The evolution of malt whisky

Wild yeast spontaneously cause fermentation of sugars, creating alcohol. This is how alcoholic drinks were empirically discovered. The fruits of warm lands gave up their sugars to make wine, and the grains of cooler regions yielded beer. In distilled form, these become brandy and whisky.

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The art of distillation was used by Phoenician sailors (to render sea water drinkable), alchemists, makers of perfumes, and eventually in the production of medicines and alcoholic drinks. To distil is to boil the water, wine, or beer, collect the steam, and condense it back into liquid. This drives off certain substances (for example, the salt in water) and concentrates others (such as the alcohol in wine or beer).

Distilling may have entered Europe across the Straits of Gibraltar. There are unproven suggestions of the fiery art in Ireland at the beginning of the past millennium. The first indisputable reference in Scotland is from 1494.

The wine or beer is boiled to make steam – which, being wraith-like, may have given rise to the English word “spirit” or German Geist (ghost), especially since condensation brings it back to life in a restored (and restorative) form. The “water of life”, they call it. (Vodka, a diminutive form, in Slavic countries; aquavit, in various spellings, in Nordic lands; eau-de-vie in French; usquebaugb, in various spellings, in Gaelic.) The last became usky, then whisky, in English. All of these terms at first simply indicated a distillate, made from whatever was local.

Like the original vodkas (also grain-based), the first Irish and Scottish barley-malt distillates were flavoured with herbs and spices. By the mid 1700s, a distinction was made in Scotland between these flavoured spirits and “plain malt”.

Defining the drink


The term refers to the whisky being from just one (that is, a single) distillery. The term single single is sometimes used to indicate that all the whisky in the bottling came from a single cask. More often, this is called a single cask bottling (Balvenie uses the term single barrel). Most bottlings of single malt contain whisky from several casks and batches. The combining of exclusively malt whisky from different casks is known as a vatting. Sometimes they are kept in wood for a further period to marry. So long as it is all malt whisky, from the same distillery, it is a single malt. Even on singles, some distilleries use the less precise term pure malt. More often, this term, or simply malt whisky, or vatted malt, implies that several malt distilleries contributed. Malt whisky is made in a batch process, in a still shaped like a kettle or cooking pot. This pot still produces whisky with more flavour than the more modern “patent”, continuous, column-shaped still, which is used to make grain whisky. The ingredients of grain whisky vary. Although some malt will be used, the dominant grains will be unmalted barley, wheat, or maize. Grain whisky is produced to leaven and lighten blends, but it is also occasionally bottled as single grain – something of a novelty.


Grain that has been steeped in water, partially sprouted, and dried to render it soluble. When the sprouting has reached an optimum point, it is arrested by the drying of the grain in a kiln. The grain used to make malt for whisky in Scotland antt Ireland is always barley. In other countries producing malt whisky, this is also usually true. Barley malt is used to make beer, as an ingredient to varying degrees in almost all types of whisky, in milky drinks, baked goods, and syrup-like extracts. The malt used in Scotch whisky was traditionally dried over peat, a local fuel, which imparts the characteristic smokiness. Most Scottish whisky malt is peated to some degree, albeit often very lightly. The place where these procedures happen is known as a maltings. Malt whiskies are often described simply as “malts”.


Scotland has internationally protected this term. A whisky may not be labelled Scotch unless it is made in that country. If it is to be called Scotch, it cannot be made in England, Wales, Ireland, or anywhere else. Bushmills makes fine malt whiskeys, but they are Irish, not Scotch. Excellent whiskies are made by similar methods in other countries, notably Japan, but they cannot be called Scotches. Nor do they taste the same. The best Scotch whiskies taste of the mountain heather, the peat, and the seaweed. They taste of Scotland, more obviously than even Cognac tastes of its region or the best Tequila of its mountain soil.


