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Single Malt Scotch
by Eunice Fried

It was Queen Victoria who established the royals' habit of going north to Scotland every August. But castles can be drafty, even in summer, and so she took to warming the body with a bit of spirit. Writing in her journal one summer day in 1859, she noted that "I had a little whisky and water, as the people declared pure water would be too chilling."

It was an elegant excuse for downing a dram. And Scotland appreciated her nod to its whisky. But adding water was not the way the locals liked to see their Scotch consumed. As an old Highland saying goes, there are two things Scotsmen like naked, and one of them is their whisky.

And for good reason. The Scotch Victoria enjoyed in the 1800's — and that we are once again enjoying today — was pure single malt whisky, the original Scotch made in a single distillery from pure water and malted barley, distilled slowly in small onion-shaped copper pot stills and aged in oak cask. The source of water is vitally important; be it from spring, stream or well, it adds immeasurably to the quality and individuality of the Scotch. And it is its individuality that makes single malt Scotch unique, differing from distillery to distillery in flavor and aroma and texture. But while water is essential in making Scotch, Scots believed it should never be added to the finished product. Nothing, they felt, and no one, not even the queen, should dilute its many layered complexity that can be smoky, tangy, hearty and citrusy all at the same time while mingling hints of vanilla, peat, honey, tobacco, oak and thyme, a bouquet of sweet, earthy fragrances.

While Victoria was discovering the joys of single malt Scotch, however, two men were creating inventions that would affect its fate. Aeneas Coffey was perfecting the continuous still; tall, straight and more efficient than pot stills, it produced whisky more quickly, continuously and on a much larger scale. And Andrew Usher was introducing the art of blending, taking malt whiskies from a number of different distilleries and combining them with an equal and often, greater number of grain whiskies made of corn and wheat, using as many as 40 to 50 different whiskies to produce a milder flavored, more generic and less individualistic product. Through the use of these two inventions, Scotch became less expensive, easily available and increasingly popular. Soon, blends accounted for nearly all of Scotch's production.

But single malt whisky (spelled without an "e" in Scotland) has a long history. While the first written reference to it is found in the Scottish Exchequer rolls of 1494, it was probably being distilled about two centuries earlier, and the Scots were not about to let the art die in the nineteenth century. Throughout Scotland's wild, romantic countryside of purple heather and moors and green fields and granite outcroppings, small batches of single malt Scotch continued to be made. It remained a prized treasure to the Scots and to the few connoisseurs beyond ScotlandÔs borders who had been seduced by its tantalizing, mysterious flavors.

By the early 1980's, single malts began to trickle out of Scotland. Soon the trickle became a stream and the stream became a river so that now single malts are pouring out of more than one hundred distilleries. Elegant and intriguing, they have edged up in popularity until they currently account for five to six percent of the Scotch market. Not much in numbers, true, but if one measures success in interest, they dominate. Devotees have taken to lining up a batch of them side by side as a wine connoisseur would a batch of top Growths from Bordeaux or California Cabernet Sauvignons, tasting, comparing, noting nuance, aroma, complexity and style.

Restaurants and upscale bars have reponded to the fascination, offering a range of single malts by the glass. Often, in fact, they offer one single malt in a range of ages, for example, Knockando at 12 years old, 18 years old and 21 years old. Or patrons can taste the subtle differences in a group of single malts from the same region or compare the more obvious differences in a tasting of single malts from each of the major regions. In some bars, they can choose from about a dozen. The Heathman Hotel in Portland, Oregon, on the other hand, offers over 50 single malts ranging from $5.50 to $20 for a 1 3/4-ounce pour. And at Keen's Steak House in New York, the selection is an overwhelming 192 single malts, many of them in a range of ages; prices begin at $7.50 for a 2-ounce pour and run as high as $78 a pour for a rare, limited edition single malt (Scotch's alcohol content averages 80 to 83 proof).

The regions of Scotland that produce single malt whisky are the Highlands which include the elite producing area of Speyside; the Lowlands; Campbeltown; and the isles of Islay and Skye. Of them, the single malts of the Highlands are considered the classics and are most strongly represented in this country. But even within this one region, there is diversity. Oban has a heady aroma and a tangy taste of peat, for example while Glenmorangie has an assertive bouquet of citrus and heather with a hint of butterscotch and a lightly smoky taste. From Speyside, there are the Glenlivet (the largest selling single malt in the U.S.) with its distinctive, fruity, citrusy bouquet and a taste lightly reminiscent of cinnamon and peat; Knockando with a smoky aroma and a taste that combines citrus, tobacco and herbs; the stylish Dahwhinnie with its aroma of vanilla and roasted coffee beans and a honey-like finish; malty Craggonmore with its intricate wood smoke and peat nose and a taste that mingles heather and flowers; the smoky, well-balanced Cardhu with its gentle earthiness; the floral, fruity Glenfiddich with its lingering aftertaste; Macallan whose sweet aroma is reminiscent of figs and leather; and the rich, assertive Aberlour.

The single malts of the Lowlands are generally drier and somewhat lighter-bodied than those of the Highlands, its northern neighbor. One of the loveliest Lowlands single malts is the delicate, fruity Glenkinchie. Also readily available in the United States from the Lowlands are McClelland and Auchentoshan. Springbank, lightly peaty with an aroma that mingles the sea and wind of the region, is one of the relatively few single malts imported from Campbeltown. From the Isle of Skye where the only economies are whisky and tourism, Talisker reigns. A golden amber whisky with a hint of sea and seaweed and salt in the aroma, it is round and mellow and, as all single malt Scotch, highly individualistic.

The wind-washed island of Islay produces single malts that are assertive, robust and peat-intensive, characteristics that come from the island's water that streams through peat fields and from the cool, moist, briny breezes that blow in off the sea. Among Islay's pungent, peaty single malts are the rich, powerful, salty, toasty Lagavulin and the most penetrating of all, Laphroaig. With a tangy aroma that is like iodine mixed with seaweed, Laphroaig is a whisky one loves or hates. No one is neutral about it. The isle also produces the gentler Bowmore and Bruichladdinch.

One last thought. Even in tradition-bound Scotland, customs can evolve. While many Scotsmen still insist that their whisky be naked, today, a number of master distillers have come up with a revolutionary new idea. Add a few drops of water to single malts, they say. It helps to release the bouquet.

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