The World of Single Malt Whisk(e)y
The First Stop in Our Single Malt Journey
To be entitled to use the wording single malt a whisky must be made from malted barley, aged a minimum of three years, using pot stills, from a single distillery in either European or American oak casks and bottled at a minimum of 40% ABV.
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the first known use of the term single malt was in 1968. Some of the other words that came into use that year were tough love, traveler’s diarrhea (no worries on our journey, we take potty break stops), talk radio, penny loafer, morning breath, charbroil, and coronavirus to name but a few.
Scotland lays claim to the earliest written record of whisky production from malted barley noted in an entry on the 1494 Exchequer Rolls, which reads “Eight bolls of malt to Friar Cor, by order of the King, where with to make aqua vitae.” Ireland may beg to differ in their thinking, but we’ll discuss that when we visit Ireland single malts.
Blended whisky primarily made up the whisky industry in Scotland until the 1960s. Though malt whisky was being produced it was primarily an ingredient in blends up until this point. In 1963, the Glenfiddich Distillery was the first to promote malt whisky outside of Scotland. Initially, they exported and promoted their malt whisky as Straight Malt, then Pure Malt, eventually changing it to Single Malt which is the common wording we use today. By the time 1970s rolled around, we saw a limited number of distilleries introducing their single malts. In 1980, there were 28 single malts available and by 1989 there were 104 single malts being marketed.
facts & figures
According to the Scotch Whisky Association, in 2019 there were 133 distilleries in operation. 20 million casks lie in warehouses maturing and waiting for their resurrection. There are two million visits to Scotch whisky distilleries a year. More than 10,000 people are employed by distilleries in Scotland and over 40,000 jobs across the United Kingdom are supported by the industry.
Scotch whisky accounts for 70% of Scottish food and drink exports and 21% of all UK food and drink exports. Scotch whisky exports are worth €4.9 billion. Each second, Scotland ships 42 bottles to 175 markets around the world, totaling over 1.3 billion every year. If those bottles were laid end to end, they would stretch 90% of the distance to the moon.
scotch whisky regions
Single malt Scotch is produced in five regions of Scotland. They include Campbeltown, Islay, The Highlands, The Lowlands, and Speyside. Each region produces its own characteristics. I personally include one additional region, The Islands, which are found around the northern perimeter of Scotland and considered part of the Highland region by some. The Speyside region resides in the small area of the central northeast of the Highland region.
Located off of the coast, the influence of salt can be found in the whisky. There is no salt actually used in the making of the whisky; however, due to the wood of the cask expanding and contracting, and the region being located on the coast, the salt spray of the ocean imparts itself into the cask. You’ll also find dried fruits, smoke, peat, spices, toffee and vanilla among sherry flavors.
Islay, pronounced “eye-luh,” is an Island just above Campbeltown and is located on the coast as well. You’ll find the same hint of smoke as Campbletown. The peaty and smoky flavors you find tend to be more pungent and for a lack of a better term, dirtier than that of its counterpart distilleries in Campbletown. Peat is the fuel that feeds the fires to toast the barley. The single malts here can be more oily then other regions. You’ll also find dark fruits, medicinal peat, sherry, and earthy flavors. Other flavors sometimes associated with Islay are rotting seaweed, band-aids, iodine and fresh tar. Islay malts usually are not favored by those beginning their journey into single malt Scotch. The Islay whisky tends to be in your face and can take some time to get acquainted with.
The region is located around the perimeter of the Highland region. The whisky producing Islands include Orkney, Skye, Mull, Arran and Jura. Many consider them part of the Highland region. The taste profile can be quite different from one distillery to the next. For instance, the Highland Park Distillery in Orkney, which is the north most distillery, uses Arcadian peat. This peat imparts a heather like, softer peat than its counterpart in Islay. It tends to be much more palatable for the newer single malt drinker. Other flavors you will find in the Islands is a hint of salt, orchard fruits, sherry, vanilla, toffee, smoke, baking spices, leather and tobacco.
"There are only three distilleries remaining in The Lowlands"
The Highlands make up most of the northern mainland of Scotland. Being such a large region, the taste profile can be quite different from the northern to southern parts. Some of the flavors you can anticipate are sherry, oak, dried fruits, orchard and dark fruits, heather, honey, fruitcake, malt, smoke and tend to be more full bodied and bold.
The region is best known for their use of triple distillation much like Irish whiskey. While triple distillation increases the content it leaves the whisky lighter and softer. The oily texture you might find in an Islay will typically be removed due to the distillation process here. You’ll find a floral influence on the taste, along with baking spices, toffee, sweet light fruits, honeysuckle. There are only three distilleries left in the Lowlands.
The Speyside region resides in a smaller area of the central northeast Highland region. The river Spey runs through the region and where its name is derived. Many of the distilleries here use the water from the Spey in their production. Despite it being one of the smaller regions, it produces 50% of the Scotch whisky with over 50 distilleries residing in its boundaries. Due to the amount of distilleries, we find a large difference in profile among them. Here we’ll find predominant flavors from the Lowlands with its softer and lighter side to the more full bodied sweet and rich Highland characteristics. Sherry, toffee, smoke, fruits, honey and nutmeg to name a few. Speyside single malts are known for their complexity, quality, and sweetness.
the journey into Scotch whisky
If this is your first time jumping into the pool of single malt Scotch whisky, you’ll be best served by sampling before buying. Unfortunately, due to the current environment our world is presently in, it may be awhile before you’ll have the opportunity to try it in a bar. Consider friends for obtaining samples. Some of the more mainstream and available single malts I can recommend are Balvenie 12 year DoubleWood, GlenGoyne 12 year, Highland Park 12, Springbank 12 year Cask Strength and Caol Ila 12 year.
Please stay safe. Our current journey has many twists and turns ahead of us. We’ll weather through this storm and meet again as we travel the world of single malt whisk(e)y.