A grain-based distillate in the Scottish and Irish tradition hut also made elsewhere in the world – notably North America, where corn (maize) and rye are used to make different local styles. A defining characteristic in all whiskies is the flavour of the grain. While many vodkas and Schnapps are made from grain, they are distilled close to neutrality, or have flavours added, as does gin.

Blended scotch

The original distillers in Scotland – monks and later farmers – used barley malt, in a pot still. In the 1700s and early 1800s, production was small and irregular, and the notion of “brands” or trademarks was unknown in any industry.

Malt whisky was sold to grocers and wine merchants, who retailed it by the cask at a time when the glass industry had yet to develop mass-produced bottles. Today’s bottlings by licensed grocers like Gordon & MacPhail (with their small shop in Elgin, Scotland), and haughtier wine merchants such äs Berry Brothers and Rudd, in St James’s, London, recall those days.

Johnnie Walker was such a shopkeeper; George Ballantine another; the Chivas brothers were partners in a shop. These merchants dealt with lack of consistency or volume by creating their own house vattings, and these became brands. John Dewar, who went into the business in 1806, was the first person to sell branded whisky in bottles. At first, two or three Highland whiskies might have been blended with a dash of Islay and a filler of Lowland malt, but today a dozen or 20 distillates might be used, perhaps even 30 or 40.

Grain whisky became a distinct element with its production in column stills. They were developed in the 1820s, and widely used by the 1850s. This faster, more industrial process made it possible to produce whisky in much larger quantities, by extending the “agricultural” malt with the “industrial” grain. The resultant blends were also lighter in body and flavour, and perhaps more acceptable to nations unfamiliar with whisky.

The Scots, with their mountainous country and long coastline, are a maritime nation of explorers, traders, and engineers. During the era of exploration and the British Empire, they made blended Scotches the most international of spirits.

The best of the blends have great character and complexity. But it is a shame that so many are so similar, and that for so many years orchestrations drowned out the soloists.

The producers of blends have, over the decades, protected their supplies of malt whisky by buying most of the distilleries. Fearing isolation, the handful of independents, most notably Glenfiddich, began seriously to market their whiskies as single malts in the late 1960s and 1970s. What seemed like a lone gamble became an inspiration to others. Blended Scotch is still dominant in volume, but single malts are gaining in sales and commanding far higher prices. The choice is between the orchestra and the soloist.

The flavours and their origin

The two spirits most often compared for their regionality are Cognac and single-malt Scotch. In Cognac, the regions of production are contiguous, Stretch about 90 miles from one end to the other, and are all in flat countryside. The single malts spread over an area of about 280 miles from one end to the other, from the southern Lowlands to the northern Highlands, from mountain to shore, from the Western Isles to the Orkneys. Cognacs are usually blends, often from more than one region, while a single malt bears the character of just one distillery.

Scotland Whisky Regions


The snow that covers the Highland peaks melts to provide water that seeps through fissures in the rock, then emerges into mountain streams before filling the reservoirs of maltings and distilleries. There is melted snow in most bottles of whisky. This is especially true where the Grampian Mountains form a ridge across the biggest land-mass of the Highlands, and small rivers such as the Livet and Fiddich flow into the Spey on their way norm to the great inlet known as the Moray Firth. Producers of several types of drink talk in hushed tones of the importance of their water. Nowhere is it more genuinely significant than in single-malt Scotches. The water used in the single malts is usually not treated. And each distillery’s supply has its own character, depending upon the local rock and Vegetation.


Some of the waters are believed to take several hundred years to filter through the mountains before emerging. In 1990, geologists Stephen Cribb and Julie Davison made a study of rock formations in Scotland’s whisky regions, and compared them with tasting notes in books on the drink, principally this one. Their findings suggested that the similar tastes in certain whiskies produced near each other might in part be due to the similar rock from which the water rose. For example, in the Lowlands, the crisp, dry Glenkinchie and Rosebank share the same carboniferous rock. The olclest rock is that which supplies water to the Bowmore and Bruichladdich distilleries on Islay, off the west coast of Scotland; it was formed about 600-800 million years ago, and seems to contribute an iron-like flavour. The granite of the Grampians is often credited with the typically soft-water character of the Speyside whiskies. Farther north, sandstone may make for the firmer body of whiskies such as Glenmorangie. Highly individualistic whiskies like Talisker and Clynelish turn out to be based on rock not shared with others.


