Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Spirits: Serious Single Malts

I have extolled the relative virtues of blended scotch before, but truth be told I've increasingly meandered into the refined heights of the real deal: single malt. The term seems a bit arcane and intimidating, but it's quite simple. Legally, whiskey bearing the label must be produced from malted barley, be aged for at least three years, and come from a single distillery. That's it. Like "bourbon", it just denotes a set of standards, not a guarantee of quality or drinkability, although the stuff that makes it to our shores tends to be of decent caliber.

In fact, different regions and producers make such a range of different styles that it's tough to enjoy them all. I personally am blessed by a local pub with an impressive scotch list and a healthy pour, which has enabled me to sample my way about. My wife and I have cheerfully nicknamed the place "Four Scotches" after... well, you can guess.

Thanks to these shenanigans, I've managed to zero in on my own preferences, and collect a few bottles that suit me nicely indeed. Not all whiskey-producing regions of Scotland are represented (notably, there's not a single Islay or Lowland product present) so this very much represents my tastes. They also reflect my price point; single malt tends to be more expensive than blended, but nothing here retails for more than about $60 in my local market, making them relatively affordable. Fancy booze is all fine and dandy, but I'd rather have two bottles of high-quality stuff than one bottle of ultra-premium or limited-edition or whatever.

Speaking of: on to the high-quality stuff.

Glenrothes Select Reserve

About: Based in the distillery-rich region of Speyside, Glenrothes is a bit unique in that they frequently produce vintage bottlings produced only from a single year's malt. A lot of distilleries blend whiskies from multiple years to create a desired flavor (and yes, this is allowed under the definition of "single malt" - but the youngest malt in the blend must be as old as the year statement on the label). This specific whiskey, which appears to be their entry-level model, is actually produced with the blending method, to exemplify the "house style", and the result is intriguing. As scotches go, it's on the lighter side; still nicely complex, but lacking the overt smoky character that can drive away novice scotch drinkers. It's a fine one with which to start exploring the single malt world.

Tasting Notes: I get some really big notes of dried apricot on the nose with this one; it's weird for a scotch to be so aggressively fruity. There's also a little bit of coconut, oak, and vanilla there too, but damn, that apricot. (Fortunately, I really like dried apricot.) The palate starts off sweet, with vanilla, orange, dried figs, and a sort of amaretto-ish almond roundness. Things get more oaky from there, but not too much; there's a little bit of marshmallow and raw-spirit pepper character too. The finish hangs onto that pepper, and the amaretto sweetness comes back, but the whole thing fades out pretty quickly, leaving a curiously airy sensation behind.

Highland Park 12 Year

About: Highland Park is an intriguing distillery for a couple big reasons. It's located in Orkney, a northern island cluster that could arguably be construed as its own sub-region (though I believe it's typically considered part of the Highlands). The distillery malts their own barley, which as I'm reading in Adam Rogers' Proof is quite uncommon these days. (Malting, by the way, is the process by which barley is encouraged to germinate, breaking down some its starches into sugars that can be fermented by yeast.) Keeping with the cant towards tradition, the whiskey is aged exclusively in ex-sherry casks; a lot of newer producers adopt ex-bourbon casks as either a full or partial substitute. Those fun facts don't add up to an especially weird product; they produce a well-rounded, balanced scotch with an unmistakable smoky core.

Tasting Notes: The thing I dig about Highland Park is that it's classically, unmistakably scotchy, but not overpowering, as I think a lot of Islay whiskeys can be. The nose has notes of dried hay and almonds, with a little whiff of iodine and campfire; on the palate, there's a balance between apples, toffee, toasted nuts, grain, and a little touch of black tea. The peat largely comes out on the finish, which stays lingering and smoky. It's the kind of finish that invites another sip, which I am probably excessively happy to take.

