Highlands Scotch

The Scottish Highlands are one of the most sparsely populated regions of Europe, making the role of the Scotch whisky industry a major lifeline for small communities in the region.  The distilleries primarily produce single malt whisky, made from 100% malted barley. The whisky is usually made in a pot still, which preserves more of the flavourful constituents giving it more distinctive character.

Note that although Speyside is geographically situated in the Highlands, it is considered to be a separate whisky region because there are more than 60 distilleries in Speyside alone.

Highland whiskies are generally described as being bold, rich, sweet, full-bodied, and sometimes peaty.  However, due to the size and variations of the region, the characteristics of the single malts differ significantly.  Because of this, the Highlands region is often categorized into four subregions based on the four compass points.  

The north produces some big bodied single malts, containing sweetness and richness, for example The Dalmore. In the south there are lighter, fruitier whiskies that are characterized by a definitive dryness, such as Aberfeldy. In the east there are some full-bodied, dry whiskies with lots of fruit flavour, as well as some pungency; Glen Garioch is a good example. Finally, the west part of the Highlands contain full bodied whiskies with peaty, smoky overtones, while closer to the coast there are some more maritime flavoured whiskies including malts from Clynelish and Pulteney.

Below I have identified 34 distilleries in the Highlands.  The ones highlighted in blue periodically have their whiskies available in Canadian liquor stores.

AnCnocAberfeldyArdmore
BalblairBen NevisBlair Athol
ClynelishDalmoreDalwhinnie
DeanstonDrumguishEdradour
GlencadamGlen DeveronGlen Eden
GlendronachGlenfoyleGlen Garioch
GlengoyneGlenmorangieSingleton of Glen Ord
GlenturretKnockdhuLoch Lomond
Loch MorarMacphailMcClelland
MillburnObanOld Fettercairn
Old PulteneyRoyal BracklaRoyal Lochnagar
Tomatin  

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Speyside Scotch

Speyside produces some of my favourite Scotch whiskies.  It is a sub-region of the Highlands, taking its name from the River Spey which meanders through the region.  It includes the Highlands to the west, Aberdeenshire to the east and the Cairngorms National Park to the north. 

Speyside has the most distilleries of any of Scotland’s whisky regions, containing about half of all of Scotland’s distilleries.  According to at least one so-called expert, Speyside is as close as most whisky lovers will ever come to the center of the single malt universe.

Speyside whiskies are generally not peaty as many of Islay’s and the Western Island regions are.  Instead they tend to have a fruity flavour, sweet and nutty, sometimes with hints of apple, caramel, honey and vanilla.

There are a number of world class whiskies that hale from Speyside including Aberlour, Balvenie, Glenfarclas, Glenfiddich, Glenlivet, and The Macallan.

The distilleries

Speyside’s distilleries are listed below with those highlighted in orange having whiskies available for sale in Canada.

AberlourAllt-A-BhainneAuchroiskAultmore
BalmenachBalvenieBenRiachBenrinnes
BenromachBraevalCardhuCragganmore
CraigellachieDailuaineDalmunachDalwhinnie
DufftownGlen ElginGlen GrantGlen Keith
Glen MorayGlen SpeyGlenallachieGlenburgie
GlendullanGlenfarclasGlenfiddichGlenlivet
GlenlossieGlenrothesGlentauchersInchgower
KinnvieKnockandoKnockdhuLinkwood
LongmornMacallanMannochmoreMiltonduff
MortlachRoseisleSpeyburnSpeyside
StrathislaStrathmillTamdhuTamnavulin
TomintoulTormore  

In addition to single malts that are sold under the distilleries’ names, brands associated with Speyside include Allt-á-Bhainne, Casg Annamh, Glen Turner, Lismore, McClelland’s Single Malt, and Tlàth.

The oldest working distillery in Speyside is Strathisla Distillery.  Even though Strathisla single malt is not well known outside of Scotland, their whiskies are included in popular blended Scotch, such as Chivas Regal and Royal Salute.