The character of the water is influenced not only by the rock from which it rises, but also by the land over which it travels to the distillery. For example, in the Highlands, much of the water used in distilling rises from granite and flows over peat. Water from a mountain stream that flows over rocks may pick up minerals on its journey, adding firmness and crispness to the finished whisky. Some distilleries have water that flows over peaty, mossy, reedy, ferny, or (most often) heathery moorland. This may impart grassy or herbal characteristics. Heather recognizably adds floral and honeyish notes.

Some water flows only over peat, and whiskies may gain peatiness from this; other whiskies have a peaty flavour from the use of the fuel in malting, and some from both sources. The distance the water flows over peat will also be an influence, as will the peat’s character.

Water may make its presence felt several times. It is used to steep the grains in the handful of distilleries that have their own maltings, and then again in the Infusion that precedes fermentation and distillation. It may also be used to reduce slightly the strength of the spirit off the still before maturation. Some distillers feel they achieve a better maturation if the spirit is reduced in strength by a few percentage points. The distilleries that have their own bottling lines also use the local water to reduce the strength of the whisky at packaging. When a new distillery is planned, a reliable source of good water will be a prime criterion in the choice of a site.

Soil and peat

The soil will affect not only the water but also the character of the peat. If malting is done at the distillery, local peat will be used in the kilning. The age of the peat deposits, and their degree of grass-root or heather character, will have its own influence on the whisky.


Drinks can be made from any plant that contains fermentable sugars. Among grains, barley was first made into beer. It was especially suited to that purpose because its well-formed husk forms a natural filter. The word barley itself may be an elision of “beer-like”. An ancestor of barley, called bere, is a traditional grain in the Orkney islands. From beer to whisky is but a small step.

Scotland grows some of the world’s best barley for malting, and much of it is cultivated in whisky-producing areas, especially the Lowlands and the Stretches where the Spey and other rivers flow over flat, very fertile land to reach the Moray Firth. This coastal rim can have surprisingly long summer days, and cool breezes, though the latter can strengthen worryingly during harvest time, in the later months of summer.

For many years, the local Golden Promise barley was favoured by maltsters and distillers. Its short straw stands up to the wind; it ripens early (in August); and it produces nutty, rich flavours. As the industry has grown, farmers have moved to varieties that give them more grain per acre, and distillers to varieties that yield more fermentable sugars – but these do not necessarily produce such delicious flavours. When Macallan experimentally made one batch with Golden Promise and another with a higher-yield barley, the difference was startling. The lesser variety produced a whisky that was clearly thinner-tasting, “dusty”, and almost metallic.


Although similar yeasts (of broadly the ale type) are used throughout the malt-distilling industry, each turn room (fermentation hall) produces its own characteristics, especially fruity and spicy notes. These may vary according to the material from which the fermenting vessels are made (wood perhaps harbouring its own resident microflora, steel less likely to do so), hut it is also influenced by the microclimate in and around the distillery.

Shape of still

Even this has an element of location. Some farmhouse distilleries clearly had stills designed to fit their limited space. Elsewhere, several distilleries in the same valley will have the same shape of still (in much the way that railway stations on the same line may look alike). Obviously, the local coppersmith had his own way of doing things. Distilleries are reluctant to change the shape or size of their stills when wear and tear demands replacement, or when an expansion is planned. The legend is that if a worn out still has been dented at some time, the coppersmith will beat a similar blemish into its replacement, to ensure that the same whisky emerges.

