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Malt profiles

Malt profiles
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First Published: Thu, Dec 29 2011. 10 44 PM IST

Photo: Ayack
Photo: Ayack
Updated: Thu, Dec 29 2011. 10 44 PM IST
This peated whisky is strong and full in flavour, certainly worth a try
Photo: Ayack
Single malt Scotch whisky has developed a burgeoning following over the past 15 years. Within this “religion” there are several sects, the most voracious being the followers of Islay whisky.
The Isle of Islay is a small island situated off the western coast of Scotland. Only accessible by ferry or a short flight from Glasgow airport, Islay is often known as the Whisky Isle because it is home to no less than eight single malt Scotch whisky distilleries that are famed for their use of the local natural resource—peat.
Peat is a compact, coal-like substance naturally produced over thousands of years. When
dried and burnt, peat gives off an aromatic smoke, which the local Islay distilleries use to infuse their barley before making their whisky. This gives a smoky, slightly medicinal, yet earthy quality to the spirit, hints of which can be found in the famous blend Johnnie Walker.
All baring one of the eight distilleries on the island Bunnahabhain, produce “peated” whisky with three distilleries occupying the small, south-eastern edge of the isle. Known as the Kildalton distilleries, Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg lie along a 2-mile stretch of a road leading up from Port Ellen, one of the island’s main docks.
Ardbeg distillery is situated at the furthermost end of the Kildalton road, and, with just 1.15 million litres of alcohol produced a year, has the smallest output of the “Kildalton Three”. The boutique nature of their production, coupled with the house style of heavily peated, heavily smoked whisky has created a brand that now holds cult status among whisky drinkers with a palate for the peated product.
The demand for Ardbeg was amplified by the closure of the distillery between 1982 and 1996, meaning pre-closure whisky is in high demand and incredibly collectable. Owned by Glenmorangie, which is, in turn, owned by (Louis Vuitton) Moet Hennessy, the company has focused on creating a boutique peated whisky brand with the only current regular age statement release being an excellent 10-year-old. Other expressions in the range include the lightly peated Blasda (good for those just discovering smoky whisky), and the expressions named Uigeadail and Corryvreckan, which contain Ardbeg matured in European oak casks, leading to an explosion of rich smoke flavours.
Not for everyone, peated whisky is strong and full in flavour, but certainly worth a try.
Balvenie provides a whisky that is thoughtfully made with tradition at its heart
Scotland is currently at the zenith of single malt whisky production. Over the last 200 years, the country has been at the forefront of honing distillation techniques and embracing experimentation with maturation, using different types of oak casks, which have previously housed all sorts of beverages, from bourbon to beer and from Madeira to Muscat wine. With each passing year, it seems the industry is becoming leaner and more productive with gigantic steps forward in production methods, ethical awareness and ecological advancement.
How nice it is then to see a distillery striving to maintain much of the traditional elements of the craft that first helped the industry flourish way back in 1823, when the Excise Act was passed and the making of whisky in Scotland became legal.
Until that point, despite a plethora of small distilleries dotted across the countryside, it was illegal to produce whisky in Scotland.
However, with the passing of this new law, distillers were able to buy a licence, pay their taxes, and run a legitimate business. As a result, supporting trades such as coopering (barrel-making), the art of the coppersmith (who would make and maintain the all-important copper stills), and the act of growing and malting barley could develop into serious businesses.
As the sector grew, these individual skills became outsourced to specialist companies, and today, the majority of distilleries will use one of a selection of large cooperages in Scotland for their barrels, employ the services of a major coppersmith company to maintain their equipment, and will purchase their malted barley from a large factory known as a maltings.
At the Balvenie distillery in Speyside, however, the key crafts of malting, coopering and coppersmithing are still employed as part of the core team, giving this small distillery a unique step-backin-time approach in its whiskymaking.
The much smaller, boutique, sister distillery to Glenfiddich distillery, the Balvenie handcrafts 5.6 million litres a year of spirit for its range of single malt Scotch whisky, which includes the DoubleWood 12 years old, matured in American oak whisky barrels with additional maturation in European oak sherry barrels; Signature 12 years old, matured in three different styles of oak barrels; and age statement releases ranging from 17 years old up to 30 and 40 years old.
Always an assured bet when travelling through duty-free retail zones, the Balvenie provides a whisky that is thoughtfully made with tradition at its heart.
The only single malt from Ireland
Commonly regarded as the home of whiskymaking, Ireland’s malt whisky brands have been overshadowed by their neighbours in Scotland for the better part of 100 years.
The largest distillery in Ireland is the Midleton distillery in County Cork. With an enormous output of more than 30 million litres of pure alcohol a year, the majority of whisky produced at this giant distillery finds its way into the likes of the Jameson, Redbreast and Green Sport whisky brands.
But for a true single malt distillery, one must look to the north of the island, to the Old Bushmills distillery. The first place under the British Crown to
be granted a licence to distil in 1608 (the date still appears on all its bottles), the distillery buildings on the current site were built in 1784 and today produce in the region of 4.5 million litres of alcohol per year. Such was the power of the brand in the 19th century that in 1890, the distillery bought a steamship, the S.S. Bushmills, to help distribute its product across the globe and, thus, insure the brand’s place in history.