Speyside’s style of whisky has helped popularize Scotch throughout the world. Their craftsmanship dates back a few hundred years with skills being passed down from one generation to the next.  The distillers continue to find new innovations to keep improving the appeal of their whiskies.

There is ongoing experimentation with distilling processes.  One such example is at Glenfiddich where they are finishing a 21 year old whisky in Canadian ice wine barrels from Niagara’s Peller Estates Winery.  Fruity flavourful Speyside whisky accented by sweet ice wine is a match made in heaven.

With Speyside distilleries continuing to develop and rediscover themselves, the future of Scotch whisky is looking very bright.

If you haven’t tried a Speyside scotch, do yourself a favour and try the 18 year old Glenlivet, one of my ultimate favourites!

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Islay Whiskies

Islay whisky is Scotch whisky made on the Isle of Islay (pronounced ‘EYE-la’), which is one of the southernmost of the Inner Hebridean Islands, located off the west coast of Scotland. Islay is one of five whisky distilling localities and regions in Scotland whose identity is protected by law. It is also one of my favourite places, having visited there twice and the desire to return again.

Photo credit: en.wikipedia.org

There are nine active distilleries on Islay which measures only 40 by 24 kilometres.  With peat soil, freshwater and homegrown barley all available on the island, it is the perfect location for producing scotch.  It is interesting to note that there is just not one style of whisky being produced on the island but in fact several.

The distilleries along the southeastern coast of the island, Laphroaig, Lagavulin, and Ardbeg, have a smoky flavour that results from the water from which the whisky is made and from the peating levels of the barley.  My introduction to Islay scotch came from my B & B host on my first arrival on Islay.  Each guest was given a dram as a welcome to the isle.  On this particular day the scotch of choice was a 10 year old Ardbeg.  What a shock that was to my system!  For me, it was like drinking turpentine. However, since then I have gained an appreciation for peaty Islay scotch so I owe it to myself to try Ardbeg again.  Lagavulin, which was introduced to me by my wife’s uncle on a subsequent trip to Islay several years later, has become a personal favourite. On that same trip I was served a dram of Laphroaig by another B & B host, who warned me that the scotch was rather “medicinal” tasting.  His warning did not deter me as I was already familiar with the whisky.  Interestingly, my wife’s ancestors were the original distillers of Laphroaig.

Here is a brief description of the 9 distilleries and some of what they offer:

Ardbeg

Ardbeg produces one of Islay’s peatiest whiskies. It was opened in 1815 but closed in 1981 after falling into disrepair.  In 1997 it was purchased by Glenmorangie who refurbished it and got it back up and running.

The Ardbeg 10 is considered to be complex and smoky.  However, I must admit I have not had any since my inaugural tasting on my first adventure to Islay many years ago. Peat lovers are said to enjoy Ardbeg Corryvreckan and if whisky aged in a sherry cask is to your liking, Ardbeg Uigeadail or the blended Ardbeg An Oa may be for you.

Ardnahoe

Ardnahoe is Islay’s newest distillery, only getting approval for development in 2016.  The first whisky was only produced in the fall of 2018.  Therefore it is only this year that the brew has aged long enough to call it whisky.  Thus it will probably be another few years before you see an Ardnahoe whisky on store shelves.

Bowmore

Bowmore is Islay’s oldest licensed distillery, operating since 1779. The whisky produced by Bowmore is one of Islay’s lightest, making for a sweet and sea-salty flavour. Bowmore produces a variety of different cask types.

Their whiskies include the Bowmore 12 year old which has flavours of honey and lemon. The Bowmore 15 is matured first in bourbon barrels then Oloroso casks for a sherry finish. Finally, for those who like older whiskies there is the Bowmore 18.

I was first introduced to the pleasurable Bowmore 12 by a close friend a few years ago while relaxing at his cottage.  In my opinion it capped off the perfect weekend.

Bruichladdich

The Bruichladdich (pronounced brook-laddie) distillery operated from 1881 to 1995 and re-opened in 2000.  Today it is one of the island’s most modern and innovative distillers even though their equipment is Victorian and no computers are used in the whisky-making. Bruichladdich also produces Port Charlotte whisky, Islay Botanist Gin, as well as the world’s peatiest whisky, the smoky Octomore range.

Whiskies to try from Bruichladdich include the Bruichladdich Classic 10-year-old “Laddie”, which is an easy-drinking, non-peated whisky and the Port Charlotte 10-year-old.  Both are sweet, salty and mellow.

I stumbled onto the Laddie while in a liquor store quite a few years ago.  There happened to be a display close to the check-out where my wife noticed the pretty blue bottle and thought it would be a nice addition to my bar.  It is now a regular scotch go-to.

I was fortunate enough to be gifted their Black Art a few years ago by my son.  Unfortunately, it was a one-time offering, so I savour it and save it to drink only occasionally to make it last.

Bunnahabhain

Bunnahabhain (pronounced Boo na hab hain) has produced whisky since 1883. Bunnahabhain doesn’t have that traditional smoky Islay taste.  Instead it is double matured in ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks.

Whiskies to try at Bunnahabhain include the classic Bunnahabhain 12 and the Bunnahabhain 18.  Both whiskies taste of honey and sea salt.   Bunnahabhain also produces Toiteach A Dhà which is Bunnahabhain but with a little bit of peat.

Caol Ila

Caol Ila (pronounced Cull-eela) is the largest distillery on Islay producing up to 3 million litres of spirit a year; though mainly for blends such as Chivas Regal. Except for a brief interruption from 1972 to 1974, Caol Ila has operated since 1846.

Coal Ila produces a traditionally peated Islay whisky.  Having a light smoke, it is one of the more accessible and popular of the Islay whisky distilleries.

Whiskies to try from Caol Ila include the Caol Ila 12-Year-Old, which is sweet and lemony and the Caol Ila 18-Year-Old, which is more smoky and sour.

Kilchoman

Kilchoman ( pronounced kil-ho-man) is Islay’s smallest distillery, opened in 2005. It produces Single Farm Single Malt, a whisky produced entirely on-site.

Whiskies to try from Kilchoman include Kilchoman Machir Bay, a traditional Islay whisky.

Lagavulin

Lagavulin has been in continuous operation since 1816 and produces an intense smoky whisky classic to Islay. The taste of Lagavulin is very distinctive, in part due to its medical iodine smell along with seaweed and salt.

Whiskies to try at Lagavulin include the Lagavulin 16-Year-Old, one of my personal favourites, the Lagavulin 12-year-old and a Lagavulin Distillers Edition.  I enjoy visiting their tasting room where you can relax in a high-back leather chair while sampling their whisky offerings.

Laphroaig

Similar to Lagavulin, Laphroaig also has an intense smoky medicinal taste.  It has been operating since 1815. My most memorable Laphroaig experience was having a dram before dinner while staying at Mingary Castle at Kilchoan on the Ardmanurchan Peninsula, which was originally held by my wife’s ancestors.

The most popular Laphroaig is the Laphroaig 10-year-old, but they also have a Laphroaig 16-year-old and a 25 and 30-year-old.  There is also the Laphroaig Quarter Cask, which is a young whisky aged in old barrels for a sweeter taste.

Whatever style of whisky you like you are bound to find one from Islay that will strike your fancy.

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Following the Irish or Scottish Whisky Trail

Now that we seem to be slowly moving beyond the ugly shadow of COVID-19, people are starting to think about overseas travel once again.  If you are planning to journey to Ireland or Scotland here are a few things to keep in mind if you decide to head down the whiskey/whisky trail.

Photo credit: topwhiskies.com

If you visit a distillery or two or six along the way and decide to purchase a sampling to bring home, I suggest selecting one that is not available at home.  Why cart a heavy fragile bottle around on your travels if you can conveniently purchase the same thing at your neighbourhood liquor store?  I make a point of sampling those that are not readily available at home and purchase one of those.

Another thing to keep in mind is the duty on any alcohol you plan on bringing home.  Generally, you are permitted one 750 ml. bottle per adult traveller without having to pay import duty on your return home.  I have the advantage of my wife not being fond of whisky so I get to choose a bottle for her to bring home as well.

Never go into a pub in Scotland and ask for a “Scotch”.  If the server is polite he or she will simply stare at you with a blank look on their face.  However, they are as equally likely to respond with a cheeky “Scotch what?” or something more sarcastic.  Scotch whisky in Scotland is simply referred to as “whisky”. Instead, ask for a whisky, or better yet, check out the selection and order it by name. With 130 distilleries in Scotland the selections available will often vary by the region you are visiting.

The same holds true in Ireland where all whiskey is Irish whiskey. Save yourself a ribbing and order your choice by name.  When in doubt you will find that most pubs in the Republic of Ireland will have Jamison’s, pronounced ‘Jămĭsŏns’, or if you travel to Northern Ireland Bushmill is a safe bet to order.

My father would not be very happy with me but I prefer Irish pubs over their Scottish counterparts.  To me they are much livelier and the people less reserved and more friendly. The pubs in both countries are full of character and natural charm. 

Finally, there seem to be many more beer options in Ireland than in Scotland though Scottish whisky options far exceed whiskey choices found in Ireland.  However, I am not going to weigh in on the Scotch Whisky versus Irish Whiskey debate as to which is better.  I like both; my preference is determined by my mood.

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Malt Whisky versus Grain Whisky

This is an age-old debate among Scotch Whisky lovers.  Before weighing in on the debate, let’s first look at what differentiates one from the other. 

A Whisky that’s made by a single distillery using malted barley and pot stills is a Single Malt.  No other types of grains can be used when making Malt Whisky.

Single Malt whisky is not required to be sourced from one barrel, a particular batch of barrels, or even distilled in one batch. Single malt whisky simply means that the whisky has been distilled, matured and bottled at one distillery. It may come from different barrels, batches and even have different ages. If a whisky is distilled, matured and bottled at a single distillery, it is, and can be labelled a Single Malt whisky.

Grain Whisky on the other hand can be distilled from any type of grain, whether it is unmalted barley, wheat, corn or rye.  They can even use a combination of grains.  It is interesting to note that 100% malted barley Scotch that is made with column stills is considered as a Grain Whisky.

Single Grain whisky, like Single Malt whisky, also denote the origin of the whisky from one distillery alone. Single Grain whisky must be distilled, matured and bottled at one distillery.

Malt whiskies are generally considered superior to grain whiskies because malt whiskies have more character than grain whiskies.  This character comes mostly from the ‘impurities’ that are distilled away in consecutive distillation runs.

Grain Whisky is usually less expensive than Malt Whisky but that is not related to quality. Grain Whisky is generally distilled in column stills, which allows the distiller a continuous production that’s less expensive than batch distillation in pot stills. That reduces the price of blends, in addition to giving them a bit more body.

There is more Grain Whisky produced than Malt Whisky but there are far fewer distillers that make it. There are about 130 active Malt distilleries and the largest one, Glenfiddich, can produce 21 million litres of pure alcohol per year. On the other hand, Cameronbridge, the largest grain distiller, can produce up to 110 million litres per year. It is interesting to note though, that in 2020 the production of Grain and Malt Whisky in Scotland was almost identical.

Scotland has distilleries like Loch Lomond and Girvan that are making inroads with Scotch Grain Whisky.  These distilleries are bottling Grain Whisky that is both high quality and well matured.  Loch Lomond is producing Grain Whisky that has won awards and is well known for its smoothness and distinct light-bodied qualities. It is the first distillery in Scotland to produce both Grain and Malt whiskies at the same time.

So, to answer the question as to which type of whisky is better, Malt Whisky or Grain Whisky, the answer is up to you.

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Irish Whiskey Single Malt Vs Single Pot

If you have ever shopped for Irish whiskey you may have noticed the term ‘Single Pot’ on some of the labels.  Is single pot the same as single malt? Not exactly; single malt means all the liquid in the bottle was made from a single type of malted grain at the same distillery. Single pot is only legally produced in Ireland and is made with both malted and unmalted barley. The reason for this is the unmalted barley adds a unique character to the whiskey. The taste of a single pot has more distinct spiciness, more of a weighty, grainy texture and funky cereal flavour that isn’t as present in other types of Irish whiskeys. It has more depth.

To complicate matters further, up until 2011 single pot whiskeys were labeled as “Pure Pot Still.” If you find this description on a label you have come across a “vintage” bottle.

At present there are only a couple of brands out there making Single Pot Still Whiskey for commercial purposes. The category became less popular in the 20th century when Scotch began to dominate the marketplace.  However, with the resurgence of classic drinking habits in the 2000s, it’s becoming more popular.

The more popular single pot whiskeys include:

  • Redbreast 12 Year Old – It is a brilliant amber colour with complex aromas of floral, honey, sweet fruits and lime.  It is full-bodied and robust with a creamy mouth-feel and flavours repeated from the nose followed by an enduring finish reminiscent of butterscotch.
  • Green Spot – With clove, apricot and oak toast aromas and flavours of cedar, clove, apple and ginger. The long finish has spicy notes of clove, nutmeg and ginger.
  • Yellow Spot – Matured in three types of oak casks, it has aromas and flavours of caramel, spice, honey and ripe tree fruit. Nutty, dried fruit and toasted oak notes linger on a long finish.

Irish whiskey single malts include:

  • Bushmills 10 Year Old Single Malt – Aged ten years in used bourbon barrels, it has aromas of ripe pear, toasted oak, caramel, citrus peel and white pepper. On the palate it is warming with a light sweetness and medium body. Flavours of tree fruit, caramel, citrus and toasted almonds play on a long finish.
  • Writers Tears Copper Pot – It is deep gold in colour with orange accents. There are aromas of citrus, honey, apple, vanilla and malt, as well as flavours of caramel and citrus peel along with oak and pepper.  It is medium-bodied and fruity with a long-lasting finish.
  • The Sexton Single Malt – It is bright golden in colour with warming aromas of toffee, marzipan, citrus, allspice and hints of dark chocolate. There are flavours of dried fruit and oak which is a result of ageing in Oloroso Sherry casks.  The finish is smooth and supple with a kiss of sweetness.
  • West Cork Single Malt – Matured in bourbon barrels and finished in calvados casks, it has notes of dried fruit, vanilla, pear, almonds and apple. A medium-bodied and fruity palate leads to a long finish.
  • Teeling Single Malt – It is aged in five distinctive wine casks creating fruity aromas with hints of toffee, vanilla, herb and floral notes. It has flavours of caramel, spice and tropical fruit with a lengthy finish.
  • The Temple Bar – It is distilled in copper pot stills and matured in American oak barrels resulting in a well-balanced dram. There are aromas and flavours of zesty citrus, cinnamon, honey, nutmeg and vanilla. It is full-bodied and flavourful with a lengthy finish.

The descriptions of each of the whiskies were paraphrased from the LCBO website descriptions.

I have tried all 3 single pot whiskies and many of the single malts and my favourite is the Green Spot single pot.  Unfortunately, it is only imported from Ireland once or twice a year so it is only available on a very limited basis.

Redbreast is produced by the same distillery that makes Jameson.  When I visited the Jameson distillery in Dublin a few years ago I was told that Redbreast is created in the traditional style of Irish whiskey as it was made over a hundred years ago. It is said to be popular with Irish Whiskey traditionalists. 

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Tastings and Rankings

Although the subject of my writing today is on whisky, the same thoughts apply to wine reviews as well.  The beverage is different but the prejudices, influences and considerations remain the same; food for thought.

Photo credit: etsy.com

Taste is subjective; remember the saying “One person’s trash is another person’s treasure”?  My own opinions as to preference will vary within reason depending on my mood.  I suggest treating these articles as a curiosity and entertainment, not as gospel.   I read some of the reviews to see how the writer’s opinions may compare to my own.  For the article to have any kind of validity, the author needs to reveal what selections were sampled and how that list was determined.