In a tall, narrow still, much of the vapour will condense before it can escape. The condensate will fall back into the still and be re-distilled. This is known as reflux. The result is a more thorough distillation and a more delicate spirit. Because there is far less reflux in a short, fat still, the spirit will be oilier, creamier, and richer This is just the simplest example of the shape influencing the character of the whisky. Stills vary enormously in size and shape, and the ratio of surface areas to heat, liquid, vapour, and condensate have infinite effects that are not fully understood.


A cold location makes for low-temperature spring waters. When very cold water is available for use in the coils that condense the spirit, and the ambient temperature is low, an especially rich, clean whisky is produced. Distilleries in shaded mountain locations are noted for this characteristic. The oak casks used during the maturation of the whisky expand and contract according to the temperature. The greater the local extremes of temperature, the more this happens.


This is a very significant factor during maturation. As the casks “breathe”, they inhale the local atmosphere. The more traditional type of maturation warehouse has an earth floor, ancl often a damp atmosphere. The influence of this is especially noticeable in distilleries that are close to the sea. Often, their maturation warehouses are at the water’s edge, washed by high seas. Some single malts, especially those from rocky coasts, have a distinctly briny or seaweedy character.

Regional differences

Like wines – and many other drinks – the single malts of Scotland are grouped by region. As with wines, these regions offer a guideline to the style of the product, rather than a rule. Within Bordeaux, a particular Pomerol, for example, might have a richness more reminiscent of Burgundy; similar comparisons can be made in Scotland. The traditional regional divisions – the Lowlands, the Highlands, Campbeltown, and the Island of Islay – have their origins in the regulation of licences, but they do also embrace certain typical characteristics of aroma, body, and palate.


The principal divisions are between the distilleries of the Lowlands, the Highlands, and the Islands. Within the Highlands, the valleys of the Spey and adjoining rivers are a distinct region. In the southwest, so is peninsular Campeltown. Among the islands, Islay is accorded special Status.

The Lowlands

A line following old county boundaries and running from the Clyde estuary to the River Tay defines this region. The line Swings north of Glasgow and Dumbarton, and runs to Dundee and Perth. There were always relatively few Lowland whiskies, and their numbers have shrunk further in recent years. Auchentoshan and Glenkinchie thrive, but Bladnoch is now yet smaller, while Littlemill, and possibly Rosebank, wait in hope of restoration. Like the region, the Lowland malts suffer from a lack of windswept, buccaneering glamour, yet they can have their own grassy softness. The best have suggestions of lemon grass and maltiness, untemperedl by Highland heatheriness or coastal seaweed and brine.

The highlands

By far the biggest region. The Highlands inevitably embraces wide variations. The western part of the Highlands, at least on the mainland, has only a few, scattered distilleries, and it is difficult to generalize about their character. Some have very exposed locations. If their whiskies have anything in common it is a firm, dry character, with some peatiness and saltiness. Oban is the best-known. The far north of the Highlands has several whiskies with a notably spicy character, probably deriving from sandstone, clover, and very gentle sea breezes. Glenmorangie is a good example. The more sheltered Eastern Highlands (around Aberdeen) and the Midlands of Scotland, or South Highlands (around Perth), have a number of notably fruity whiskies, among which Aberfeldy is typical.


Universally acknowledged as a heartland of whisky production, the Speyside region of the Highlands is home to no fewer than half of Scotland’s malt distilleries.

This part of the Highlands, between the cities of Inverness and Aberdeen, sweeps from granite mountains down to fertile countryside, where barley is grown. It is the watershed of a System of rivers, the principal among which is the Spey. Although Speyside is not precisely defined, it extends far beyond the one river: it might at its most generous reach from the River Findhorn in the west to the Deveron in the east.

The granite mountains give rise to soft water, which often flows over heathery moorlands. Distillation and maturation tend to be in cool locations. The Speyside single malts are noted in general for their elegance; flowery, heather-honey notes; and sometimes a restrained, fragrant peatiness.

