Topic: “Alasdair!” I hear you cry, “What happened to your minimum of 800 words a week plan?” Fear not, I haven’t forgotten, it’s just that I wrote this lot, a basic summary of supermarket whiskies, for the excellent food and drink blog Very Good Taste, and wanted to give them a chance to run it first. And now they have, so I can post it here, and catch up on the last couple of weeks.
In his book Eat Britain, Andrew makes the suggestion that whisky seems like a drink that it requires time and effort to understand. I don’t think this is exactly true, but I can understand why it seems that way. Luckily for you, I’m here to simplify it all for you all, so that you too can get into whisky, and bore the arse off your mates pontificating about the latest “malt” you’ve discovered. I took a quick trip to my local supermarket, and noted down all the single malt whiskies that they had on sale, and I’m going to tell you a bit about them in general terms, so that you can either decide which one(s) sound like they might be your sort of thing, or at the very least, you can bluff it when you’re trying to impress someone down the pub. For the sake of honesty: there are a couple here I’ve never actually tried, and few that it’s been a long time single I had any. I have referred to the 5th edition of the late Michael Jackson’s superb Malt Whisky Companion to supplement my memory in places. (Yes, I know I said it wasn’t that hard. It isn’t. I’m your actual obsessive, OK? No-one’s saying you have to be like me.)
All of these cost between 20 and 30 quid in my local supermarket – they may not be the cheapest thing on the shelf, but I promise you, even the worst of them is miles ahead of that 12 quid bottle of Bells sitting next them.
So, as you may or may not know, whisky production is divided into regions, much like wine. And like wine, you can generalise a bit about each region – of course, there are always exceptions within each and every region, but the generalities remain true, so I’ll tackle them by region.
I’m going to start here, because there are more distilleries in this region than any other – there might even me more here than all the other regions put together. This is probably the closest region in general taste to what most people think of as whisky – if I had to pick one regional characteristic, I’d go for a sherry taste – some of them would be dry sherries, some (most) erring more toward the sweet, but a lot of the whiskies here have a fairly heavy touch of sherry about them. (Whisky, is, of course, traditionally made in sherry barrels, so it’s not a surprise to find that taste there, but it’s in the Speyside area that the characteristic is most generally noticeable.)
Glenfiddich 12 (year old – single malt whisky is generally refered to by it’s age, which is how long the whisky has spent in barrels, maturing).
I suppose I’d better get this one out of the way first. This is cooking whisky, at least as far as I’m concerned. There’s really nothing that interesting about it. There’s a sort of general sweetness about it, you might get a hint of pear drops, or acetone on the the first sniff, and the taste is sherry, with maybe a little bit of smoke somewhere in the back. It’s inoffensive, and unremarkable, and you can get in most pubs exactly because it’s inoffensive and unremarkable. I’ll drink it if I really can’t get anything else, or the beer is off.
If you like this, try: Despite the fact that their 12 year old is really very boring, some of their other varieties are superb. I would unhesitatingly recommend both both their 15 and 21 year old varieties, especially as the 15 still comes in at around the 30 quid mark. The 21 is pricier, but is a serious contender for being one of the best whiskies in the world.
The Macallan 10
Here’s one I’ve never had. I actually quite like another 10 year old they do, the Macallan 10 (Fine Oak), but this isn’t that. Jackson describes this it as sweetish, without bit too sweet, well rounded sherry without too much richness, and a hint of smoke.
If you like this, try: The Macallan 10 (Fine Oak). A couple of quid more expensive, it’s essentially the same sort of thing, just a bit sweeter and richer, with a little more, you guessed it, oak.
The Balvenie Doublewood 12
This is matured in 2 kinds of barrel – first barrels that have been used for bourbon, and then those that have been used for sherry. It’s a very easy drink – lots of sherry, some orange flavours, and a little spice.
If you like this, try: Glenrothes. Glenrothes don’t put the ages on their bottles, preferring instead to label the year the whisky was laid down, so you’ve got some general idea, but they’re open about the fact that they’re not trying to make the same thing every year. Still, they’re generally pretty (even extremely) sweet for a whisky. I’m a big fan. In fact, I’m off to get some now.
My personal favourite of this bunch. There’s still sherry in here, but it’s tempered by a rather nicely floral nose, with hints of honey in the drink, and a bit more peat than other Speysides which give it a peppery sort of finish. Really very nice indeed.
