With long dark Winter nights ahead, you might be in the mood for a wee dram. Scottish single malt is the most popular premium whisky on the market. This was not always so. Only 30 years ago the market for this uncommon beastie was very small indeed. But what is it? Single malt whisky starts its life as a clear spirit distilled from fermented, malted barley. Single means that it comes from a single distillery rather than being blended across a number of them. If peat is used in the preparation of the barley grains the final whisky will have pronounced smoky characteristics. But the most important factor influencing the flavour and style of the final whisky, is the barrel in which it is matured and in which time and the influence of the wood turn the clear spirt into the much prized amber liquid.
It is traditional to use Bourbon or Sherry barrels. Bourbon casks are made of American oak which is heavily charred in the coopering process imparting flavours of both the wood and the Bourbon to the maturing whisky. This gives light aromas, vanilla and tropical notes. Traditionally, Sherry casks are made of French oak. A typical Sherry cask matured whisky will have dried fruit and spice flavours, and feel nutty and rich. The charring or toasting of the barrel is critical. It plays a significant part in the removal of unpleasant characteristics from the new spirit, and the later release of the flavour compounds from the wood to the whisky. The distillation process, the place where the whisky is matured, the length of maturation and the final strength of the bottling all play their part in determining the style of the finished product.
With an understanding of the variables in play during the maturation process it is easy to see what a wide range of styles the term “Scottish single malt” encompasses. Space dictates that we can only stock a very limited quantity of Whiskies in our shop and we hope that in our selection of the 20 or so that we currently carry, we have gone some small way to doing justice to the sheer diversity of Scottish single malts. Here are four.
Macphails Collection Bunnahabhain Heavily Peated 8 year old 43% (£36.40)
A light Islay dram, smoky, aged in refill Sherry butts
Linkwood 15 year old 43% (£49.75)
A medium bodied Speysider, smooth sherried style, aged in refill Sherry casks
Connoisseurs Choice Tormore 46% 1997 (£60.25)
A light Speyside dram, with a long creamy finish from first fill Bourbon barrels
Connoisseurs Choice Ledaig 46% 1998 (£60.25)
Lightly peated Island dram from the Isle of Mull, sweet fruit and peat smoke from refill Sherry hogsheads