Beyond that, they have two extremes: the big, sherryish type, as typified by The Macallan, Glenfarclas, and Aberlour; and the more subtle style, as shown by Knockando, Glen Grant, or The Glenlivet.

The glen of the livet

Within Speyside, the Glen (valley) of the river Livet is high, hidden, cool, and so famous that its name has over the years been appropriated by distant distilleries, though this practice is gradually being abandoned as it is misleading. Only one distillery may call itself The Glenlivet. Only Braeval and Tamnavulin are also produced in the glen. These are all delicate malts, their character perhaps influenced by the cold, especially during the condensation of vapours and the maturation of the spirit.

Other Glens

It could be more tentatively argued that other glens, such as that of the rivers Fiddich and Lossie, have malts that share certain characteristics. With that in mind, but also as a geographic guide, this book identifies the valley in which each distillery stands. While most of the valleys are popularly deemed to be glens, the term stratb, meaning a larger valley, is also used.

The islands

Traditionally, the Highland region has “claimed” all Islands except Islay. Enthusiasts would argue that a specific style of whisky is made, to varying degrees, on all of the Islands, most famously on Islay and in the peninsular distilleries of Campbeltown. Some coastal distilleries, most obviously Clynelish, would also be included in this category.

The Island character is strongest where malt is made with local peat, as on Orkney, Islay, and occasionally Campbeltown. The peat on these windy Islands absorbs other influences, especially briny saltiness on Orkney, and medicinal seaweed on Islay.


(pronounced eye-luh): The peaty soil and Islay’s exposed Position on the west coast of Scotland make it the producer of the boldest malts. The seaweedy atmosphere permeates the soil and warehouses, imparting a Singular character to the malts.

Famous for the maritime flavours of malts such as Ardbeg, Lagavulin, Laphroaig, and Bowmore, and for having so many distilleries on a tiny island, only 25 miles long. In recent years, six of its distilleries have been working full-time and a seventh sporadically. Two have been operating their own maltings, while the Port Ellen maltings contributes to all the island’s whiskies.


The Mull of Kintyre is narrow and exposed, and the distilleries at Campbeltown produce distinctly briny whiskies. There were once 30 distilleries. For a time, only one was left in Operation: Springbank, making its own famous malt, the peatier Longrow, and recently Hazelburn. Now Glen Scotia has reopened.

The question of age

Whisky matures only in the cask, not the bottle. In Scotland and Ireland, the spirit must be aged for three years before it can be called whisky. New distilleries have released pleasant, even enjoyable, whiskies at this age, but most malts benefit from at least eight years, and some two or three times that period. Just as people are not all best at the same age, neither are malts. A grouchy ten-year-old can be a delight in later life, but the opposite can also happen.

Even within a single distillery, the spirit that comes off the still varies slightly between batches, and with the weather. Maturation will be further affected by the type of wood, its history, and condition. Most distilleries have several warehouses, and each may have a slightly different influence. Even the position of the cask within the warehouse will have its effect.

Lighter-tasting malts can lose their freshness, and become overwhelmed by sherry or wood, if they are aged for too long. Bigger, richer whiskies may gain in complexity over longer periods. Occasionally, a distillery will release a 50-year-old. It is a safe bet that the casks were excellent, the conditions perfect, and the whisky regularly monitored to determine whether it was at a peak.

Casks were originally used simply as containers for the freshly distilled spirit. It was originally sold in the cask, and the ability of spirits to develop with age was first appreciated by wealthy customers with cellars full of the liquid gold. Whisky was not systematically aged at the distillery until the late 19th Century. Only in recent years has the a scientific approach helped distillers understand the workings of maturation

Sherry and bourbon

Among the woods used in the production of alcoholic drinks, oak is by far the most widely favoured. It is strong, yet pliable, and makes excellent casks. In theory, all Scotch whisky is aged in oak. In practice, a cask made from chestnut or mahogany very occasionally turns up in a distillery. On the very rare occasions when this happens, no one can remember how the cask was acquired. Although cask acquisitions are monitored carefully today, this was not always the case. Most distilleries have thousands of casks, some acquired 50 or 60 years ago.

