Struggling around the world of single malt whisky? Here’s the Thinking Drinkers’ guide to help any beginners out there make a choice that suits. As featured in the Telegraph
Beginners, eh? Rarely is a word uttered with such reckless and patronising abandon. Preceding everything from shallow-pool splashings to behind-the-bike-shed bunglings, the stigma brands you a novice, an amateur, a virgin. But in the world of single malt whisky, beginners are a welcome bunch. Keen, yet not demonstrating any of that gauche geekery; rarely blinded by hype; and stripped of the overbearing adjectives that thwart the satisfaction of a simple sip.
Better the beginner than the whisky snob. The whisky world occasionally dumps these pompous plonkers at the bar, preaching about an uber aged year old that few drinkers will ever see. These dullards detect vanilla and spice and tropical fruit and Grandma’s apple crumble and rainbows on the nose. They sermonise about a short, medium, long finish that sparks memories of a childhood kicking leaves around the park, playing alone and imagining friends. Pretentious as they are intimidating, whisky snobs need to shut up, drink up and do one.
So it pays to be a beginner in single malts, particularly as you don’t need to be choc full of knowledge to enjoy a decent dram. Indeed, it only takes a modest repertoire of phrases and titbits to help make the right choice for your palate. And let’s be honest, all we really care about is how it tastes.
Whisky is wonderful stuff and well worth investigating, so if you’re not yet moved by the category and prefer a vodka and soda, it’s time to man up and give it a go. Look at the state of manufacturing in this country, we don’t produce many things here any more, but we do create whisky, so we should embrace it. It’s British after all. Just like Andy Murray.
Here then is a piece for the single malt beginners out there. The first timers, the pioneers and the brave. And note: ‘single malt beginner’ rhymes with ‘winner’, so embrace this moment in your whisky journey.
Whisky is made from cereal that is mashed, fermented, distilled and aged and in the case of malt whisky the cereal is barley. Single malt whisky comes from one distillery, must be aged a minimum of three years in oak casks and bottled at a minimum alcohol by volume of 40%. Malt whiskies can vary dramatically, this is all down to the distillery approach to production with different copper pot stills and wood aging programmes impacting on the character. The reasons connoisseurs get their knickers in a twist is because making malt whisky is complex and an art, there’s much more to explore and adore once you’re hooked.
In single malts we generally consider four: Highland, lowland, Speyside and Islands. The regions are not prescriptive of flavour, but the lowland has historically produced lighter whiskies; the Highland region is vast and varied; Speyside is the heart of the whisky world and presents plenty of choice; and the islands largely refers to Islay, with Skye and Orkney often added to the Highlands region. Islay in particular produces heavily peated whisky. Campbeltown, once a thriving hub of whisky production is less prolific these days but the region produces slightly salty, dry and smoky whiskies.
It helps to use top-line descriptors to find what you fancy so here are four with some examples of brands to try:
Light – predominant flavours are fruits, nuts, light grassy notes with a fresh finish: Glenfiddich 12 year old is the number one selling single malt and for good reason, it’s an accessible entry into this world. Elsewhere you’ll find the Glenkinchie 12 YO is very easy on the lips while the Tormore 12 YO is super light.
Delicate – subtle nuts and floral aromas with sweet grains and light wood: The Dalwhinnie 15 YO and the Glenlivet 15 YO are all particularly delicate drams.
Rich – bold but warm, chocolate, fudge, spiced fruits and biscuit: Balvenie double wood 12, Macallan 10 YO, Glenmorangie 10 year old and Singleton 12 YO all strong contenders.
Smoky – spices like ginger, heat and smoke with long finishes: The Islay whiskies use peat to fuel the drying of barley, which delivers a potent smoke on the palate. Highland Park 12 YO from Orkney is a soft smoky sip, and Talisker 10 from Skye is also a subtle introduction. Moving through the gears though, you’ll find smouldering smoke in Lagavullin 16YO, Ardbeg 10 YO or Laphroaig 10 YO.
Whisky off the still is called ‘new make’ and is reduced in strength before it cosies up in oak casks. The casks previously contain other booze, usually sherry or bourbon. Bourbon barrels are white American oak and give whisky notes of pine, cherry, vanilla and spice. Sherry is European oak and imparts dried fruit, clove and orange. You’ll also discover other finishes, port, rum or wine. The wood allows oxygen in, which rounds off harsh notes in the whisky, at the same time the whisky takes on the characters of the wood such as valuable vanillins. Barrels can be filled more than once, the first fill whisky takes on more wood character, less in the second fill and eventually the wood gives no more and is re-charred for new use.
Age is just a number, right? Yeah man. Except that number is a crucial identifier in determining how old something is. So, really, the number is rather important. It’d certainly be daft to dismiss it in the world of whisky because it reveals how long a whisky has spent in a barrel, which has a huge impact on flavour and often price.
That said, approach an age statement with caution. Don’t splash out on the old kit for the sake of it – look at the stick Wayne Rooney got. Besides, anything from around 10 to 15 years for single malts gives you great complexity and a fine understanding of the distillery that produces it. Our advice for beginners is to start at this level and explore older age statements as you learn to appreciate a distillery style. A significant trend in the whisky world is the ‘No Age Statement’. Amongst the best are the recently launched Glenlivet Alpha or Talisker Storm.
The age statements suggested above should give you a very decent return on flavour and at a very reasonable investment ranging between £30 and £50.
Contrary to common perception, water is not only allowed, but also encouraged in certain whiskies, particularly those of cask strength – those higher in alcohol than the minimum 40%. Just a few drops can open up aromas and soften a dram. Alcohol burn is something you’ll need to become accustomed to over time, but you’ll enjoy yourself trying. As a warning though, ice chills the drink and dulls some of the aromas and flavours.
It helps to drop a few factoids into your bar chat:
Angels’ Share – the whisky lost in evaporation during aging – around 3% a year.
Cask strength – when the whisky has finished maturing it will be around 50/60% abv and is then reduced with water. Cask strength whiskies might be your next step.
Dram – a measure of whisky, size varies according to generosity of host.
Finish – how long the flavour sticks around in your chops. A long finish is only useful if you enjoy the flavours. Most of us simply want a happy finish.
Hogs Head – The 250 litre/63 gallon cask most commonly used in maturing whisky.
Nose – a physical protuberance converted into a verb – ‘to nose’ simply means to smell. Daft.
Peat – carbonised soil. It’s like a mix of mud and coal.
Single cask – single malt comes from one run off a still at one distillery but can be placed into and taken from a mix of barrels. Single barrel simply means it came from one barrel.
Stills – where the whisky is distilled. Each distillery has its own and it gives the new make its distinctive character.
Obviously we’ve only touched the surface here and while we don’t advocate snobbery, there’s plenty to celebrate in whisky. It’s easy to become an enthusiast. There’s also scope to muck about with some truly glamourous gear, we recently enjoyed the Lagavullin 37 year old, a special release that retails for £1,950 and is top banana. So once you\’re locked in, don’t hold back. Added to which there’s a world of whisky out there, this column doesn’t address blends, Japanese, or indeed Irish and American and all deserve mention. They’ll come along in future columns…