MY KEY TO WHISKY
From a young age I was always intrigued by the distinct aromas of Scotland’s most famous drink.
Having grown up as the daughter of a Scottish publican, it was only natural that I would become familiar with the various names of the malts and their distilleries that adorned the walls of my parents bar the Cross Keys.
When I was old enough (honestly!) I began to explore the variety of flavours that were produced from these magical looking bottles with their wonderful Celtic names and designs.
As I have grown older and now run my family’s bar, I have had the fortune to visit many of our countries distilleries and fully appreciate the subtle changes in flavour that come from the barrel, region, water, malting or other parts the distillation process can bring about.
The following are my notes and the Key’s to Scotland’s malts. thanks and Enjoy.
Claire Nicole, whisky lover & proud custodian of the Keys Bar
THE SPEYSIDE MALTS
To some, Speyside represents the jewel in whisky’s crown. Speyside is the home of legal whisky production and are probably the best known brands around the world and typify whisky from this region.
Classic examples include Glenlivet, Macallan, Glenfiddich, Glenrothes and Glenfarclas and are widely regarded as some of the best we have to offer.
The heart of the region running from the Monadhliath mountains up to the north sea is the River Spey. It is the fastest flowing river in Britain, and also well known for its salmon fishing.
Speyside is Scotland’s principal whisky-producing region and has within it some forty-six operating distilleries - over half the total number in the entire country.
Speysides are essentially sweet whiskies with a little peaty character and are typically HIGHLY PERFUMED, FEMININE, and ELEGANT.
The classical nature of Speyside’s malts means that a number of the finest malts are used almost exclusively for blending. It is the top Speysider’s that give good blends their ‘Top Dressing’.
Malts such as Mortlach, Glen Elgin, Strathmill and Benrinnes are rarely found as distillery bottlings, however when individual casks are often tracked down by independent bottlers.
Following the Excise Act of 1823, the first licence to legally distil whisky in the North Scotland was granted in 1824 to George Smith and his son John Gordon Smith of the Glenlivet distillery in Speyside. For many years afterwards, George carried a pair of hair-trigger pistols to protect himself and his family from reprisals by illicit distillers. John made do with a cutlass.
THE HIGHLAND MALTS
The few distilleries remaining within easy reach of Glasgow and Stirling illustrate this diversity in microcosm: from GRASSILY INTENSE, deceptively powerful Glengoyne to multi-faceted, iconoclastic Loch Lomond; and from the evolving character of ex-mill Deanston to the NUTTILY FRAGRANT resurrected plant at Tullibardine.
The eastern coastline north of Inverness is a hotbed of whisky individuality. There’s a general tendency towards medium-weight spirit with a hint of brine, but here you’ll also find the lightly fragrant spice of Tomatin, the rich complexity of Dalmore, and the uniquely waxy Clynelish.
The Eastern Highlands, taking in Banff and Aberdeen, and heading south towards Montrose, are home to wildly differing distilleries, from Glendronach and Glenglassaugh – tending towards a richer Speyside style – to the more austere, smokier delights of Glen Garioch and Ardmore.
Perthshire once counted 70 or so distilleries within its borders; now there are only six in the whole of the Central Highlands. The survivors range from the thickly fruited spice of Aberfeldy, Edradour and grassy Royal Lochnagar in the shadow of Balmoral, to the succulent honeyed richness of Dalwhinnie.
THE LOWLAND MALTS
The Lowland region lies south of an imaginary line drawn from the Clyde estuary, on the west coast, to the Tay estuary, on the east coast. Whiskies from Lowland distilleries tend to be much SOFTER and LIGHTER in character. They often display very MALTY, GRASSY characteristics and more SUBTLE DELICATE AROMAS than whiskies from the other regions.
Mass production was the enemy of single malt production in the Lowlands – including Edinburgh and Glasgow – with distillers earning the region a bad reputation in the 18th and 19th centuries by flooding the market with poor-quality spirit.
Already impacted by the rise in popularity of blends – suffering in comparison with their more ‘characterful’ Highland rivals – Lowland malt distilleries were dealt further blows by tax hikes, the First World War and the onset of Prohibition in the US.
