When it comes to the production of malt whisky, local
factors are not quite as important as they are in (for
example) the wine world. In that respect, 'terroir' does
hardly exist within Scotland, Ireland, Japan or the USA.
That does NOT mean that I 'disqualify'
or American whisk(e)ys, mind you - or vatted (blended)
malts or grain whiskies for that matter. I've tried some
expressions in these categories that tickled my fancy.
However, you'll have to visit the Deviant Drams section
for tasting notes on those whiskies and other spirits.
In recent years the prices of some single malt whiskies
have skyrocketed. At the same time, my discretionary
income has decreased. As a result, I've started to look
for potential alternatives to Scotch malt whisky...
That being said, there are significant differences in the
way that whisk(e)y is distilled between, for example,
Ireland and Scotland. That is why, with a few notable
exceptions, most Irish and American whiskeys are not
single malts - the production process is simply different.
This DD section focuses on Scotch single malt whisky.
Scotland isn't the only place in the world where whisky is distilled - far from it, actually.
These days, whisky lovers can enjoy 'foreign' whiskies from countries like Japan, Ireland,
Australia, India, Tasmania, Canada, France, Germany, Holland, New Zealand, Switzerland,
Poland, Thailand, Turkey and the USA. A few of these distillers in Japan, Ireland, Taiwan,
Tasmania and India are already producing whiskies that match the quality of Scotch...
If I had to guess, I'd say there are two reasons for the diminishing gap
between the 'quality' (or
perhaps I should use the words 'character' or 'style') of Scotch malt whisky on one end, and malt
whiskies that are produced in other parts of the world on the other end. First of all, the growing
demand for Scotch whisky since the mid-1990's has meant that many Scottish whisky producers
could adjust their 'quality' standards. For example, for a long time the "standard" expression for
an average single malt whisky used to be 12 years old. Of course, the portfolios of some brands
like Glen Grant and Tamdhu contained even younger expressions - but those were exceptions.
Traditionally, twelve years was considered the minimum period of time a malt whisky needed to
mature properly. However, in recent years more and more younger expressions were released.
And why not? As long as enough customers are willing to buy them, that makes sense...
At the same time, some distillers in other countries have managed to improve the 'quality'
(or character) of their whiskies. Cooley started producing some very decent Irish whiskeys
again, the best Japanese whiskies rival anything made in Scotland and micro-distilleries in
a number of other countries all around the world are doing great things as well. If anything,
this proves that the region don't determine everything - it is just one of a lot of different
factors that shape the style and character of a single malt whisky. I'll delve deeper into the
various influences that play a role in the Beginner's Guide to Scotch Whisky.
With the knowledge and technology of today, a Highland or Speyside distillery
like BenRiach or Edradour can easily produce a malt whisky in the 'traditional'
heavily peated style from Islay too. And they do; not everybody enjoys the
peat monsters, but enough people do to make it worthwhile for some of the
mainland distilleries to occasionally produce peatier batches of their whisky.
There's one issue those flexible distillers have to deal with, though...
After distilling a batch of peated whisky, the pipes and equipment need to
be thoroughly cleaned before distillery is able to produce 'regular' whisky
again. This makes malt whisky distilleries switching between peated and
unpeated whisky slightly less efficient than distilleries that only produce
one single variety of malt whisky with a constant 'PPM' (peating level).
Although the 'terroir' aspect can be exaggerated by marketeers and
copywriters, it should not be overlooked. Just keep in mind that these days
the barley to produce 'Scotch' whisky could come from France or Russia...
So - with ingredients coming from all over
the world, all the huffing and puffing of the
Scotch Whisky Association (a huge lobby
organisation representing the interests of
the large Scotch whisky producers) about
'terroir' and tradition is largely sales talk...
Granted, for a long time there was little
doubt that the best whiskies in the world
were produced in Scotland. However, over
the past decades the world has changed.
Anyway - after this lengthy introduction, I'd like to direct you to the five 'regional' pages for
more information on each of the five Scotch malt whisky regions; Speyside, Highlands, Islay,
Lowlands and Campbeltown. However, as I pointed out earlier, a regional division isn't very
relevant anymore these days. So, maybe it's better to start with the brands or bottlers page.
Differences in production methods like these play an important role, of course.
The heavily peated malt whiskies from Islay (like the Laphroaig at the left) are in a class all by
themselves as well. Or at least they used to be in the not too distant past. Because peat was
one of the most abundant resources of Scotland, it was used by most distilleries to dry the
malted barley. The peat smoke was absorbed by the barley and transferred through the whole
distillation process, giving the Scotch whiskies a typical smoky & phenolic character.
However, as progress progressed, more and more distilleries switched to modern methods of
drying the malted barley. These modern methods did not produce the typical peaty character.
Only in remote area's like the islands, the traditional drying methods remained in use.
As far as Scotland is concerned, there's actually a historical basis
for a distinction between the primary malt whisky regions Speyside,
Highlands, Lowlands, Islay and Campbeltown. For example, Lowland
malt whiskies used to be triple distilled (i.e. distilled three times) in
the past. This process makes them a little lighter and smoother, not
unlike the whiskeys from Ireland. The other (malt) whiskies that are
produced in Scotland are generally double distilled, which results in
a 'heavier' spirit with more texture and character.
Since many people become interested in single malt whisky
precisely because those whiskies tend to have more character
and personality than (for example) blended whisky, bourbon
whiskey or vodka, I've never understood the benefits of triple
distillation - at least not when it comes to single malt whisky.
That wasn't out of respect for tradition, mind you - it was often simply that transport of oil or gas often was impractical or too expensive. So, for most of the 20th century the distilleries on the mainland produced a much lighter style of whisky than they had when they still used peat to dry their malted barley. Only a handful of distilleries (especially those on the island of Islay off the west coast) kept using large quantities of peat to dry their malt. This produced a more phenolic type of whisky with a distinct smoky character. At the end of the 20th century this style became known as a regional trait from Islay - but the truth of the matter is that they can make this type of whisky anywhere...
There's just one other aspect of 'geography'
I'd like to mention.
Despite my wisdom and omnipotence, I tend to forget that there are people who are not quite as wise and potent as me... In fact, some of you might not realise what on earth I'm thinking about when I mention Amsterdam or 'the woods' in entries in my Liquid Log or somewhere else on this website. So, that's why I've constructed the little map at the left and at the top of this page. It might be helpful for those who are unfamiliar with the geography of this part of Western Europe (the UK, Holland, Belgium & France).
As you can see, several other malt maniacs
live 'right around the corner', so to speak - Michel (from Holland), Bert & Paul (from Belgium), Serge, Olivier & Martine (from France) and Charlie, Dave and Lex (from the United Kingdom). The certified malt maniacs in Germany, Sweden, Austria and Italy live relatively nearby as well.
Does that make the malt maniacs a tad 'euro-centric'?
I suppose it does, although there are malt maniacs that live in North America, Asia, Australia & South Africa too.
So, we try to keep a global perspective on the whisky world - but because it's all 'volunteer work' we can't be too picky about the people that join our team... Fortunately, thanks to the world wide web we are all closely connected to the rest of the world and hear about developments, even without our reporters being physically nearby.
Is the distillery or