Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Thirst Boston: Single Malts of Scotland

Comparison tastings can be some of the best ways to understand a beverage, especially the nuances, an excellent way to determine the similarities and differences between a group of drinks. It works with both wine and spirits and I always cherish the opportunity to engage in these type of tasting events. At Thirst Boston, they have conducted some of these comparison tastings in the past as well as in their most recent event.

At the recent Thirst Boston, I attended the seminar and tasting class Single Malts of Scotland and it was described as: "With over a hundred distilleries, Scotland’s eponymous spirit is doubtless its best-known export. There is perhaps no finer expression than a single malt, made according to strict regulations and thus intrinsically emblematic of the place from which it comes. Join Bill Codman, Master of Whiskey, on a tour of Scotland from mountains to sea, from rolling hills of heather to desolate peat bogs, through the distinctive tastes of the single malts produced there." It was an intriguing event, with some amazing Scotch, and was a fun and tasty way to learn about the various regional styles of Scotch.

The presenter was William "Bill" Codman, Master of Whiskey at Diageo, which currently represents about 28 distilleries plus some closed ones. With his #LoveScotch t-shirt, Bill was a fun and informative presenter, obviously passionate about Scotch. If you want to learn more about Scotch, you should check out any of his future seminar or tasting events.

Bill began with providing some basic information about Scotch, noting that is is essentially a distilled grain spirit that is matured and bottled within Scotland. There are three main categories of Scotch: Grain, Single Malt and Blended. Grain Scotch is very rare, and usually a mix of barley and wheat. It tends to be sweet and usually ends up being put into blends. Single Malt Scotch must be made from 100% malted barley and made in a single distillery. Bill thinks that a better name for this would be Single Barley. Only about 8%-9% of Scotch production is Single Malt. Blended Scotch is a combination of grain and single malts and is the largest portion of production.

There was then a brief description of the production process, especially discussing malted barley. Only four distilleries still do their own malting, most distilleries sourcing out to large malt houses. There was mention that to create whiskey, you first make a beer which then gets distilled. And that is why the first still is often called the beer still and the second is the spirits still. Copper is used for stills was it has a number of advantages and it never wears out. If the inside of a copper still starts to deteriorate, new copper plates are just layered in, and that can be done near ad infinitum. Interestingly, Coopers, who create, finish, and repair barrels, are the highest paid manual laborers in Europe.

The flavor of Scotch can be affected by some many different factors, such as the length of fermentation, phenol levels in peat, size of still, type of still, what its aged in and much more. Scotch does not possess terroir but there are some regional differences in it. In general, Scotland is broken down into four regions: Highlands, Lowlands, Speyside, & Islands. As such, there are some commonalities shared by the whiskies of each region, though it cannot be taken as an absolute.

We tasted six Scotches, from the four regions, to give us a sense of the differences. Our tasting began with two Scotches from the Highlands, a region where the style tends to be sweeter with citrus and straw/hay notes. The Dalwhinnie 15 Year Old Single Malt is from the highest distillery in Scotland, at an altitude over over 1000 feet. This whiskey was light and subtle, with grassy and floral notes. A quiet elegance.

The Oban 18 Year Old Single Malt (about $120) was outstanding and was my favorite Scotch of the tasting. Located in the Coastal Highlands, it is a tiny distillery located right next to the ocean and unable to grow any larger. Despite its closeness to the sea, it s whiskey doesn't possess a saline or maritime taste. Oban Scotch does not sell their Scotch to anyone else, so you won't find it in a blend anywhere. This Scotch was amazing, with a complex and harmonious blend of flavors, including baked orange, bold spices, a hint of smoke, caramel, and much more. Each sip since to bring a new flavor to your palate. The finish felt like it wouldn't ever end and it is the type of Scotch you would slowly savor all evening. It seduces your palate and will addict you as soon as you taste it. If you can find a bottle, grab it, even at this price. Highly recommended.

Next up was a Scotch from the Lowlands, the Glenkinchie 12 Year Old Single Malt. There are only about 4 distilleries in this region and their Scotch tends to be lighter and more delicate. This was a light bodied Scotch, with some earthiness in the aroma, and a taste with dried grass and a hint of smoke.

We then moved onto a Speyside Scotch, the Cardhu 12 Year Old Single Malt. The Speyside makes about 50% of all the production in Scotland and their Scotch tends to be fruity, especially as they tend to use Red American oak which give more fruity notes than White oak. And this Scotch certainly had a fruity flavor, plums and figs, with an aroma of sweet Sherry. There were some intriguing spice notes as well and a lengthy finish. A very tasty Scotch.

Onto the Islands. The middle of Scotland has long possessed a great amount of forests but the western section and the islands had few trees, and thus couldn't use it as a primary fuel source. However, those areas possessed lots of peat, basically fossilized vegetation, and it could be used for fuel, though it tends to give off a lot of smoke. And that is why distilleries in those areas use peat, making their Scotch smoky.

Talisker Distillery is the only distillery on the Isle of Skye and it is a huge distillery, selling half of their product to Johnny Walker. Talisker is Bill's favorite Scotch and the Talisker 18 Year Old Single Malt was certainly impressive, and my second favorite of the tasting. With a pleasing smoky aroma with a touch of brininess, the palate possessed a moderate peaty aspect, a nuttiness and an excellent blend of sweet and salty flavors. So complex, with a lengthy finish, this is a killer Scotch which will satisfy anyone seeking a fine, peaty whiskey. Bill recommends you pair this Single Malt with chocolate or oysters.

Finally, we enjoyed the Laguvulin 16 Year Old, from an Islay distillery well known for its peaty Scotch. It definitely had more smoke than the Talisker, though it wasn't overpowering. It presented flavors of toasted vanilla, roast meat, and some pleasing earthy notes. It will bring to mind a campfire in the deep forest, which will remain long in your memory.

Which Single Malt should you drink? I say that you should taste all the Scotch you can find and then determine which ones you prefer. Don't limit yourself to one type. Enjoy them all.

No comments: