By Richard Thomas
Whenever I ask someone who enjoys Bourbon or Irish Whiskey why they don’t like Scotch, the answer is most often “because it’s smoky.” That perception likely comes from the use of certain smoky whiskies to add character to the big brand name blends, such as Johnnie Walker, and if it doesn’t it’s then because some of the biggest fan favorite single malts are also quite smoky.
Yet there is nothing intrinsic about smokiness and Scotch. The smoke and ash flavors found in single malts come from the burning of peat, a kind of vegetal proto-coal, in malting barley. The peat is burned to warm the malting room and the distinctive smoke then permeates the grains. Initially this was a side effect and added bonus, but with more efficient means of heating available, “peating” is now done only to achieve those distinctive flavors.
Peat is a handy resource only in some parts of Scotland, so unpeated whisky has been around since the very earliest days. The best known style of single malts after peated and smoky is Sherried, or whiskies drawing flavors from Sherry cask (principally Oloroso) aging, but it’s not simply a matter of smoky and Sherries. One of the best aspects of Scotch Whisky is its richly diverse palette of flavors, and there are many unpeated, not Sherried single malts out there as well.
Aberlour A’bunadh ($75): One of the ultimate “Sherry Bomb” whiskies is this cask strength series from the Speyside distillery Aberlour. It’s released in discrete, annual batches, made up of malt whisky that was 100% matured in Oloroso sherry butts. The whisky is bottled unfiltered and at cask strength, and stands as a big and ballsy statement on what a Sherried single malt can be.
Auchentoshan 18 Year Old ($150): This Lowland distillery is an oddball in Scotland, because it triple distills it’s spirit, as they do in Ireland. This feature makes it half of a whiskey joke: “Connemara is Irish Scotch, and Auchentoshan is Scottish Whiskey.” Their 18 year old expression is a smooth, rich single malt, and an excellent example of what an unpeated whisky aged in commonplace ex-Bourbon barrels can be.
Bruichladdich Rocks ($120): Islay is known for it’s heavy, smoky and saline whiskies, but Bruichladdich bucks that trend by eschewing peat to a large extent. Rocks was a stellar example of what they are capable of there, as it was light, floral and just tinged with sea spray. It was a limited edition, alas, but examples are still out there to be had, and at a relatively good price all things considered.
Glenfarclas 21 Year Old ($180): One of the few family-owned, independent distilleries left in Scotland, Glenfarclas is also the primary alternative to the pricey malts offered by The Macallan for lovers of sophisticated Sherried whiskies. On the lower rungs of the ladder, the pricing isn’t too far apart, but the comparison between the more aged expressions is stark: the Macallan 21 Year Old Fine Oak runs between $430 and $600, two to three times more than the comparable Glenfarclas offering.
Glenfiddich 15 Year Old ($45): The first single malt aged using the Solera system, whereby casks of aging whisky are continually topped up with young whisky, Glenfiddich 15 is noted as one of the top go-to bargain buys in Scotch Whisky today.
Tamdhu Batch Strength ($100): This another one of the great “Sherry Bomb” whiskies, although not as appreciated as the Aberlour. The overwhelming majority of Tamdhu’s production goes into making blended whisky, and it wasn’t until recently that the distillery’s own brand received serious promotional attention, so that explains the lack of attention. Yet it’s great stuff, and received very high marks from us last year.
Tobermory 15 Year Old ($150): I know. You are looking at the price tag and saying “that much green for a 15 Year Old single malt?” Well, it’s Tobermory, so it’s made in the two hundred year old tradition of the Isle of Mull. Plus it’s a rich, spicy, Sherry aged wonder that is widely adored. If you don’t want to sink your money into a bottle, fine, but at least try it at a whisky bar.