I’m a newly converted whisky lover. How should one best navigate through the countless blends and single malts on offer?
Like fine wines, there are many different styles of whiskies to choose from that are influenced by the location in which they are distilled, the casks that they are matured in and the age that they have been bottled at.
Knowing your whisky
There are blended whiskies, single malt whiskies and grain whiskies out there to choose from. A blended whisky, such as Whyte & Mackay is a mix of malt and grain whiskies from different distilleries around Scotland. A single malt whisky is made only of malt which comes from a single distillery, and a grain whisky is one that is made using grain rather than malt. Each type of whisky is beautiful in its own way and depending on my mood and surroundings I will dip in and out of each, choosing the one that best suits the occasion at that particular time.
We have five malt whisky regions in Scotland: Highland Malts, Lowland Malts, Islay Malts, Campbeltown Malts and Speyside Malts. Each one possesses different characteristics that will be more or less appealing depending on your individual taste. Highland malts tend to be fruity and spicy like a Christmas cake whereas Lowland and Speyside malts are very soft, light and gentle. Islay malts are very heavily peated with a rich smoky taste.
Before tasting whisky it’s vital that you select a whisky that is right for your palate. Many people automatically think that a malt is better than a blend and that the older the whisky is the better it tastes. This is not necessarily true as it is very much dependent on your individual preferences and how experienced in whisky tasting you are.
People always talk about older whiskies being superior, but age and taste are all in the eye of the beholder. Aged whiskies can bring a real depth of flavour to a whisky but different finishes can give whiskies extraordinary and enticing flavours. I don’t prefer age to finish or vice versa, it’s all about drinking the right whisky to suit the occasion.
As with age, casks play such a great part in the maturation. In fact, I’d go as far to say that wood is the key to quality. Whisky is a living product so it must be nurtured and respected. To ensure its unique quality it must be given the right casks and these need to be meticulously selected.
Bourbon casks give a sweet vanilla note with spicy overtones. Sherry casks give fruity nutty notes. American White Oak casks, after a long period of time, provide structure and backbone to a malt. Every month I'm sourcing different styles of wood which will hopefully be compatible with our malts.
In order to really savour and enjoy your whisky you must take your time. Revel in the wait.
So much time, effort, and expertise goes into making whisky that you should reflect on the experience as you drink to truly get the most from it. You should think about how the whisky makes you feel, not just what you taste.
To further enhance the tasting experience you should choose foods that complement the whisky, such as strong coffee or a dark bitter chocolate with a high cocoa content. For example, Jura with smoked salmon, capers and fresh apple is always a winning combination. As is crème brulee with glazed orange segments an ideal accompaniment with The Dalmore 12 year-old.
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