Single Malt Scotch – is one really different than the other? They’re all just peaty liquors aren’t they?
I mean really… is there a big difference between a ‘Glen’ this or a something something ‘toshen’? What’s one guy in a skirt do different from another guy forty miles away with the same ingredients (and the same skirt)?
Truthfully – one skirted man doesn’t do much different from another but what they decide to change makes ALL the difference. Slight nuances often make them completely different whiskies. Most people think of Scotch like they’re different types of American Chardonnay but you need to think of them as different types of wine – a Highland scotch can be like a big, bold Cabernet Sauvignon while a Lowland malt can be as light as a crisp Pinot Grigio!
Here is what I’ve learned from my Scotch 101 – it’s easiest to differentiate single malts regionally first, then age and lastly by producer.
Lowlands are typically softer whiskies than their counterparts. They are light in flavor with a touch of smoke and mild grassy tones. They usually are aged in used bourbon barrels so the whiskies pick up slight vanilla and caramel notes.
Speyside is a region that is still light but begins to have fruit flavors with grassy tones and light smoke.
Highlands begin to use a little more smoke and the whiskies are bigger and bolder. They are more warm and robust whiskies and often have sea-like, salty notes imparted by the sea-side location of distilleries.
Islands usually have slightly more peat-flavored malts with more use of smoke. The islands do stylistically vary depending on the distiller.
Islay is when you finally get your heavy-peat malts. Smoke, peat and briny notes are very common – this is the style that most Scotch aficionados crave when thinking of single malt scotch. The whiskies are very light in color since they re-use aged barrels that barely impart color into the liquor.
Aging is another huge differentiating factor between single malts. The more age, the more flavor is imparted on the whiskey by the barrel. There are a lot of factors though – what barrel? How much charr or toasting? Has it been used before? Scotch typically ages in used barrels from wine, cognac or bourbon. Some liquors and wines in the US and France legally require new oak while Scotch prefers previously used barrels. This will often impart sweet notes of caramel and vanilla. The more a whiskey is aged, it will also typically be a little heavier, more smokey and smoother.
Producers also make stylistically different whiskies – whether they want a lot or a little smoke, peat, briny-ness, saltiness, etc. If you buy an Ardbeg, expect peat. If you buy Dalwhinnie, expect something lighter. A Macallan or a Highland Park will be somewhere in between.
Here are some suggestions from Damien Lynch, the Scotch guru at Kimpton’s Bookstore Bar in Seattle (who carries over 75+ single malts along with 60+ other whiskies!). They are great representatives of the styles of each region:
Auchentoshan Triple Wood (Lowland) approx. $75 per bottle
Glenrothes 1994 (Speyside) approx. $70 per bottle
Highland Park 15 year (Island) approx. $50 per bottle
Glenmorangie La Santa (Highland) approx. $40 per bottle
Lagavulin 16 year (Islay) approx. $65 per bottle
This is a very BASIC intro into what whiskey is. It’s like trying to teach law in two minutes. The best way to learn is to go to a good whiskey bar and speak with the bartender or to look for a whiskey tasting in your town. If you’ve never tried single malts, start with the light styles and grow your palate. As you try more and more, you’ll be able to differentiate not only the different styles but your preference and you’ll fall in love with these traditional Scottish liquid gold creations.
Thanks for reading. I love booze, I hope you love booze too.