Before assessing the writer’s results, you need to be aware of any bias the person may have.  If comparing peated whisky with non-peated whisky, the writer may allow a personal bias of whether they are a fan of the smokiness of peat be an influence.  On the other hand, if a group of whiskies were being ranked based on the sweetness and/or peatiness, without comment as to personal preference, that can be valuable to a reader in matching their personal preferences.

Double-blind tastings where the reviewer is unaware of what whiskies are being sampled, as well as the order in which they are presented is best.  That way personal prejudice may be better avoided.   For example, Zach Johnston of uproxx.com was quoted during his review, Scotch Whiskies Tasted ‘Double-Blind’ And Power Ranked, “I had no idea what this was (Johnnie Walker Blue Label). I do feel that had I known it was in the lineup, I’d had sussed it out and ranked it higher. So, this is a pretty good example of how double blinds really push the envelope.”  This is a good example of how a whisky’s reputation or price point can bias opinion on how good a whisky is.

Should price be a consideration?  Sometimes yes, sometimes no.  In the example above, Johnnie Walker Blue was ranked 6th of the 8 whiskies tasted. It carries a price tag in excess of $300.  The 5 whiskies ranked higher ranged from $100 to slightly under $300.  However, the whisky that ranked last was also by far the least expensive, priced at under $85. 

It is important to make sure that the reviewer is comparing apples to apples.  It hardly seems fair to compare a simple 10-year-old malt with a price point in the $80 range with a 25-year-old that was aged in an ex-bourbon or ex-sherry cask, in the $250 and up price range.  After all, for a difference of $200 or more, there should be a differentiating factor, otherwise why would you pay the extra money?

Finally, if the reviewer is from outside of Canada, the selection list isn’t often completely relevant.  Many of the whiskies are often not available to try.  Therefore, from a practical standpoint, a comparison or ranking of a good sampling of whiskies may be reduced to a comparison of only 2 or 3, depending on accessibility.

However, after all is said and done, reviews do provide a new perspective for consideration and thought.

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The Styles of Irish Whiskey

In recognition of the upcoming St. Patrick’s Day, I decided it is a good time to discuss the different styles of Irish Whiskey.  As with most things Irish, there is disagreement as to how many styles of whiskey there are; some would argue there are four, while others claim only three.

Photo credit: Forbes.com

I will begin this discussion by identifying the three styles that all the experts agree upon.  Those are malt, pot still and grain.  The debated fourth style is a blended combination of two or more of the other three styles.  Those who argue that there are only three styles base their argument on the fact that blends can only exist because they are the product of a combination of the other three styles.

Below are definitions of all four styles, as well as examples of each.  The whiskies highlighted in blue are periodically available in Canadian liquor stores.

Single Malt Whiskey

Malt whiskey is produced from 100% malted barley. It is double or triple distilled in copper pot stills. To qualify as single malt, the whiskey must be made in its entirety at one distillery. Irish single malts are typically soft in texture, smooth, sweet, and malty in flavour.

Examples of single malt whiskies include Bushmills single malt, Knappogue Castle single malt, Connemara 12 Single Malt, Teeling Single Malt, West Cork, Tyrconnell and The Sexton.

Single Pot Still Whiskey

This style is unique to Ireland.  It is made from a mash of at least 30% malted and 30% unmalted barley, which gives pot still its characteristic full-rounded and spicy flavour. In addition to the barley, the mash may contain up to 5% of other cereal grains, such as rye or oats. The mash is fermented and then double or triple distilled in copper pot stills.

Examples of single pot whiskies include Redbreast, Powers John’s Lane and Powers Three Swallow, Midleton Barry Crockett Legacy, Green Spot, Yellow Spot, Red Spot, Blue Spot, Drumshanbo and Teeling.

Single Grain Whiskey

Unlike pot still and malts, grain whiskey is distilled using a column still instead of a copper pot still. This produces a spirit that is lighter and cleaner in body and sweeter in taste. It is most often distilled from a base of corn (maize) with up to 30% malted barley added. Other grains such as wheat or oats may also be used.

