By: Jack Croxford-Scott, Kat Bein By: Jack Croxford-Scott, Kat Bein | January 20, 2023 |
As drink categories go, whiskey isn’t always the easiest to make sense of. Blends, Malts, Blended Malts (which are altogether different beasts); the list goes on. The seemingly unstoppable emergence of "Single Malts," however, does make things a bit simpler.
Whilst blends are the product of malt and grain whiskies distilled at dozens of distilleries undisclosed to the drinker, single malts are whiskies distilled at just one distillery. From the barley they use for distillation, to the cask types in which they age their spirit, no two distilleries do things quite the same way. Each single malt is therefore unique; its flavour and spirit ‘character’ being a metaphorical (and actual) reflection of the place and people who crafted it.
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In some ways, that makes things easier; we can pin down exactly why some whiskies are powerful, smoky drams whilst others are much lighter and floral. On the other hand, Scotland alone has over 130 malt distilleries, many of which craft several styles of whiskey under one roof.
Okay, okay, so there may not be a way of keeping Scotch simple, but at least we can’t bemoan a lack of choice when stocking up on some cracking whiskies to make it through the winter. Since we at Modern Luxury are always ones to be helpful, we thought we’d make the task easier and share five Scotch single malts we just can’t put down.
AnCnoc (‘a-nock’) is not a distillery itself. (Good start on the whole “keeping it simple” stuff, right?) It’s the name of the single malt distilled at Knockdhu Distillery, a choice to avoid confusion with Knockando, a neighbouring distillery to the west. Now, we have a bit of a soft spot for AnCnoc. There's a lot to be said for drink brands that concentrate on getting the liquid right and leave the overdone marketing nonsense to the other guys. The house style of this understated malt is one of an unpeated, fruity and floral dram, usually on the sweeter side of things.
Their 18 Year Old is no exception. The tactful use of refill bourbon and oloroso sherry casks leaves out the overly woody, spicy notes which define heavily-sherried malts whilst preserving a sweet and grassy character. The most adventurous style of single malt out there? Perhaps not, but this is substance over form at play; a traditional Highland style done properly and, in any event, one of the best 18 Year Old Scotches we have ever tried.
The Macallan is one of the most trusted names in the single-malt Scotch scene with a strong lineup of award-winning and list-topping bottles, but the Sherry Oak aged 18 years is one of our favorites. Matured exclusively in Oloroso sherry-seasoned oak casks from Jerez, Spain; this slightly fruity scotch brings a complex flavor profile with hints of oak, ginger and raisin. Macallan suggests sipping it over an ice ball or with a splash of Spanish wood sherry, the latter of which brings out the inherent sherry notes.
To the envy of many other distilleries, we’re sure, Balblair has somewhat of a cult status amongst seasoned scotch drinkers. We reckon that’s largely down to consistency, as Balblair’s spirit character is always towards the weightier, full bodied end and is renowned for being slightly creamy in texture. That heft of Balblair’s ‘new make’ spirit - the raw, high-proof alcohol which flows off the stills which only becomes Scotch whiskey after three years of aging - is partly down to the way they “cut” the spirit. During distillation, some of the spirit which runs off the copper stills is too rough and volatile to make good whiskey, but a well timed selection or “cut” captures some of the heavier oils and flavour compounds which are otherwise lost.
With their 18 Year Old, Balblair pairs that flavourful, richer new-make spirit with the wood to match. American oak ex-bourbon casks are used for the primary maturation before the spirit is introduced to European ex-sherry oak casks. A lighter style of spirit may struggle to draw out the earthy and spicy notes for which those European oak casks are known, but Balblair’s weighty and bold distillate manages with ease.
It might have a funny name, but there's no joking around with this renown scotch. Pronounced "oog-a-dal," Ardbeg's deep and smoky single-malt brings notes of raisin and ex-sherry casks to the tale. With a deep gold color, it boasts an aroma of cake, walnut oil and parma violets among other things. Rich and warm, it has a little bit of sweet and spice. It won Double Gold at the 2021 New York International Spirits Competition, according to a report by Forbes, which is the highest award possible at the annual gathering of spirit judges.
See also: Tasting Glenfiddich Grand Cru, a 23-Year-Old Gem Finished in Ex-French Wine Casks
One of our harshest contentions with whiskey-based snobbery is age. The notion that single malts have to be 20, 30, 40 years old or even older is lazy and baseless. Aging whiskey is more art than science, and it's down to distillers to keep a watchful eye over their stocks and bottle casks. Only they can decide when the spirit has reached its “peak;” the point at which it has drawn all of the desired flavours from the wood. Act prematurely, and you’ll have a rough, immature spirit void of character. Leave certain whiskies “on wood” for too long, and they’ll be excessively oaky and unpleasant.
