Highland Friends to Warm the Night

December 3, 2008

Source: New York Times


UNLIKE vodka and gin, rum and tequila, whiskey is serious business. Very serious business. How do I know this? Well, among poets whiskey inspires verse. Among critics, alas, it inspires tomes - guides complete with display wheels in rainbow colors categorizing the myriad astonishing flavors and aromas to be found in a glass. They tend to include stern guidelines on how the budding connoisseur should taste and assess whiskey and - apparently more important - how not to.

You do not ordinarily see this level of serious detail in articles or books on rum, tequila or vodka. But you will eventually, for one simple reason.

Good whiskey is expensive, especially good Scotch whiskey, by which I mean single malt. From practically nowhere 35 years ago single malts took off. Now they rule the shelves in the liquor store - the serious liquor store. They cost more than most other spirits, without the expense of the ridiculous bottles that house high-end vodkas, which, by the way, are far less costly to produce than single malts.

Naturally, other spirits want to recover the shelf space and the attention given to single malts, while getting in on some of the profits. They've done this by following the example of single malts: they have become very serious.

Instead of the assembly-line bottlings of industrial hooch, almost every category of spirits - bourbon, Irish whiskey, tequila, rum, gin and even vodka - now has its artisanal production. These are often glorious bottles, demonstrating that careful craftsmanship can produce complex, intriguing spirits worthy of contemplation. While we have not yet heard in English at least from the Robert Burns of tequila - Jimmy Buffett cannot be the last word - I have no doubt that we will.

Nonetheless, in the hierarchy of serious spirits, single malt Scotch whiskey still rules. No other category has the sheer variety of styles and expressions that single malt whiskey offers, nor has any other whiskey been as carefully analyzed, codified and parsed.

Let me interject here: I'm aware that serious single malt connoisseurs are by now beside themselves at my continued use of the spelling "whiskey," rather than their preferred "whisky." You receive your wisdom from the angels, perhaps, but my editors prefer whiskey, so it shall be.

Now, while single malts can be enjoyed year-round, the onset of winter and long cold nights - to my mind at least - is perfect whiskey weather. With that thought, the spirits panel gathered recently to sample 21 malts from the Speyside region of the Scottish Highlands. For the tasting, Florence Fabricant and I were joined by Pete Wells, editor of the Dining section, who writes frequently on spirits, and Ethan R. Kelley, the spirit sommelier at the Brandy Library in TriBeCa.

I will say that while tasting 21 of anything with the potency of whiskey can be a difficult proposition, this was one of the most pleasant and interesting tastings I can remember. The overall quality of the whiskeys was excellent, and the range of flavors and styles was remarkable.

"This was proof that Speyside is heaven on earth," Ethan said. "It blows my mind that these can be so close yet so different."

We chose Speyside mostly because it has more distilleries than any other region of Scotland, including three of the best known in the United States, Glenfiddich, Glenlivet and Macallan. We thought it would offer a greater cross-section of single malt styles than anywhere else, and the malts were indeed diverse. Some of the whiskeys were almost sweet, with aromas and flavors of honey and heather, toffee and flowers. Others had a pronounced fruity quality, both bright citrus and fruitcake. And a few had the sort of saline, medicinal, smoky flavors most often associated with the malts of Islay.

But the days are gone when single malts can be categorized by geography. It was easier decades ago, when regions like Islay, the Lowlands, the Highlands and the rest were fairly distinct. Each depended on local sources for its water, harvested nearby peat for fuel and grew and malted its own barley. Back then, many distilleries sought isolation, to escape what in American whiskey lore were called the revenuers, and isolation brought distinctiveness.

Nowadays, water is more standardized. Fuel is electric, or gas or oil, and even the malting of barley is commercialized, with malt specialists filling orders for various distilleries. The smoky, peaty quality that many people associate with Islay malts, a result of using peat to dry the malted barley, can be seen in malts from all distilling regions. Distinctiveness is no longer so much a result of site as it is of the distiller's discretion.

Still, single malts most definitely speak of Scotland. They have a clear terroir, which even if it is not as local as it once was is nonetheless unmistakable.

Distillers can issue whiskeys at any age they want: 10 years, 12 years, 15, 27, 8, and sometimes with no age statement at all. We wanted whiskeys of roughly the same age, and settled on 12-year-olds because, frankly, they are relatively inexpensive for single malts. The longer a whiskey is aged, the more of it is lost to evaporation and the more expensive it is. Also, the longer a distiller sits on whiskey without a return, the more it will cost eventually. Finally, age increases a whiskey's status as much as if not more than its appeal.

That last point, of course, is debatable. I personally like the taste of younger whiskeys, in which the raw spirit battles against the mellowing effects of barrel aging. But Ethan referred to them as "entry-level bottles," intended to entice consumers to climb a brand's hierarchy to the more costly older bottlings. We ended up with 18 bottles of 12-year-old Scotch, along with two 13-year-olds and one 10-year-old. Incidentally, the age statement tells you the age of the youngest whiskey in the blend. So, a 12-year-old single malt is made of whiskeys at least 12 years old.

The distillers issue seemingly endless variations on their bottlings, so some of the malts in our tasting were limited editions, like our No. 1, the Balvenie Signature, which marked the 45th year of whiskey-making of Balvenie's distiller. It was complex, with long, lingering, delicious flavors. But if you can't find this one we also liked many standard bottlings, like our No. 7, the Balvenie DoubleWood, so called because the whiskey is aged first in barrels that had previously been used for bourbon, and then in oloroso sherry barrels.

The retail selection becomes especially confusing with the profusion of independent bottlings, as with our No. 2 malt. The distiller, Glen Grant, does not issue a 12-year-old whiskey. But an independent bottler, Gordon & MacPhail, bought whiskey from Glen Grant and issued a 12-year-old, which we found wonderfully intriguing, combining fruit flavors with more austere smoky, medicinal touches.

The rest of our top 10, though, were standard bottlings, which should be easier to find. We especially liked the Tamdhu 10-year-old, our best value at $30, which had a touch of sweetness along with waxy floral aromas, and the Cragganmore, which was on the smoky, earthy side.

The level of quality was so high that not all the malts we favored made the list. Pete especially liked the Aberlour, which reminded him of a hot toddy, and Florence loved the smoky BenRiach. I very much enjoyed an independent bottling of Longmorn from McGibbon's Provenance, which I thought was delicate and complex. While the Glenlivet and the Glenfiddich made our top 10, the Macallan did not. We all felt it seemed a bit too simple.

Aside from the diversity of expressions, single malt has its diversity of uses. Florence said she enjoys a glass before dinner, in front of a fire. Ethan spoke of drinking single malt with a fine steak, and with oysters, which speaks to Scotch's versatility. I love a glass late at night, with a book. Pete is partial to the late-night dram as well. In fact, I can think of only one place where a good single malt will almost never be found: in a cocktail.
Upcoming Events
Spirits of Mexico NY
New York, NY
October 13, 2011

Liquid Living Magazine