Single grain whiskey must be made at a single distillery.

Examples of single grain whiskies include Kilbeggan Single Grain, Teeling Single Grain, The Busker, Clonakilty Bordeaux Cask, Egan’s Vintage Grain and Glendalough Double Barrel.

Blended Whiskey

A blended Irish whiskey should not be automatically considered to be inferior to a single grain, single malt or pot still whiskey. The success of the blend comes down to the quality of the whiskeys it is contrived of and the skill of the blender who creates it.  A blend is a mixture of two or more styles of Irish whiskey. There are no specific names to differentiate between blends made from malt and grain, pot still and grain, malt and pot still, or even malt, pot still and grain.

Blends are often light when grain whiskey is included in the mix, while the addition of pot still or malt whiskey will give body and complexity. Blended whiskeys can be a great alternative to a single pot still or single malt whiskey, which may be too rich or intense in flavour.  Blended whiskey is generally smooth, mellow and silky.

Blended whiskey may be distilled in pot and/or column stills and can be made at a single distillery or multiple distilleries.

Blended whiskey examples include Jameson, Powers Gold Label, Clontarf, Bushmills Black Bush, Teeling Small Batch, Writers’ Tears Copper Pot, Dubliner Bourbon Bask, The Irishman Founder’s Reserve, The Busker ‘Triple Cask Triple Smooth’, The Dubliner, and Teeling Blackpitts.

If you are a whiskey fan and have not tried all four variations of Irish Whiskey, you owe it to yourself to sample them all.  You may discover a new favourite.

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Scotch Whisky

There are four main whisky regions in Scotland – the Lowlands, the Highlands, Campbelltown and Islay. There are also two whisky sub-regions, Speyside and the Islands, both of which are part of the Highland region.  The Islands are considered to include all the whisky producing islands in Scotland except Islay. Although each distillery’s whisky is unique, the malts produced in each region have some common characteristics that separate them from scotch produced in other regions.

There are four main types of Scottish whisky – ‘single malt’ which is made by one distillery in one batch using only water and malted barley, ‘ grain whisky’ where rye or wheat is added, ‘blended malt’ which is a mix of malts from more than one distillery and ‘blended whiskies’ where many malts and grains are blended together.

Scottish whisky is made and governed by law and must be a minimum of 3 years old before it can be called whisky. Most distilleries produce their first bottling at 10 years old though many are aged longer.

Highlands Region

The Highlands is the largest whisky producing region.  It generally produces more full-bodied whiskies with deep flavours of peat and smoke.

Flavours of fruitcake and oak with heather and smoke are prevalent in Highland whiskies. Wild seas and impenetrable moorlands dominate, creating powerful peaty drams, whilst still leaving room for floral, silky elegance.

The vast size of the region has resulted in Highland whiskies tasting very different from each other, ranging from the extreme heathery, spicy character of Northern Highlands to the fruity whiskies of the Southern Highlands.

Famous highland distilleries include Oban, Glenmorangie, Dalmore, and Glengoyne.

Islands Sub-Region

The versatility of the Islands includes both citrus and smoking peaty flavours.  Scotch from the Islands can be described as a milder version of Islay whisky. The islands, which include Arran, Mull, Jura, Skye and Orkney, have hints of brine, oil, black pepper, heather and honey.  Most of the Island whiskies are salted by the sea.

Talisker’s potent malt hails from the largest distillery of all the islands. Tobermory offers fruity flavours and Jura is nutty and oily, more mid-range in flavour intensity.

Speyside Sub-Region

Speyside is home to over half of Scotland’s distilleries.  However, since Speyside is geographically part of the Highlands, it is considered to be a sub-region of the Highlands by some and a separate region by others.  The region received its name from the river Spey, which cuts through the area.  Many of the distilleries use water straight from the river in their production process. 

Speyside scotch is arguably the country’s most complex, renowned for its sweetness and elegant flavours and aromas, including nutty fruit flavours of apple, pear, honey, vanilla and spice.  Speyside whiskies generally do not use peat as part of their process.