These factors ruined the finances of many distillers, leading them to close their facilities or refocus on making grain spirit to be combined with Highland and Island malts for the rising number of blended Scotch brands.
Thankfully, a few hardy Lowland distilleries survived the bad times, continuing to produce the gentle, grassy and easy-drinking single malts that are the signature style of the region, including Glenkinchie just east of Edinburgh and Auchentoshan on the outskirts of Glasgow – whose triple-distilled whisky offers an echo of Lowland distillation history.
There are new arrivals, too: tiny Daftmill in Fife, which began production in 2003, and Ailsa Bay on the Clyde coast; a much bigger affair and – perhaps appropriately given its Lowland location – with all of its production destined for blends. Another distillery, Annandale in Dumfriesshire, is slated to open later in 2014.
THE CAMPBELLTOWN MALTS
Campbeltown whiskies are a curious mix. Characteristics include a defined DRYNESS with a PUNGENCY, SMOKE and a solid SALINITY. Imagine a cross between the Lowlands and the Western Highlands with a pinch of salt thrown in for good measure.
There was a time when Campbeltown was the most prolific of all of Scotland’s whisky regions. Around a century ago there were as many as twenty-eight distilleries in the geographically smallest of Scottish appellations.
Today there are but three: the newly founded Mitchell’s Glengyle, though it will be a few more years ‘til any Glengyle single malt whisky is bottled, Glen Scotia and Springbank, a distillery which produces three very different whiskies using different levels of peat and still combination.
Campbeltown sits on the Mull of Kintyre peninsula protruding from the western coast, ‘mist rolling in from the sea’.
It is the proximity to the coast that gives the whisky its salty tang. Campbeltown single malts are often superb aperitifs.
THE ISLAY MALTS
The Northern Islay Distilleries - Bruichladdich (the 'ch' is silent) and Bunnahabhain ('Boona-hah-ven') are, by contrast, much milder. These draw their water direct from the spring, before it has had contact with peat, and use lightly or un-peated barley.
The resulting whiskies are lighter flavoured, mossy (rather than peaty), with some seaweed, some nuts, but still the dry finish. Bowmore Distillery, in the middle of the island on the shore of Loch Indaal, stands between the two extremes - peaty but not medicinal, with some toffee, some floral scents, and traces of linseed oil.
Caol Ila ('Cal-eela'), although close to Bunnahabhain, produces a delicate, greenish malt, with some peat/iodine/salt balanced by floral notes and a peppery finish.
The Southern Distilleries - Ardbeg, Laphroaig, and Lagavulin, also referred to as the Kildalton Distilleries, and Port Ellen (the latter was closed in 1983) - are the most powerful, producing medium-bodied whiskies, saturated with peat-smoke, brine and iodine.
Not only do these distilleries use heavily peated malt (54 ppm at Ardbeg, 40 ppm at Laphroaig), they use the island's peaty water for every stage of production - until they were closed in the early 1980s, Ardbeg had its own floor maltings and used to steep the barley in the same water.
Islay Peat and Water Islay is very largely composed of peat, layer upon layer of spagnum mosses and other vegetation have been rotting away and created the compact black banks of peat which are used for home fuel and for the whisky industry.
Most of the water on Islay is brown, even the water in the burns is brown, and winter gales drive salt spray far inland, and this saturates the peat, which is dried again by the briny, seaweedy breeze. All these characteristics go into the whiskies of Islay, to a greater or lesser extent.
THE ISLANDS MALTS
The Islands classification of single malt whiskies is a category of convenience, since these distilleries officially fall under the Highland denomination. They’re also the most scattered collection of distillery locations, from Arran in the south to Lewis in the North-West and Orkney (plus soon Shetland) in the North.
If such a disparate collection of distilleries has a heart, it is the Inner Hebrides, which apart from Islay includes Skye, home to Talisker’s mix of peat and pepper; Jura’s eponymous malty slow burner; and on Mull, gale-lashed Tobermory’s fruity malt, alongside its smoky alter ego, Ledaig.
Moving north and east and crossing the Pentland Firth, we hit Orkney and a contrasting pair of malts: Highland Park’s richly sweet peatiness and Scapa’s gentle fruit. Further north still, the Shetland Distillery Company plans to start making whisky in 2015 at Saxa Vord, on Unst.s