Macallan Fine Oak 10 Year

About: Macallan is one of the bigger names in the single malt game, and their core bottlings (the 12-year is pretty common) are among my go-to scotches when dealing with a standard restaurant's limited selection. In the last decade or so, they've also started releasing a "Fine Oak" series, aged in three different types of barrels (European and American sherry casks, plus American bourbon casks) as opposed to their sherry-only core product. This makes for a somewhat subtler whiskey, especially this 10 Year version, which oddly enough is marketed for use in cocktails. I'm not one to turn down a cocktail, but single malt is generally overkill (when there are so many suitable blends out there). I prefer to think of this as an example of how pleasant a relatively-young whiskey can be; not everything has to be aged for a couple decades to hit its peak.

Tasting Notes: This is on the light and sweet side of scotch, but in a balanced and pleasant way. Citrus, grains and fresh hay are big on the nose. It's much the same on the palate, full of orange marmalade, honey, malt, and touches of vanilla, toasted coconut, and oak. That oak is a bit more dominant on the finish, which is where you're reminded that this is a younger whiskey with a slightly raw and peppery character, plus a sort of butterscotch note that reminds me of nothing more than a Worther's Original. Weird, but good with dessert.

The Balvenie 14 Year Caribbean Cask

About: This is a funky one, and a really good example of creative finishing, the practice of aging whiskey in a distinctly-flavored cask in order to bring its flavor into the resident liquor. Like Highland Park, The Balvenie (I guess it's always capitalized that way?) seems to be big on tradition. They malt their own barley, sure; but they take it two steps further by growing their own grain and by maintaining a staff of coopers (or barrelmakers) and a dedicated coppersmith for their stills. Dang, dude, that's commitment. And then they go and do a totally crazy thing like age this stuff in rum-finished barrels. I'm not quite sure how one follows from the other, but I'm glad they decided to occasionally buck tradition. Be warned: because of this small-batch nature, it's also the most expensive one of this little roundup, so you'll pay for the privilege. But...

Tasting Notes: There is no better way to explain than by saying that this stuff smells intensely like rum. Not just a little, but distinctively, predominantly. And not just your bullshit clean Bacardi stuff either - good, funky, sailor-style rum. It mellows out a little bit with time and exposure, revealing the oaky, nutty, leathery presence of the base spirit. The rum is also the first thing that hits your tongue with a spiced sweetness, full of molasses, allspice, and dried pineapple. But that transitions seamlessly into a more traditional scotchiness, with oak, grain, caramel, and a little cinnamon. The finish is all about dates and light smoke, plus a really cool lingering hogo character, the distinctive funk that you get from pot-still rum.

I'm sorry - can you tell I absolutely love this stuff? It pulls a really neat trick by successfully merging two categories of spirit that I would never have put together. But oh, what possibilities that opens.

Dalmore 12 Year

About: A cool bottle here, obviously, the stag's head on which always reminds me of Skyfall. This bottle gets the distinction of being the only northern Highlands whiskey on this list. Three out of the five are from the concentrated Speyside region; Glenrothes and Macallan are practically across the street from each other, and Balvenie isn't much further away. But the Highlands are the part of Scotland that you visualize when you think about the country, the green, misty part with rolling hills. They make an appropriately robust and rustic whiskey, and I also like the level of detail they provide about its production. When I want a nice, rich whiskey, I reach for this one; it drinks like it's years older than it really is.

Tasting Notes: The nose is especially rich on this one, a lot like a good brandy, with tons of butterscotch, toffee, and a little bit of roasted coffee bean. The palate features orange peel, hazelnut, raisin, vanilla, and some toasted biscuit; that turns a lot smokier as it sits, developing a hefty dose of peat and some burned-caramel bitterness with a little nutmeg. The vanilla and coffee flavors carry through into a long and smoky finish, which is there to make sure you damn well know you're drinking scotch. And the good stuff, too.

So, folks, there you have it. I can't claim that this is a super-refined list, but it was fun to put together, and I expect that it will only keep growing! Even while working on this, I've tried a few other whiskies down at my local watering hole and expanded my horizons yet further. If I find something really good, you can be assured that it'll show up here.

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