Single Malt Scotch Whisky
If you thought the collection of almost five dozen red sports cars was a bit much, wait till you check out the collection of several hundred different single malts I've been stowing away for the past several years. And yes, Scotch Whisky doesn't have an 'e' in it like its American counterparts.
Actually not all these whiskies are are Scotch, and a few are not single
To be called Scotch Whisky, they must be distilled and aged in Scotland. I currently have seven single malts from Ireland, two from Japan, one from Wales, one from Canada and three from the United States. These can be called 'single malts' as they are distilled from a barley malt, but can't be called 'Scotch.' I also have two 'single grains' which are made from a grain other than barley. One is from the United States and one from Ireland. They can be called 'single grains,' but not single malts and certainly not Scotch though they taste about the same.
Then I have several whiskies that aren't really single malts. They are called vatted malts which means they are all made up from single malt scotch, but contain more than one malt in the final bottling. In fact, Chivas makes one called A Century of Malts. It is comprised of drips and drabs from one hundred different single malts. Others like Sheep Dip, Pig's nose and Hog's Head are generally made up from three to six different single malts.
But don't confuse vatted malts with blended Scotches. To be called a Scotch, there must be a minimum of 20% single malt. The rest can be any distilled product, generally grain alcohol which is just a chemical. High end Scotches can be over 50%, but the rest is just that clear stuff that gives you hangovers. Single malts can never hurt the head.
In fact, single malt Scotch if taken in moderation has little damaging effect on the body. It is classified as a 'clear liquid.' This means it passes through the liver, kidney and the rest of the body doing little or no harm. This doesn't mean that it won't get into your bloodstream and get you drunk, just that there won't be any lasting damage. Doctors will, if pushed, reluctantly admit to this.
Then there is the psychological thing that if it really tastes like medicine, it must be actually doing you some good. Ahh, nice thought. This is one of the reasons my favorite Scotches come from the Hebrides Island of Islay. Here they use peat rather than wood when heating the malting floor. The peat has already absorbed the saltiness of the sea and then gives off it's own smoky peaty flavor. Gives these Scotches that 'healthy' medicine flavor. You just know that Single Malts have to be healthy. Don't ya?
Enough of the excuses for drinking Single Malts.
Because Scotland produces the best barley in the world, it is the grain of choice for making their whisky. First the barley is spread over tin floors in the malting house and fires are lit under them. These rooms are open to the air, so this is where the island malts pick up their salt or sea weed flavorings. Then when properly baked, the barley goes into a big tub with water added, and they make a beer out of it. Technically it's called a wort, but the distillers call it beer. Scotland has a very varied terrain and climate, so there is a great difference in the water found in the many locations that Scotch is made. This adds to the flavor of the malt and to it's uniqueness. Also, when the whisky comes out of the barrel it is at cask strength, which can run up to 130 proof or so. In the final bottling, the local water is used to reduce it to a more manageable 80-86 proof. Again, the water has a great influence on the final taste.
Then the wort is distilled into pot stills and turned into an alcohol. Once the distiller feels that it's time has arrived, the fairly clear liquid is put into oak barrels to age. Here is where the distiller's art comes to bear. The casks are always oak, but that is where all similarity ends. All casks are certainly not alike by any means. A brand new cask will impart strong vanilla flavors. A cask that has held other malts will impart a hint of that flavor. Islay malts primarily use old American bourbon casks, some even briefly charred. Macallan uses casks that held sherry. Others use casks that have been used to age Ports, Madeira's, and other wine products. And many use several different casks in the aging process. My everyday Scotch is Balvenie Doublewood, a 12 year old. First they take their ten year old Founder's Reserve out of the cask it was aged in, and put it in a sherry cask for two more years. This adds a sweet touch to the taste and to the finish. It is only while in the cask that whisky ages, once in the bottle it is the same forever. So, time and barrel make the huge differences that make most every Scotch taste unique. The wood also breathes, and expands and contracts with temperature changes. This releases some flavor and inhales other flavors. The uniqueness of each malt whisky is pretty much directly related to the cask in which it ages.
The various regions in Scotland produce a varied array of single malts. Each distillery has it's own way of doing things, a different supply of water that can run from soft to hard to glacial run-off. What the water flows over imparts a taste of it's own. The soil, rock, peat and other natural additives it picks up along the way.
Scotch from the Lowlands is generally milder, ones from the Islands sea like and peaty. Ones from the Highlands are heathery and full bodied. The majority of malts come from the Northern Highland area surrounding the river Spey. These are the Speyside whiskies that are the best known, and the ones generally used in blended Scotches as well. This is what makes this whole adventure rewarding. And, pleasurable.
Each one of the single malts that I have simply taste uniquely themselves. That's why they are fun to collect, and more fun to sample. I am not becoming an alcoholic, simply a more competent and educated researcher. The collection grows by belonging to a couple of 'Scotch of the Month' clubs, by checking out the monthly wholesale catalogs put out by the importers, and by making all guests at the Inn that come from the UK bring me a malt that is not available here in the Colonies. It works!
Here are the malts presently on the shelves in the kitchen, living room and everywhere.
There are currently 621 different Single Malts in the collection as of December 31, 2012.