Scotland is a mountainous country with plenty of pines but few oaks, and in the early days wood from England was used, but the forests were soon exhausted. Then the Scots began to take advantage of the English taste for sherry. In the heyday of that fashion, empty casks could be found in great quantity in the English port of Bristol, where merchants bottled sherry from Spain.

Not only were the casks inexpensive, they were found to impart a delicious richness and roundness to the whisky. One producer calls this “a sublime accident”. This source of casks diminished when England’s stately taste for sherry declined, and even more when Spain became a modern democracy and decided that the bottling of sherry in the growing areas would provide useful Jobs for its citizens.

When sherry casks became hard to find, many distilleries moved to Bourbon barrels. The definition of “Bourbon whiskey” requires that it be aged in a new cask; as a robust, sweet, corn-based whiskey, it gains some of its typical character from the caramel flavours, vanillins, and tannins in the wood. (Vanillins are a natural component of wood. Their flavours are similar to those of the vanilla pod). After one fill of Bourbon, such a cask imparts much more delicate flavours to a Scotch malt whisky.

Some distillers refer to new Bourbon barrels as “American oak”, and most call a cask of any origin “plain wood” after a couple of fills of whisky. In the past, new wood may have been commonly used, but its flavours, while helpful to Bourbon, tend to overpower a whisky as complex as Scotch.

A bottling of a single malt may contain an orchestration of whiskies from first- and second-fill sherry butts or hogsheads, first-and second-fill Bourbon barrels, and ”plain wood”, fine-tuned each time to achieve the desired encl result.

Other “woods”

Occasionally, rum casks and port pipes have found their way into whisky warehouses. Springbank briefly had stocks of a sweet, buttery, spicy, minty malt matured in rum casks. In 1993, Gordon & MacPhail released an aromatic, gingery, crisp, oaky malt, aged in a brandy cask, and a very toffeeish example from a port pipe. Both had been laid down in the 1960s. When Glenmorangie released its port-finished whisky in 1994, it also offered an experimental tasting of a very crisp (almost brittle) vintage aged in a Limousin cask intended for Cognac. This was not felt to be a success, and was not marketed. Not every wood works.

What happens during aging?

Several processes take place during maturation. While the new distillate may have some harsh, “spirity” flavours, these can be lost by evaporation. With the expansion and contraction of the wood, caused by seasonal changes in temperatures, spirit flavours may be exhaled and the natural aromas of the environment taken into the cask: piny, seaweedy, and salty “sea-air” characteristics can all be acquired in this way. Flavours are also imparted by the cask: sherry wood may add the nutty note of the wine; Bourbon barrels can impart caramel flavours, Vanillins, ancl tannins.

American oak is used in the production not only of all Bourbon barrels but also of many sherry casks. Spain also uses its own oak. American oak is finer grained, harder, and slower to mature the whisky. Spanish oak is more resiny. The two oaks are from different families, the Spanish Quercus robur or petraea being accustomed to the maritime conditions of western Europe, the American Quercus alba to the inland environment of its continent.

Finding the right oak

Perhaps the most important influence on the flavour is that of a very slow, gentle, Oxidation of the whisky. While oxygen is regarded as an “enemy” by brewers and some wine makers, because it can cause “stale” flavours, its influence is also a part of the character of Madeira wines, for example. The importance of Oxidation in the maturation of whisky has been the subject of much recent work by Dr Jim Swan, originally at the Pentlands Scotch Whisky Research Institute (which is owned by the industry), and more recently by his own Company.