When lecturing that point, we often find ourselves using Bunnahabhain as an example of how to strike that balance perfectly. Distilled on Islay, a hauntingly beautiful and rugged island off Scotland’s western coast, ‘Bunna is known for the sheer quality of its younger releases. Indeed, their entry-level 12 Year Old which is our go-to; a nutty, well-sherried style rounded off by an unmistakable whiff of sea-spray salinity.
Another Double Gold winner, the Glenmorangie Signet is a beautiful highland scotch that sets itself apart from the pack with flavors of tiramisu and melting chocolate. That hint of complex sweetness is owed to the chocolate malt spirit, made once a year in Glenmorangie's giraffe-high stills. Signet is tempered in a variety of casks, including bourbon, sherry and virgin charred oak. There's a hint of coffee in the scent profile, and the mouth feel is smooth as butter. It's truly an original experience that will wow any seasoned scotch drinker and impress those who don’t usually go for whiskey.
Up on the north-east Scottish coast sits another coastal distillery known for crafting a style of whiskey reflective of its place; Pulteney. Having largely grown around a herring fishing boom in Victorian times, the town of Wick is all but defined by the sea. Its local whiskey is no exception. Old Pulteney’s hallmark is its subtly drying salinity which points to a classic maritime style. Their 18 Year Old retains that nod to the coast, but only just. First-fill sherry seasoned wood has been used to focus on an altogether much richer and spicier side of Pulteney’s house style.
If you're looking for something on the bright end of the scotch spectrum, the award-winning Oban aged 14 years is something full bodied and smoky, with hints of sea salt, honey and orange peel. Your nose is greeted by the citrus scent of orange, lemons and pears, with a subtle note of peat; while a mix of dried fig mixes with the spice and smoke on your tongue. The smooth finish helped this stand-out bottle take home 92 Points Gold at the 2018 International Review of Spirits, the Silver at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition and the distinction of Single Malt of the Year at the New York International Spirits Competition.
The only distillery on the Isle of Mull, Tobermory falls within the “Islands” category of Scotch whiskey, perhaps the most problematic of the regions. It's tricky at the best of times to group single malts into certain profile types purely based on the region in which they were distilled. Trying to do so when that region captures islands all over Scotland with entirely different geographies is little short of a hopeless endeavour.
Tobermory illustrates why. Both peated and unpeated styles of malt are distilled, and a breathtaking varied selection of cask types are used to explore various flavour profiles. Their 23 Year Old is hands down our top choice from the range and has a curious production story behind it. Some of the same liquid used for their 15 Year Old was held back and transferred into casks imported from Gonzalez Byass’ sherry bodegas in Spain in Summer 2014 for a further period of aging until recently bottled. Those casks have imparted Toberymory’s slightly-salty spirit with those nutty and rich flavours archetypal of oloroso sherries to produce a dram which has a bit of everything going on without overcomplication.
Created on the shores of the island of Skye, Talisker's single-malt standout brings notes of fruit, brine and white pepper to its smoky finish. Its peat water is compiled from that of 21 underground springs found near the distillery, and the company believes this local-forward process is key to its award-winning taste. There's a bit of spice in its complex profile. Toast to a special occassion or every day with 2020's SIP Awards Platinum winner.
Limited to just 641 bottles, this 20-plus year old bottle of scotch might be the rarest on our list. With an ABV of 55.4 percent, this Oloroso Puncheon brings notes of crème brûlée with hazelnut, toasted vanilla on a base of cedarwood, spiced apple and mocha. This unique spirit hasn’t been released before, part of Benriach’s “sleeping beauties” series, curated personally by Master Blender Dr. Rachel Barrie. Truly an adventure of taste and texture, it’s a high-quality sip that makes its sophistication known in an instant, and it’s made to be savored for years to come.
While all the stellar and award-winning scotches on this list are meant to be enjoyed on their own, we know some of your friends and family might still want a cocktail. In that case, may we suggest some delicious warm cocktail recipes, or even some Irish coffee concoctions that will rock your world?
Photography by: Courtesy Knockdhu Distillery; Balblair; Bunnahabhain; Old Pulteney; Tobermory; Benriach