Single Malt Scotch
Single malt scotches are among the most prized (and expensive) spirits by connoisseurs, and rightfully so. Their painstaking craftsmanship and extended maturation results in some the best and most varied grain spirits in the world. They are endlessly complex, with flavors covering a range of smoke, honey, grass, brine, fruit, nuts, iodine and plenty more, often all at once.
Because their intense flavors can overwhelm a drink, not to mention the higher price point, I only fix cocktails with single malts on rare occasions (though the occasions certainly arise: a Bobby Burns with Highland Park 18 will not disappoint). To truly appreciate the mastery of a well made single malt, it's best enjoyed "naked" with a little water or ice if you choose. For an ideal mixing scotch, check out the blended scotch page.
Single Malt Scotch Basics
Made from 100% malted barely, all in one distillery - which is what the "single" refers to.
Distilled at least twice in copper pot stills.
Aged for at least 3 years in oaks casks, but often much longer. Over 90% of the industry uses recycled bourbon barrels. The other 10% is mostly ex-sherry.
Scotch's smoky flavor from peat, which is burned to dry the barely. Learn about peat here. This is why scotch is also sometimes described as “peaty,” but not all scotch uses peat.
Single Malt Regions
The most common approach to navigating the single malt category is by region. There are officially five: Islay, the Highlands, Speyside, the Lowlands and Campbeltown. I like to add the Islands off the northwest coast as a sub region, which is technically part of Highlands.
The natural assumption that each region will impart it's own unique terroir resulting from the particulars of the climate and geography. But in reality, the similar qualities we associate with regions are more the result of stylistic traditions, rather than terroir. The methods chosen by the distillery - whether peat is used, the barrels it was aged in and for how long - are what define a scotch's character, and they can be replicated anywhere.
Still, geography does have some tangible influence. It's most apparent when comparing scotches from coastal, seaside areas to those from inland areas. Conveniently, these common traits tend to mirror their region's stylistic tendencies.
Seaside Scotches - These are traditionally peated, some heavily, since that’s more where the peat originates. In addition to smoke, their proximity to the ocean can give these scotches maritime flavors like brine, sea salt and iodine. But they can include floral notes of fruit and spice as well. Islay is the standard bearer of this group. The islands, Campbeltown and some coastal parts of the Highlands and Speyside fit in as well.
Inland Scotches - The geographical influences come from the grassy valleys, or "Glens," and fields of heather, which has a woody flavor with floral, musky tones. It’s often used in men’s bath and body products, which seems appropriate. These whiskies cover pretty much every common scotch flavor except for smoke - though even that shows up from time to time. The flavors range from light and grassy with honey and fresh fruit flavors to full bodied and rich with notes of ripe and dried fruit with baking spices. These primarily come from the Highlands, Lowlands and much of Speyside.
Below are brief summaries of each region's characteristics along with of a few of the single malts made there (and some pronunciation help where applicable). Each distillery typically releases multiple expressions of a single malt with different age statements and barrel finishes. Here I’m speaking mostly about the frontline or best known bottling. For an expanded look at each, follow the link to the distillery’s website. For a more a more comprehensive view of the world of single malt scotch, you can go down the rabbit holes at the thewhiskyexchange.com and masterofmalt.com. Nice knowin' ya!
While tiny, Islay is the most prominent of the Scotch islands and the only one recognized as a stand-alone region. It's proximity to the ocean and salty sea air, coupled with heavy peating, produces some of the most intensely smoky and savory scotches. They are not for the faint of heart and beloved by hard-core scotch-ophiles. In cocktails they're great in small quantities to add a smoky accent, like the float on a Penicillin cocktail. The scotches listed here are all big time peat bombs, so I listed PPM just for fun, which is a rough indication on how smoky the scotch tastes.
Some Recommended brands:
Laphroaig 10 (laff-ROY-ig)- A classic peat assault, in a good way. Seaweed, salt, iodine. Their high proof Quarter Cask is a real treat too. 40-43ppm.