Dr. Swan argues that Oxidation increases the complexity and intensity of pleasant flavours in whisky, especially fragrant, fruity, spicy, and minty notes. As in the production of all alcoholic drinks, the flavours emerge from a complex series of actions and reactions. Traces of copper from the stills arc the catalyst. They convert oxygen to hydrogen peroxide, which attacks the wood, releasing Vanillin. This promotes Oxidation, and additionally pulls together the various flavours present. These processes vary according to the region of origin of the wood, and its growth patterns.

This has led distillers to concern themselves not only with the distinctions between sherry and Bourbon wood, and the country in which the trees grew, but also the region. In Spain, where most oak comes from Galicia, trees from mountainous districts are more resiny. In the US, the growth is mainly in Ohio, Kentucky. Illinois, Missouri, and Arkansas. The westerly part of this contiguous region has the poorest soil and the most arid climate, and there the trees have to fight to survive. This optimises spring growth, which has the most open texture and is the most active in the maturation process.

Alcohol content/proof

Alcohol by volume is the easiest measure to understand, and the System that is now Standard on labels in many countries throughout the world. The same figure is sometimes referred to as Gay-Lussac. Forty per cent alcohol by volume is the equivalent of 70 proof in the complicated System previously used in Britain, or 80 proof in the American System.

Malt whisky comes off the still at an average strength between the mid or lower 70s and upper 60s, and may be reduced in strength by the addition of water to the mid 60s to stimulate maturation. During aging, it may lose up to 2.5 per cent of its alcohol per year in evaporation. It will emerge from maturation at around 60 or in the 50s or upper 40s (“Cask Strength”), depending upon the duration of aging and the weather. In most cases, the alcohol content is then further reduced to 43 or 40.

Alcohol content is not a measure of quality, but cask-strength whiskies do have their own appeal. “It is like sneaking into a distillery warehouse and tapping a cask,” one enthusiast confessed. “There is a sense of whisky direct from the source. I may well add water, but I am the person who decides upon the degree of dilution. That is not determined for me by someone else.” The levels of 40 and 43 have evolved as acceptable strengths for several spirits in a number of countries. In Scotch whisky, 40 is the minimum permitted.

What ever the arguments about their relative prices. no one denies that a Château Latour is more complex than a mass-market table wine. The fine wines of the whisky world are the single malts. Some malts are made to higher Standards than others, and some are inherently more distinctive than their neighbours. This cannot be obscured by the producers’ blustery arguments about “personal taste”. A tasting note cannot be definitive, but it can be a useful guide: if you are looking for a light, dry malt, do not choose this one, pick the next. If you wanted something rich and sherryish, here is the one for you.

House style

This is a quick, first, general indication of what to expect from each distillery’s products, before looking at the variations that emerge in different ages and bottlings. I also suggest the best moment for each distillery’s whiskies (such as before dinner, or with a book at bedtime). These suggestions are meant as an encouragement to try each in a congenial Situation. They are not meant to be taken with excessive seriousness.


The natural colour of a malt matured in plain wood is a very pale yellow. Darker shades, ranging from amber to ruby to deep brown, can be imparted by sherry wood. Some distilleries use casks that have been treated with concentrated sherry, and this can cause a caramel-like appearance and palate. Some add caramel to balance the colour. I do not suggest that one colour is in itself better than another, though a particular subtle, or profound, hue can heighten the pleasure of a fine malt. It is, after all, a drink to contemplate. We enjoy food and drink with our eyes as well as our nose and palate.


Anyone sampling any food or drink experiences much of the flavour, perhaps without realizing this, through the sense of smell. Whisky is highly aromatic, and the aromas of malts include peat, flowers, honey, toasty maltiness, coastal brine, and seaweed, for example. They are a hugely evocative part of the pleasure.


Lightness, smoothness, or richness might refresh, soothe, or satisfy. Body and texture (sometimes known as “mouth feel”) are distinct features of each malt.


