An Introduction to Single Malt Whisky

By Steve Watson
February 23, 2021

With over 150 distilleries in Scotland, each producing an array of whiskies, deciding on which to buy can be a daunting experience. Whiskies differ enormously depending on the region in which they are produced - some light and floral, others heavy and medicinal.

Whisky or Whiskey?

We’re concentrating on Scottish single malts in this blog, so it’s whisky, without the ‘e’, not whiskey with the ‘e’. Long story short, if the label uses an ‘e’ in the spelling then the chances of it being a Scottish whisky are very very slim.

What is a Single Malt Whisky

Single malt Scotch whisky is one of the most respected spirits in the world. Few spirits encompass the heritage, craftsmanship, complexity and ageing of single malt whiskies. To legally be called a single malt Scotch, the whisky must be distilled at a single distillery in Scotland, in a copper pot still from nothing other than malted barley, yeast and water. It must then be aged in an oak cask for at least three years and a day, and be bottled at no less than 40% ABV.

Availability

Most, if not all, of the whiskies mentioned in this blog are available in the supermarkets. A good number of the whiskies listed below can often be found being sold at reduced price, particularly in Morrisons.

Whisky Regions

Single malt whiskies are grouped by regions, with each region offering a particular unique characteristic to the whisky. The terroir and geography of the region plays a huge part in the character of the whisky. Though in a Scotch single malt, it is the oak barrel that has the largest effect upon the character of the finished spirit, purported to be at least 60% of the final flavour.

There are over a 150 single malt whisky distilleries in Scotland, each producing an array of malts of maturation and cask variations. The scope of whiskies is vast indeed, and choosing a bottle for yourself or someone else can be a overwhelming task. Generally speaking, if you’re looking for a whisky with a distinct flavour profile then it’s easier to narrow down your options by choosing from a region.

Highlands

The largest region of single malt whiskies hosting approximately a third of Scotland’s distilleries. Due to the size of the region the flavour characteristics of the whiskies can vary, making it difficult to make a sweeping statement about the their flavour profiles.

It’s easier to split the region into north, south, east and west parts and consider each part as a sub-region. To the north, the whiskies are generally heavier, big bodied malts. Glenmorangie, about 40 miles north of Inverness, is the most popular whisky from the Highlands region, and a ‘go-to’ malt for many whisky drinkers. The popular flagship Glenmorangie 10 is available almost everywhere, and a highly recommended malt.

Another whisky, whose distillery is the most northerly in the Highlands, about 15 miles south of John o’ Groats is Old Pulteney. Being close to the shore, Old Pultney whiskies possess a slight saltiness. The Old Pulteney 12 is available in most supermarkets and well worth a try.

In the south of the Highlands region is the Aberfeldy distillery. The southern areas generally produce lighter, fruitier whiskies such as the Aberfeldy 12 with its syrupy and vanilla notes.

To the west, the Highland whiskies trend towards the full bodied, peaty, smokey flavours such as the Oban 14 available at Tesco. The flavours are more typical of Islay whiskies. To the east, the flavours are drier and more pungent. The Ardmor Legacy is slightly grassy with pear drops.

Speyside

Though the smallest region on the mainland, Speyside hosts the highest number of distilleries in Scotland at approximately 50% of Scotland’s total number. Whiskies from this region dominate the supermarkets including Abelour, Balvenie, Cragganmore, Dalwhinnie, Glenfiddich, The Glenlivet, Glen Moray and MacAllan.

Speyside whiskies tend to be lighter, sweeter and honeyed, with The Glenlivet and Glenfiddich being the top selling whiskies world wide.

Lowlands

Nicknamed the “Lowland Ladies”, these malts from the Lowlands possess soft floral flavours. Look out for Auchentoshen and Glenkinchie.

Islay

Though the smallest region of whisky producers, Islay malts are by no means insignificant. Their powerful, smokey, peaty, almost medicinal characteristics set them apart from the majority of other producers. Power house malts such as Ardbeg, Laphroaig and Lagavulin attract whisky drinkers looking for a unique experience. Of the dozen or so Islay distillerie, the three mentioned above are a a pleasant assault on the nose and taste receptors, kicking out heavy smoke and tarry notes.

Less peaty Islay whiskies are produced by Bunnababhan and Caol Ila, with more gentle malts from Bowmore and Bruichladdich distilleries. If you’re more accustomed to the Highlands or Speyside whiskies but fancy delving into the Islay malts go for the Bowmore or Bruichladdich first before braving one of the three mentioned at the top.

Islands

The islands to the west of Scotland produce a diverse range of whiskies. Due to the close proximity to the sea, Islands whiskies have a slight salinity to their taste. Popular makes include Highland Park, Talisker, Tobermory and Jura.

Campbeltown

Until U.S. prohibition, Campbeltown was once the most prolific producer of whisky and as a result, until recently, only two distilleries existed. Campbeltown whiskies are characterised by their dryness and pungency. I’ve yet to see any whiskies from this region in the supermarkets.

How to Drink Single Malt Whiskies

Single malt whiskies are meant to be drunk neat, except for a teaspoon or so of water depending on its alcohol content and flavour strength. Water is already added to most whiskies before bottling, so adding more isn’t generally required. Cask strength whiskies are bottled without any additional water, evidenced by their high alcohol (50-60+% ABV). High alcohol content can numb the tongue to the flavour profiles. Adding a teaspoon of water to cask strength malts ‘opens’ up the whisky, releasing aromas and flavours otherwise undetected. Skip the ice because ice because it’ll hinder the aromas and flavours.

Mixing single malts with coke or any other pollutant defeats the whole purpose of drinking it it the first place. Adding a mixer would be like draping a net curtain over a Rembrandt and being expected to appreciate its magnificence.

Whiskies produced for mixing are a different type altogether and are made using grain as opposed to malt, such as Haig Club.

Glasses

Whisky tasters use a glass called a glencairn, which is narrowed at the top to concentrate the whisky aromas at the top of the glass. See also the Norlan whisky glasses.

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Steve Watson
Author and founder of Watson's barber's
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