If you like this, try: Oban 14. A little less sweet, a little more peppery – a bit more of peat and the smell of the sea about it.
These are often quite like Speysides, if perhaps a less sweet, a bit drier on the palette.
Despite that fact this it’s an absolutely classic whisky, one of the really big names in the industry, I just don’t get on with Glenmorangies’ whiskies – I’ve never had one that I could get excited about. I can’t tell you why, which makes me think the failing is in me, not their product. Jackson calls this spicy, flowery and sweet, with a creamy, almost buttery finish. Sounds quite nice.
If you like this, try: No idea. Try an older Glenmorangie.
Old Pultney 12
Dry on the nose, with a grassy, peaty edge. It’s quite a light whisky, with a nutty sweetness, and a finish that is oily, and strangely salty.
If you like this, try: Another one I’m not sure about – it’s a distinctive enough distillery that you’re probably best sticking to just getting an older version of the same. I’m tempted to suggest a Talisker, but you’ll see why I’ve got reservations about it in a moment.
This does not include Islay, which is a region to itself, for reasons I’ll get to in a bit, but does include all the other scottish Islands. This region is perhaps understandably very hard to generalise about, but I’ll say this much: they’re all pretty good, often for wildly different reasons. There’s often a certain sea-air type saltiness about them, combined with whatever else they’ve got going on.
Jura put out a strong contender for my favourite whisky I’ve ever had. This isn’t it, because the my favourite was a limited edition bottling, now sadly sold out, but still, it’s a damn good drink, and one that has been getting more popular (and therefore easier to buy) in recent years, which pleases me immensely. This is sweet, well rounded stuff, with a nice dry edge in the finish.
If you like this, try: This one’s probably no help, but Jura’s special 1984 edition is the one I particularly like. If you happen to see a bottle of it anywhere, grab it, because you won’t get another chance. It’s utterly beautiful stuff.
Talisker’s a favourite of mine. Huge, smoky, peaty, a lovely sea air tang to it. There’s more sweetness and sherry in it than Islay malts (more about them in a minute) but there’s still a big, peppery, slightly medicinal taste.
If you like this, try: I’ve had a Scapa that reminded me of a lighter, slightly more mellow Talisker, and if you like the peaty, medicinal taste, then a Lagavulin might bit a good bet – the 16 year old is pretty damn tasty. If you like something a bit less medicinal, you perhaps go for a Highland Park.
Islay whiskies are often so different from well, most of the others that they might almost be a different drink. The common taste here is generally described as medicinal – there’s a phenol component to the flavour, that you might associate with iodine, or dental mouthwash.
I don’t really know this one at all. Jackson says it starts out sweet, then turns mean, finishing with a healthy does of iodine.
If you like this, try: You could try some older Ardbegs Their 25 year-old “Lord of the Isles” is generally considered the best of the type, which picks up some fruity sweetness to balance the medicinal tastes.
And if you like the medicinal taste in the Ardbeg and the Talisker, then this is the sine qua non of iodine. Often described as being like sucking a wet rope, or like licking wet tarmac, this is a real love it or hate it drink. I didn’t used to like this much, and it’s still not in my top malts, but I’ve learned to appreciate it, and those that love tend to really, really love it.
If you like this, try: Laphroig’s as medicinal as they come. Try the 15 year old version, which has a little bit more sweetness to round it out, without dropping any of that huge nautical-rope edgy. Lagavulin’s the only other distillery to come close to Laphroig’s massive medicinal flavour, so again, their 16 might be a good bet. The other option is actually a blend, made by an artisanal blender called Compass Box, called The Peat Monster, which is superb.
Of course, Scotland isn’t the only place that makes whisky. Well, to be strict about it, Ireland makes whiskey. The Irish version of the drink is actually made slightly differently to most Scottish malts – in Scotland the spirit is generally distilled twice, and in Ireland, it’s distilled three times. Irish malts tend to be a little bit smoother, as a result, which some people find more appealing.
There’s a creamy, slightly oily, vanilla feel to this one, cut with fruity citrus notes that are one of the hallmarks of the Bushmills distillery. Bushmills was the first whisky I really got into, and I have some very fond (and sometimes very hazy) memories of this stuff.
If you like this, try: The 16 year old version is a superb drink – sweet and well rounded. You might also look south to Jamesons, who do a very nice 12 year old single malt that a cut above the version you find on optic in many pubs.