Single MaltScotch Whisky
Malt whisky is the ‘original’ whisky of Scotland. Although other grains were used, barley was grown specifically for making beer and whisky. However, with the success of blended whisky in the late 19th century, little was drunk as single malt outside the Highlands until the 1980s, when ‘the vintages of the North’ were rediscovered by an enthusiastic public and began to be made available by distillery owners.
Currently there are around 90 operating malt whisky distilleries in Scotland – it is difficult to be precise, since sometimes distilleries go out of production for periods, in order to balance stock levels. Single malts from a further 30-odd now closed distilleries may still be found.
Although made from very simple materials – malted barley, water and yeast – the make of each distillery has an individual character, owing to a variety of factors, such as the length of fermentation time, the style and size of the stills, and how they are operated, the type of condensers used and amount of spirit saved (called ‘the cut’).
By law, Scotch (both malt and grain whiskies) must be matured in oak casks in Scotland, and the casks themselves can make a huge contribution to the flavour of the finished product, according to a) how long the whisky has been left to mature, b) how often the individual cask has been used to mature Scotch and c) whether the cask is made from European oak or American oak. This makes it difficult to identify the mature products of individual distilleries.
Since at least the 1880s, blenders have identified different styles of whisky coming from different parts of Scotland. The original division, dating from the 1780s, was between ‘Lowland’ whisky and ‘Highland’ whisky. Then the whiskies made in Campbeltown and Islay were discerned to be different, and the whiskies of Speyside were added to the list.
With the dramatic growth of interest in single malt whiskies since the 1980s, the ‘Highland’ region has been sub-divided into Northern, Western, Eastern, Southern and Islands.
In truth, regional differences in the style and flavour of malt whiskies has more to do with tradition (how a malt is made in one place or another) than terroir, and although it is not possible to make a malt with identical character to another in a different distillery, it is possible to imitate a regional style out-with the region in question.
Did you know?
- more than one billion bottles of Scotch are exported every year, with France the biggest market
- the first reference to Scotch whisky was in 1495
- the first single malt to be marketed outside Scotland was by Glenfiddich in 1963
Typical Character and Style of Single Malt
- Dried Fruit
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