Single Malt Sunday

I’ve been listening to Flogging Molly a lot lately, especially their new CD/DVD documentary called Whiskey on a Sunday. And today Seung returned from her trip to Afghanistan, making a pit stop in London on the return where she bought me a couple bottles of single malt scotch, as she usually does.

Well, the cupboard is getting crowded with bottles and she is asleep on the couch trying and failing to adjust to the time zone. What is a man with a house-full of scotch to do?

I’m no scotch expert and I’ve really never done a proper tasting, so I decided to just sit down and do a little side-by-side comparison of what I’ve got in the house. There are seven bottles in all. I have no idea how to determine the order of the tasting, so it’ll be somewhat random, depending perhaps in part on the prettiness of the bottle. We’ll see how far I get.

Scotch RegionsMy plan is to just have a mouthful of each one, served room temperature with a few drops of water. I’ll be studying the World Wide Web as I go, in order to learn about what I’m tasting.

First, a brief word about single malt scotch in general. To be called as such, this type of whisky must be made in Scotland from a single variety of malted barley and aged a minimum of three years, though most are aged much longer.

Read the descriptions to understand the Scotch regions map above.

Island Malts

I. Islay (eye-luh) is the little orange island in the center of the map above, the southernmost of the Inner Hebridean Islands off the west coast of the Scotland mainland. Islay single malts are famous for their smokiness and peaty character, often also described as medicinal and noted for hints of iodine, seaweed, and salt.

1. BunnahabhainBunnahabhain
boo-na-ha-venn, literally “mouth of the river”
Vitals: 12 years, 40% ABV.
Salty fumes hit my sinuses as this small serving airs in the glass. There is a mild sweetness in the not unpleasantly hot lingering finish. Apparently this is the mildest of the Islay malts and lacks the dominant peatiness of its neighboring distilleries, in part because its water comes from an underground spring that is far from the peaty moors where the other distillers operate. It is located in the eponymous village where most of the inhabitants work at the distillery.

2. Caol Ila caol ila
cull-eela; “the Sound of Islay”, i.e. the strait between Islay and Jura
Vitals: 12 Years; 43% ABV.
Though slightly higher in alcoholic strength, this straw-colored dram is less pungent in the nose, and slightly smoky. The body is light but peppery and the aftertaste is nuanced with peat and smoke. This would be wonderful with some smoked cheese.

II. Jura (diura) Located just northeast of Islay, the island of Jura has fewer than 200 inhabitants and is home to one distillery, called Isle of Jura and is said to take its name from the Old Norse for “red deer” of which many apparently bound about on the little rocky island.

3. Jura LegacyJura Legacy
Vitals: 10 years, 40% ABV.
Evidence of distilling on the island of Jura goes as far back as 1502. Deep amber in tone, this elixir emits a nose of pine and has a watery center with a sweet apple finish. Seems less well balanced than the first two. I’ve had the Isle of Jura Superstition and recall enjoying its smokiness, but I don’t get smoke in this one at all.

III. Orkney The Orkney Islands are an archipelago off the northeast corner of Scotland (the blue islands just off the northeast coast in the map above) comprised of over 70 islands, only 20 of which are inhabited including the largest one called the Mainland, where humans are known to have been settled for at least 5,500 years. It contains some of Europe’s best preserved neolithic sites.

4. ScapaScapa 14
Vitals: 14 years, 40% ABV
Light copper, almost golden in color, with sweet apricot fruit in the nose, and whiff of vanilla. The flavor is sweet, honey, with floral notes of heather. Remarkably light for such as sweet dram. Unlike most island scotch, this one uses malts not smoked with peat so although its water comes from peatlands, that distinctive character does not convey.

Highland Malts

IV. Speyside In the above map, Speyside is the orange-ish half-oval that looks kind of like a pair of puckered lips on the northern coast of the bottom half of the upper section of mainland Scotland. As a region, there is enough variety that no common Speyside characteristics emerge, though some of the world’s most well known and best selling single malts come from this region, such as Glenlivet and Glenfiddich.

5. Glen Garioch
glen GEERie, “glen of the rough ground”
Vitals: no years listed, 40% ABV
In general, the highland whiskies are less peaty than those produced on the Islands, especially the ones from Islay. But this one is an exception, and I’m glad for it as I love the smoky, peaty ones. There is caramel in the initial aroma, and Earl Grey tea in the flavor, which I love. It’s a combination of sweet caramel with spiciness. Perhaps my favorite so far, but it’s so hard to compare. The aftertaste is deep in the bottom of the throat, and not burning at all, although perhaps I am becoming accustomed to the alcohol after five tastes of whisky.

6. Cragganmorecragganmore 12
kraggen-MORE, “the big rock”
Vitals: 12 years, 40% ABV
Tawny colored. Herbal bouquet, with a dry beginning and a floral, peach body that hits the back of the throat with a fiery alcoholic burn. It seemed smooth at first but then the flames engulfed me. Maybe I’ve just hit my limit. But there’s one more to go so let’s see.

7. Aberlour
aber-LOUR, “a loud confluence”
Vitals: 10 years, 43% ABV
A third Speyside sample. I’ll call this burnt umber but it may be closer to russet in color. Creamy caramel and vanilla in the aroma. Very soft roundness on the tongue and beautiful balance all the way through to its silken slide down the back of the throat. A wonderful way to end the tasting.

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5 Responses to Single Malt Sunday

  1. Armin says:

    Just a thought:

    As your blog seems to be mainly about beer, did you know that in addition to all the distilleries there is also a microbrewery on Islay? It opened a few years ago and is quite a success. I quite like their beers and regularly stock up on it during my visits.

    There’s also a new brewery on neighbouring Colonsay (but they don’t have a distillery there).

    No brewery on Jura though (yet?), despite them having the distillery.

  2. beeractivist says:

    That’s fabulous. Thanks for the comment Armin. I’ll have a look into Islay Ales and the Colonsay Brewery, both of which seem like great reasons for a visit to the Hebrides.

  3. […] handle anything much stronger than wine, but in the dream, I was downing shot after shot of scotch, and actually enjoying it. Until my dream-karma caught up with me, that is, and transmigrated with […]

  4. Dave says:

    My favorite scotch has to be Lagavulin. It is a single malt Scotch Whisky produced on the island of Islay. I would describe it as the “aristocrat” of Islays. It has an unmistakable, powerful, peat-smoke aroma. It is robustly full bodied, well balanced and smooth with a slight sweetness on the palate. A must for my fellow Scotch Hunters. Slainte!

    A great website to check out to find out more about Single Malt Scotch is http://www.scotchhunter.com. They have a great tasting notes section and even a huge star ratings list that really can help pick a great single malt. If you still aren’t sure which one you want, go ahead and send them a question. I did and got back all kinds of great information back the very same day!

  5. beeractivist says:

    Dave,

    I just had a beer from Pike Brewing called Kilt Lifter that was aged on wood chips that were sterilized with Lagavulin – delicious indeed.

    Thanks for pointing out the Scotch Hunting site. Looks like those gents aren’t too far from here so maybe I’ll bump into them and share a dram.

    Cheers,
    Chris

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