I had a little whisky and water,” Queen Victoria wrote in 1859, “as people say pure water would be too chilling.” Clearly, Her Majesty liked her Scotch.
While Scotland appreciated the queen’s nod to its whisky, it did not like to see it diluted with water. As an old Highland saying goes, “There are two things Scotsmen like naked, and one of them is whisky.”
And naked is the way pure single malt Scotch is enjoyed today. Made in a single distillery solely from malted barley, distilled slowly in small onion-shaped copper-pot stills and aged in wood casks for 10, 12, 15 or 18 years, its unique many-layered complexity differs from one distillery to the next just as fine wines differ from one vintner to the next. On the other hand, blended Scotch, introduced in the 1800s, combines 40 to 50 whiskies made from corn, wheat and barley in large, continuous stills and is less expensive, but also less individualistic, less flavorful. As the original centuries-old Scotch, single malts offer a range of flavors and fragrances, from tangy, toasty, smoky and citrusy to vanilla, peat, honey, hazelnut, tobacco, toffee, thyme and oak.
Four regions of Scotland produce single malt whisky: the Highlands, including the elite producing area of Speyside; the Lowlands; Campbeltown; and Islay. Of them all, the single malts of the Highlands are considered the classics. Glenlivet, from Speyside, has a distinctive, citrusy bouquet; Knockando’s taste combines citrus and tobacco. Cardhu is full flavored; Glenfiddich is fuller bodied. Still fuller is Macallan, with its toasty aroma, and Glenmorangie, with a bouquet of heather and butterscotch. Aberlour is rich and assertive; Glendronach is round and supple.
Single malts of the Lowlands are generally drier and lighter bodied. Among the best are Auchentoshan, McClelland and Glenkinchie. Campbeltown offers Springbank and Glen Scotia.
The wind-washed island of Islay produces the most robust, assertive and peat-intensive single malts, often with a whiff of iodine and seaweed. Laphroaig is the tangiest, with Bunnahabhain close behind. Also from Islay are Bowmore, Bruichladdich and Lagavulin.
Unlike other countries, Scotland spells its whisky without an “e” — one more way it’s unique among others.
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