Just as wine is the preferred alcoholic drink of warmer climates, so is beer the drink of choice in the cooler northern climes where grapes grow with difficulty, if at all. When distilled, these drinks become, respectively, fruit-based brandy or grain-based whisky (or vodka, schnapps or similar products). Whether fruit-based or grain-based, these spirits were united centuries ago by a single name, "water of life," known variously as eau-de-vie, aquavit or, in Gaelic, usquebaugh, from which word the term whisky derives.
The history of distilling in Scotland dates back to the late 15th century, when it was discovered that distilled beer, if aged correctly, could produce something rather wonderful and warming. By mid 18th century, Scotch whisky had assumed something closely resembling its present form. Until the early 1960s, the vast majority of whisky was sold to grocery stores and independent bottlers, many of whom still bottle under their own labels.
At around that time, the family-owned distillery Glenfiddich decided to start bottling under its own label in order to protect the integrity of its product. Glenfiddich now no longer sells to blenders, as it is able to command a far higher price using its own name.
Slowly, this trend has caught on, and now there are around 120 distilleries bottling their own whiskies in a wide range of finishes and styles, as well as at various ages. Single malt Scotch whisky is the product of a single distillery that has not been blended with any other product from elsewhere. It must by law come from Scotland, and, if an age statement is made on the label, it must reflect the age of the youngest component.
Unlike Bourbon or Kentucky whisky, single malt Scotch is made from 100 percent malted barley. There are rather fewer than 100 working malt whisky distilleries in Scotland; most are located in the Spey Valley in northeast Scotland. A smaller group of very distinct malt distilleries exists on the western island of Islay, and a couple of top notch producers still exist in Campbeltown, once considered to be at the very center of fine whisky production.
Today, Macallan, Glenlivet, Glenmorangie and Laphroaig are almost household names. Twenty years ago, they were all but unheard of. There remain, however, literally dozens of outstanding distilleries that have yet to be discovered by the broader market. Although most are owned by drinks conglomerates like Diageo, a few (including Glenfiddich) are still independently-owned and operated.
Recently, a group of like-minded tasters (Michael Goldfarb, David Hoppe, Scott MacDonald and Jim Poyser) and I gathered around a number of the more obscure bottlings, some independently owned, to see what they were all about.
For further reading on the subject, I highly recommend Michael Jackson's Complete Guide To Single Malt Scotch. Prices listed below are approximate Indiana retail. These whiskies are, with the exception of Highland Park and Bruichladdich, distributed in Indiana by Carroll Company, Inc. Call 317-578-7300 for retail information.
Deanston 12 Year Old (Highland) $36
This relatively new distillery changed hands in the early 1990s and is now owned by the blenders Burn Stewart. Located in the town of Doune, it barely counts as a Highland malt, and is in fact more reminiscent of a bright and refreshing Lowlander. We found it to be moderately malty, with a briny, oily nose and a light, tangy palate. Hoppe noted its "polished, sharp and tart edge" while Poyser picked up a hint of iodine. All in all, a clean and refreshing drop.
Deanston 17 Year Old (Highland) $55
Sweeter than the 12 year, with a deeper bronze color and more pronounced sherry cask influence. Well-rounded, with notes of caramel and nuts. Slightly herbal (lavender, perhaps) and again very slightly briny on the finish. A good after-dinner malt.
Ledaig 15 Year Old (Tobermory Distillery, Mull) $60
Quite well-peated, with a pronounced iodine, Band-Aid component to the nose. Although quite light on the palate, the flavor is persistent, with notes of seaweed and a finish that Hoppe describes as "leathery, like a wallet or a chair." A distinct briny tang lets us know that this distillery is close to the sea.
Ledaig 20 Year Old $85
Sweet toffee and caramel overtones dominate the nose. A somewhat weedy, dill, herbal palate, with some oddly floral undertones. This is a surprisingly light whisky, considering the pronounced sherry cask aromas, and the finish is relatively short. As Poyser puts it: "This one just disappeared into my tongue."
Tobermoray 10 Year Old (Mull) $43
The nose is rubbery and tinged with iodine and seaweed. The palate is quite peaty with a noticeable charry barrel quality and hints of licorice. Although only 40 percent by volume, the alcohol dominates the light mid palate. An invigorating pre-dinner dram.
Bruichladdich 10 Year Old (Islay) $55 One of the few independently-owned distilleries, recently purchased from Makers Mark by a group of enthusiasts, Bruichladdich (pronounced Brew-Laddie) is destined to become a classic, if not a household name. Bruichladdich no longer chill filters or adds caramel coloring, and the improvement is noticeable. A lightly peated Islay malt, the 10 year old is bright and refreshing, as Hoppe calls it "a walk in the sun." With a hint of iodine, more than a suggestion of caramel and a smidgen of hay, the seductive nose leads us into an etherealy clean and slightly sweet palate of citrus and toffee. Director Gordon Wright also runs the celebrated independent bottlers Murray McDavid, and is a former director of Springbank (see below.) He and his cohorts clearly know what they are doing. This is great stuff.
Springbank 10 Year Old (Campbeltown) $73
An independently owned icon to distilling, Springbank has been owned by J. and A. Mitchell for almost two centuries. This is one of the very few distilleries to bottle its own whisky and malt its own barley. It also bottles unfiltered and uncolored at 46 percent by volume. The 10 year is a whisky of exceptional depth for one so young, with a sweet touch of sherry and the classic briny-sweet tang that comes from aging within a stone's throw of the ocean. Expensive, perhaps, but a splendid bottling.
Springbank 21 Year Old $165
Considered by many to be one of the definitive malts, this rare bottling represents the apex of this distillery"s output. Wonderfully sweet and briny, with a soft, fleshy mid-palate, this one just seems to pick up intensity on the palate, building to a long and perfectly-rounded finish. According to Hoppe, this is "the Mel TormÈ of whisky." We don"t quite know what he means by that, but certainly catch his drift. This is classic stuff.
Highland Park 11 Year Old, (Orkney) William Cadenhead Bottling, 56.8 Percecnt ($ N/A)
This magnificent distillery produces some of the finest single malts in a range of ages. We tasted this independent bottling for fun, and found it to be very typical of the distillery, with a floral, heathery, malty nose, with a hint of smoke and a touch of sweet oak. On the palate it"s a complex swirl of smoke, peat and sweet maltiness. If you can"t find this, the outstanding 12 year old is available for around $35.