Bushmills adheres to a practice that sets Irish whisky apart from Scotch: triple distillation.
Only one distillery in Scotland, Auchentoshan, uses this method, which adds an additional level of purification to the production of the spirit, giving Bushmills a light and fruity character before being matured in oak casks.
Now owned by Diageo, Bushmills has seen large investment over the past few years and is helping to regenerate interest in Irish whisky, but it still sits behind Jameson and Tullamore Dew in the sales rankings, despite being the only single malt. The distillery has a hugely popular visitor centre that attracts more than 100,000 tourists a year to the beautiful spot just under two miles from the northerly aspects of the Northern Irish coastline.
The core range of Bushmills’ single malts includes a 10-year-old, the 16-year-old matured for a period in barrels once containing port, and a 21-year-old matured partially in Madeira casks. The brand also lends its name to two blended whiskies, Black Bush and Bushmills Original, both of which contain whiskies from other Ireland-based distilleries.
This distillery can make up to 10 different styles of spirits and combine them to create unique and distinct products
The US is home to the liquor known as bourbon whiskey. Made using a mixture of at least 50% corn (maize) and other cereals, it must be matured in brand-new, American white oak barrels. The influence of fresh oak mixed with the high temperature levels found in Kentucky—where the majority of bourbon is made—leads to bourbon having an intensely rich, woody and sweet flavour. Perfect for sipping neat or mixing in a cocktail, bourbon whiskey is the byword for bartending when creating classic whiskey cocktails.
Established as a brand in 1888, the Four Roses distillery was purpose-built in 1910 in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, and
forms part of the Bourbon Trail, an initiative to promote the historic distilleries that make the liquor in Kentucky. Other famous names that are part of the trail include the Jim Beam, Wild Turkey and Maker’s Mark distilleries, with Four Roses being the least-known brand in the pack.
In the years immediately after prohibition, Four Roses bourbon whiskey was the biggest selling brand in the US. However, the popularity declined in the 1950s and the then owners, Seagram, pulled the product from sale. Since its purchase by Japanese drinks company Kirin Brewery, the brand has found a renewed marketing push that underlines the quality of the liquid in the bottle.
Four Roses is made using two unique formulas of cereal, which are, in turn, influenced by five different types of yeast. The result is a distillery that can make up to 10 different styles of spirits and can combine these to create unique and distinct products such as their Small Batch bottlings.
The core range of Four Roses bourbon consists of Yellow Label, Small Batch and Single Barrel, with Super Premium and Black Label expressions only available in Japan. Each year, master distiller Jim Rutledge uses his 40 years’ experience in the business to create a limited edition expression of the whiskey, which is hugely sort-after among collectors and drinkers alike.
Little known, but hugely respected by both whiskey and cocktail experts, Four Roses is a bourbon that should be tried whenever you see it, as it will open your eyes to the quality and flavours available from this category.
Situated in the foothills between Kyoto and Osaka, Yamazaki is Japan’s oldest whisky distillery and has a current output of around 3.5 million litres per year
Much to the ire of Scotland, Japan is fast becoming the byword for single malt whisky, with the two largest distillers in the country—Suntory and Nikka—producing some of the finest whiskies to hit the world in the last 10 years.
Suntory was co-founded by Masataka Taketsuru and his business partner Shinjiro Torii in 1924. An organic chemist who spent some time studying in Scotland, part of Taketsuru’s training involved working at a number of Scotch whisky distilleries. On his return to Japan in 1920, he and wineimporter friend Torii established the Yamazaki distillery. Sadly, the two fell out and Taketsuru left to build his own distillery, Yoichi, in 1934, the company now known as Nikka.
The increased competition between the two companies has served a vital purpose in pushing the development of Japanese whisky forward and positioning it in a place where it can legitimately challenge the quality of the single malt whisky made in Scotland.
However, it is not just in the single malt department where the Japanese are excelling; they are doing well in the blended segment too. Suntory produces the awardwinning Hibiki range of blended whiskies using malts produced at their Yamazaki and Hakushu distilleries and some aged grain whisky from their Chita distillery.
Partially matured in casks that had previously held plum liqueur, the result is a terrific blend packed with flavour and comes in core age statements of 12-year-old, 17-year-old, 21-year-old and 30-year-old.
Situated in the foothills between Kyoto and Osaka, Yamazaki is Japan’s oldest whisky distillery and has a current output of around 3.5 million litres (of pure alcohol) per year. Its current range includes the Yamazaki single malt and age statement whisky at 10, 12, 18, 25, 35 and 50 years. Its recent limited edition, the Yamazaki 1984, won the gold medal for the best single malt at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition 2010 and the Hibiki 21 won the same honour in the blended segment at the World Whiskies Awards the same year.
Japanese whisky is certainly one to keep an eye on, and Suntory’s Yamazaki provides a benchmark of quality in this arena.
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First Published: Thu, Dec 29 2011. 10 44 PM IST