These whiskies often make use of sherry casks thus there is a variety ranging between light and grassy malts such as Glenlivet, and the rich and sweet likes of Macallan.  Other whiskies hailing from the region include Glenfiddich, as well as Balvenie, Aberlour, Tomintoul and Glen Moray, as well as blends like Johnnie Walker and Chivas Regal.

On a personal note both the Glenlivet 15 year old and 18 year old are two of my favourites.

Islay Region

Islay scotch is considered to be the smokiest and strongest flavoured of the single malts.  The strong flavour is believed to be due to the region’s exposure to the high winds and seas of the west coast. 

The distilleries include Laphroaig, Lagavulin, Bowmore, and Ardbeg.

Campbeltown Region

Campbeltown was once considered the whisky capital of Scotland but today only three distilleries remain.  The scotch is peaty with a hint of sea salt and a briny character and is said to have flavours of wet wool, salt, smoke, fruit, vanilla and toffee.

Springbank produces three uniquely different whiskies; Longrow, Springbank and Hazelburn. They range from double to triple distilled, non- to richly peated, caramel to clear.

Glengyle produces the sweet, fruity and spiced Kilkerran while Glen Scotia is light with grassy palates.

Lowlands Region

The whiskies of the Lowlands, which are located just above England, are not peaty or salty.  Soft and smooth malts are characteristic of the region, offering a gentle, elegant palate reminiscent of grass, honeysuckle, cream, ginger, toffee, toast and cinnamon.

Lowland whisky is light with floral tones.  The whiskies include Glenkinchie, Bladnoch, Auchentoshan, Linlithgow, Girvan and Strathclyde.

During the upcoming weeks I will discuss a couple of the regions in more detail and relate some of my personal experiences.

Sláinte mhaith

Scotch Whisky Single Malt Vs Blend

I did not know this but there are five types of Scotch whisky, each with a slightly different definition.  Until now I thought there were only two, single malt whisky and blended whisky.  The definitions of the five types of whisky are:

  • Single Malt Whisky – whisky made at one distillery using pot stills and only malted barley.  Example:  Glenlivet 12 Year Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky
  • Single Grain Whisky – whisky made at one distillery using a continuous still, or using any type of still and grains other than malted barley.  Example:  Strathclyde Single Grain
  • Blended Malt Whisky – whisky made by combining single malt whiskies from different distilleries. Example:  Ballantine’s Finest Blended Malt Scotch Whisky
  • Blended Grain Whisky – whisky made by combining single grain whiskies from different distilleries.  Example:  Teacher’s Highland Scotch Whisky
  • Blended Whisky – whisky made by combining malt whisky and grain whisky.  Example: Chivas Regal 12 Year Old Blended Scotch Whisky

Each bottle of Scotch whisky you buy will have one of these five types indicated on the label.

Only about 10% of the Scotch whiskies on the market are single malt. However, single malt Scotch made up nearly 28% of the whisky exported from Scotland.

For all Scotch whisky the age indicated on the label refers to the number of years the whisky spent in casks. Very few whiskies come from a single cask. The mixing of spirits of different ages is permitted.  The age indicated on the bottle indicates the age of the youngest whisky in the bottle, which has matured in oak casks in Scotland for a minimum of three years.

Are single malts better than blends?  Well that comes down to personal taste. Many blended whiskies are cheaper than single malts but that doesn’t mean that single malts are better. Blended whisky can have a great range of flavour and can rival single malts not only for complexity and flavour, but also for price.  Case in point: Macallan Estate single malt has a price tag of $349.50 while Chivas Regal 25 year old blend currently sells for $359.75.

Those new to the world of Scotch whisky usually begin by trying one or more blended whiskies, especially since they generally have a more favourable price point. It’s easy for single malt fans, like me, to write them off as cheap and uninteresting.  However, after some discussion with a Scotch blend enthusiast and tasting some of his recommendations, I made some new discoveries and had to admit that there are some good blended whiskies.

Sláinte mhaith