In the enjoyment of any complex drink, each sip will offer new aspects of the taste. Even one sip will gradually unfold a number of taste characteristics in different parts of the mouth over a period of, say, a minute. This is notably true of single malts. Some present a very extensive development of palate. A taster working with an unfamiliar malt may go back to it several times over a period of days, in search of its full character. I have adopted this technique in my tastings for this book.


In all types of alcoholic drink, the “finish” is a further stage of the pleasure. In most single malts, it is more than a simple aftertaste, however important that may be. It is a crescendo, followed by a series of echoes. When I leave the bottle, I like to be whistling the tune. When the music of the malt fades, thcre is recollection in tranquillity.

Storing and serving malts

Whisky cannot improve in the bottle, but it can lose its freshness if mishandled. Store bottles upright, away fron direct light or extremes of temperature. After three or four years, whisky in a bottle that is less than half-full can oxidize and begin to disintegrate.

The aroma of whisky is heightened in a copita or snifter, rather than a tumbler. An especially rich whisky will best express its textures if it is not diluted, though the alcohol can numb the tongue. The smallest drop of water will heighten the bouquet.

Malt whisky with food

Even with water, whisky is a strong drink to serve with food, but the combination can work well. Seaweedy, peppery, salty malts are a natural accompaniment to sushi. In London’s Mitsukoshi restaurant, chef Yoshihiro Motohashi, who has cooked for the Emperor of Japan, offered the salty Oban with eggs of flying fish, the tea-like Lagavulin with cod in caramelised miso, and the peppery Talisker with raw tuna. In the same city, chef Andy Barber, at The Fulham Road restaurant, presented oysters with the lightly peaty Dalwhinnie and a dill-marinated salmon with the herbal-tasting Cragganmore.

Another typical Scottish shellfish, scallops, featured with the gently grassy Auchentoshan in a dinner at the James Beard House, in New York, presented by Oregonian chef Christopher Zefiro. Salty, smoky whiskies are an equally logical accompaniment to smoked salmon or gravadlax. Aberdeen Angus beef and Scottish game require richer malts. Zefiro presented quail and chicory with the ferny Bowmore and herb-crusted beef (Aberdeen Angus?) with the heathery Highland Park. At a dinner at the Museum of the University of Pennsylvania, venison was served with raspberries (typical in Perthshire) and Blair Athol whisky. Any creamy dessert, but especially butterscotch, will be very happy with a richly sherried malt.

Malt whisky with cigars

And the after-dinner cigar? This is a natural partner to a smoky whisky or richer post-prandial malt. The Dalmore’s Cigar Malt is designed to do its Job with some versatility, being both rich and smoky. At a cigar-and-malts tasting at the London Hilton, the flowery Rosebank was offered with a creamy Macanudo, the perfumy Glendullan with a spicy Santa Damiona, and the leafy Teaninich with an aromatic Cohiba Coronas Especiales. A study for Whisky Magazine proposed the smokier Ardbeg with a piny Cohiba Robusto, the richer Talisker Amoroso Finish with a cedary Romeo y Julieta, and Glenfarclas 21-year-old with a hol, peppery Bolivar Corona Gigantes. As with food and wine, it is a choice of complement or contrast.

Description of the 6 classic malt whiskys


A soft, wetly aromatic malt from the “Garden of Scotland”. It has a fresh, grassy sweetness balanced with a worming, drying finish.


A gentle, delicate malt from the wild and wind swept Highland. It is a subtle, smooth delicately smoky malt with heathery honey finish.


A elegant, sophisticated Spey side with the most complex aroma of any malt. Astonishingly fragrant with sweetish notes and a smoky maltiness on the finish


A combining the sophistication of the Highlands with a touch of the peaty style of the Islands. It is rich and full-bodied with a mellow fruity finish.


The only malt produced on Skye. Its sea weedy, smoky nose and sweet maltiness is perfectly complemented by its spicy long finish.


A distinctive and powerful Islay malt. It is deeply smoky and peaty with a velvety complex finish.