Caol Ila 12 (cah-ol EE-lah) - Medium bodied, with plenty of oily, peaty, richness. 30-35ppm
Ardbeg 10 - Big time peat, but with some fruit too, and high proof at 46%. 55-60 ppm
Lagavulin 16 (lahgah-VOO-lin) - Along with the big smoky flavors, some ginger and a touch of tea. To be honest, the combo of herbs and smoke brings cannabis to mind. 35-40 ppm
The highlands are the largest region, encompassing the majority of Scotland. Being so large, it's difficult to categorize generally. So experts choose to divide it up in four sub-areas, northern, southern (or central), eastern and western - along the Hebridean Coast. You can read some good breakdowns of them here and here. But in broad terms the Highlands are a mixture of all the inland scotch characteristics listed above (and the seaside if you include the islands). If you’re new to single malts, the highlands are a good place to start.
Some recommended brands:
Glenmorangie 10 (glen-more-AN-jee)(Northern) - The most popular highland malt. The 10 year has a honeyed roundness that's delicate, a bit rich and gives way to fresh fruit.
Aberfeldy 12 (Southern/Central) - Clean, fresh, with bright fruit, plenty of honey and a hint of peat.
Ardmore Traditional Cask (Eastern) - High proof, 46%. Big bourbon influence with caramel, vanilla, spice, and a good dose of smoke
Oban 14 (oh-Bahn) (Western) - A delightful mix of maritme smoke, honey, orange peel and apples.
Speyside is a region tucked within the Highlands centralized around The River Spey. It is home to half of the distilleries in Scotland, including many of the most recognizable brands. Like the highlands, most of the flavor varieties come from the barrels rather than the land. They have the same range as the Highlands, light and grassy to rich, fruity and full bodied sometimes with a touch of smoke. Just to make things confusing, some speyside scotches will say they are highland scotches on their label.
Some recommended brands:
Macallan 12 and 18 - All the rich dried fruit hallmarks of a sherry cask, the 18 in a big, big way.
Balvenie 12 (BAL-venny) - A blend of bourbon and sherry casks. Rich and balanced with orange citrus, honey and a touch of spice. Little to no smoke.
Glenfiddich 12 (glen-FIDD-ick) - The top selling single malt. Spring-y, grassy and approachable with fresh fruit flavors, think apples and pears.
The Glenlivet (glen-LIVE [rhymes with give] - ett) - Also light and grassy with plenty of fruit - pear, melon, peach - and a hint of black pepper. The brand name officially includes the "the".
Technically part of the Highlands, this includes the Islands of Arran, Mull, Jura, Skye, Lewis and Orkney to the west and north. These Scotches employ all manner of flavors, though in general they tend to feature smoke, though in a less intense, and more delicate manner than Islay malts.
Some Recommended Brands:
Highland Park 12 and 18 (Orkney Island) - Two of my favorites single malts, of any region. There are nods to the entire single malt flavor spectrum, with just enough smoke and leaning on fruity side but stopping just short of crossing the line.
Talisker 10 (Isle of Syke) - Another favorite. Beautiful balance of campfire embers and fruity sweetness.
This small peninsula to the south was once the most bustling of all the regions, but now few distilleries remain. Still, it maintains a passionate following, with some hints at a revival.
There are two main Campbeltown distilleries. Springbank, which also makes the Hazelburn and Longrow brands and does everything in house: malting, aging, bottling. Their scotches utilize peat, especially Longrow. Then there's Glenscotia, which is more in the light and grassy camp.
There's less single malt activity in the Lowlands, though its role is vital. Most of the grain whiskey found in blended scotch comes from the Lowlands.
Of the few single malts produced in this region most are distilled a third time. So they tend to be on the lighter side. Auchenstashen is the best known lowland single malt distillery. Easy drinking, but with a solid backbone.