one sort of oak from another based solely on its by-product.
Why you SHOULDN’T judge a dram by its barrel: Firstly, not all whiskies are clear about which type of barrel is used throughout the production process. Often this is due to the use of a range of barrels in the ageing process, with the spirit switching from barrel to barrel over the course of a number of years. Secondly, let’s not forget about the fine blended malts which are available on the market – Compass Box, for example, offers superb, quality blended whiskies, the contents of which could come from a stupendous amount of different barrels. Practically, judging whisky by its barrel can be quite accurate, but the real difficulty is finding out what barrel was used in the first place!
What’s in a region? There are five definitive whisky regions in Scotland, with some disputing whether Islay should be its own, or included in the Islands. Here’s a very quick guide to these regions:
- Lowland – The lower part of Scotland is more mellow, light and citrusy than the rest of the country and has a surprisingly low number of distilleries catering to the single malt market. Examples: Auchentoshan, Glenkinchie, Loch Lomond
- Highland – Large amounts of variety characterise Highland whisky. This is largely dictated by the geography of the region and allows for everything from floral delicacy to peaty pungency. Examples: Glenmorangie, Glengoyne, Dalmore
- Speyside – A hugely distillery dense region with history aplenty. Tends to have a huge variety, but errs on the side of caution when using peat! Examples: Macallan, The Glenlivet, Glenfiddich
- Campbeltown – Far and away the smallest whisky producing region in Scotland, Campeltown could be said to have already had its hayday. Characteristically similar to west Highland malts, often with a little extra touch of peat smoke. Examples: Springbank, Glen Scotia, Longrow
- Islands (and Islay) – Here lies the peat! More specifically found in Islay distilleries but peat is a prominent feature in many, if not most Island based features. More subtle elements include a lovely taste and recall of the seaside. Examples: Laphroaig, Jura, Lagavulin
Why you SHOULD judge a dram by its region: As I’ve explained above there are definite characteristics to each region and once you’ve found where your palate lies geographically, you can really start to extrapolate the distilleries you’re more likely to find favour with. There are often outliers within each region but these tend not to be as dramatically different as going from region to region.
Why you SHOULDN’T judge a dram by its region: When I first started drinking and buying single malts I was around 18 years old and was yet to develop much of a palate for smoky or punchy whiskies and stuck to the same comfort zone my Granddad had always stuck to – Speyside. Speyside malts are a safe bet to be fairly smooth, easy drinking and well produced – and there is nothing wrong with this! It did mean, however, that I ended up being reluctant to try anything other than a Speyside or, to really push the boat out, a Highland malt. It’s not far off being 10 years since those halcyon days of first single malt purchases and I am yet to buy a bottle of any Island whisky, but I am developing that taste for peat after all this time. So while it’s good to know what you like and where it’s from, do venture out the comfort zone from time to time as it can be exceptionally rewarding!
So there we have it, how you could, should and might choose what bottle of whisky to buy. At the end of the day, nothing beats being able to taste the whisky before you try it and while some places are excellent at allowing a customer to try whatever they want, it’s unrealistic to expect it everywhere you visit. Pubs with good whisky selections are also your friend – remember that its better to spend £20 on a single measure of a whisky you turn out not to like than well over £100 on a bottle of the same!
Or just buy them all!