29 August 2013. Did you know that a proper whisky tasting glass should have a lid? The purpose, apparently, is to retain the aromatics of the drink. Until I attended a tasting class by Auckland-based whisky consultant and former importer, David Hoyle*, I didn’t know that. Neither did the 20 or so other attendees – and under Hoyle’s expert guidance we learned a whole lot more as we embarked on a gustatory ‘mini-tour’ of Scotland’s principal whisky-producing regions. For anyone wanting to move beyond blended whiskies, the following eight single malts make for a delicious start….

'Oh, ye'll tak' the high road, and I'll tak' the low road...' - but there's also Campbeltown, Speyside and the Hebridean Islands to 'tak' in too...

‘Oh, ye’ll tak’ the high road, and I’ll tak’ the low road…’ – but there’s also Campbeltown, Speyside and the Hebridean Islands to ‘tak’ in too…

Our tasting started gently in the Lowlands – on the outskirts of Glasgow, in fact – with a sweet and delicate whisky whose Gaelic name, pronounced “Awk-in-tosh-in”, means: “The corner of the field”. This, Hoyle says, is an excellent example of a Lowland-style whisky and an ideal drink for newcomers with its slightly herbal, spicy and lightly smoked flavour. Unusually for Scottish whiskies, Auchentoshan is triple-distilled, which gives it a “purer” taste without losing its interest and complexity.

Although this whisky comes from the Isle of Arran in the Firth of Clyde, it is classified as a Highland whisky because its distillery (founded in 1991) is located in the mountainous north of the island. Sweetish in taste, with an appealing barley and malt flavour, Arran is another good introductory whisky. It does not have the assertive flavours and “oomph” of its cousins from Islay to the west, but it is very well-made, with a pleasingly well rounded style. It is much underrated.

Hailing from northeast Scotland, Glenmorangie (pronounced “glen-MORan-jee”) has all the hallmarks of a Highland malt in that it has little or no peat flavour, is slightly smoky in taste, is sweet but not overly so and has plenty of body and flavour. Its complex taste sensations can evoke cookies, walnuts and a veritable potpourri of spices. Although it is from a small distillery owned by the LVMH Moët-Hennessy group, Glenmorangie is the biggest-selling whisky in Scotland. Its attractive price may have a lot to do with it.   

Just across from Arran on the Kintyre peninsula, Campbeltown is one of a handful of areas in Scotland categorised as a distinct whisky-producing region. This very fine single malt from the family-owned Springbank Distillery, says Hoyle, is everything a whisky should be. It has a light nose but on the palate offers a wonderful mix of flavours, including fruit, spice and nuttiness, with a tang of salt and a hint of peat smoke. It is an oily, mouth-coating whisky with a long and satisfying finish.

A proper single malt whisky tasting glass should have a lid.

A proper single malt whisky tasting glass should have a lid.

Dun Bheagan (pronounced “dun-VAY-ghin”) is the company name of a private bottling company which does not have the right to use the name of the distillery the whisky is produced in. This is a practice not unknown by any means in Scotland, and it has some advantages in that the bottler can vary his source of supply, resulting in whiskies that often have a greater variation in flavour from one bottling to another than distillery bottlings – as well as some delightful surprises! We tasted two Dun Bheagan whiskies named only by region. One was a Lowland whisky and the other an Islay, the latter being a very fine light whisky with a pleasant touch of peat and smoke.

If you are already a fan of the world-famous, powerfully flavoured Islay whiskies such as Laphroaig and Lagavulin, you will certainly enjoy this multiple award-winning offering from the Ardbeg Distillery (established 1815), which like its more famous neighbours is also at the southern end of Islay. Heavily peated but smooth, it is an excellent example of an Islay style and a remarkably good whisky in itself. To our mind, it is one of the picks.

The characteristic peatiness of Islay whiskies is well displayed in this single malt from the Bowmore Distillery (established 1779) on the shore of Loch Indaal, a sea loch in the middle-part of the island. Oily, mouth-filling and beautifully balanced, this is a very well made whisky and a pleasure to drink.

Last but not least in our tasting was an interesting young whisky from one of the finest (name undisclosed) distilleries on Islay, bottled by The Vintage Malt Whisky Company. Although it is still a youngster whose various flavours have not fully melded together and so can be slightly challenging to the senses on first approach, this whisky has an impeccable pedigree and a favourite with many whisky drinkers. The other reason could also be its competitive price. It is a big seller!

A good introduction to single malt whisky, as well as the others here.

A good introduction to single malt whisky, as well as the others here.

More ‘Did you knows?’:

  • The term “single malt whisky” simply means that the whisky you are drinking is the product of a single distillery. Single malts are also made only from malted barley.
  • The minimum ABV (alcohol by volume) for Scotch whisky is 40%.
  • By law, all Scotch whisky must be aged for a minimum of three years, and many single malts are matured for much longer. (In blended whiskies, the age is determined by the youngest whisky in the blend.)
  • Scotch whiskies are typically matured in oak casks, but sherry, port, wine, Madeira, rum or Cognac casks can also used. The selection of casks can influence the character of the whisky.
  • All the ageing and maturing of a whisky takes place in the casks and not in the bottle. There is no need to cellar a whisky as you would do with a fine wine because whisky retains the character it has when you buy it. So drink and enjoy.
  • Do you add water – or not? The answer is: it’s up to you. Professional whisky tasters often add about a third of water again to their whisky, which allows some aromatics to come out of solution and reveal extra flavours. Drinking for everyday enjoyment is quite a different thing though and many whisky aficionados prefer their whisky neat, like a fine Cognac.
  • However you like your whisky, it’s best drunk from a stemmed glass. If you don’t have a proper lid for your glass, a coaster will do at a pinch. And of course, no self-respecting single malt drinker would ever add ice!
  • The best way to enjoy whisky is to spend time with it. Sniff and savour its aroma; place a drop on your tongue; savour the whisky again; sip again. And then, take your time…

* David Hoyle whisky tasting classes:
Phone  ++64 9 624 5454

Photos (top to bottom): Whiskies of Scotland;;