Singular Malt Sensations

For too many Americans, a glass of scotch is a pale, nondescript sort of drink, usually served over too much ice and tasting vaguely of iodine. No wonder your dad told you it was an acquired taste. But a good single malt scotch is as different from the typical blended liquor as a filet mignon is from a fast-food burger.

If you have even a passing interest in single malts, you've no doubt heard of or tasted Glenfiddich, an immensely popular whisky whose bottle comes packaged in a distinctive black tube. "Above all, Glenfiddich's success is attributable to the fact that it is the most 'accessible' malt and easy to drink at any time of the day," the company's Web site explains.

While I don't agree with the malt snobs who sneer at anyone gauche enough to order such an accessible drink -- it is, in fact, a perfectly decent whisky -- settling for Glenfiddich is a bit like eating a plate of spaghetti and meatballs and thinking you've had great Italian cuisine. You can do better.

Water of Life

Writers about strong drink invariably tell you that the word whisky derives from uisge, which is an abbreviation of uisge beatha, Scottish Gaelic for "water of life." They'll also tell you that distilling was first done in monasteries, to produce medicine.

There are a lot of notions about the origins of whisky, but I like this one, from an excellent site called Malt Madness: "The most popular theory has some Irish monks hopping across the Irish Sea to Scotland around the year 700 to spread the gospel -- along with the secret of distillation -- among the barbarians. However, these Irish monks didn't invent distillation itself; this was discovered by Arab scholars."

Monks or no monks, whiskey (with an "e") is an alcoholic liquor distilled from grain, such as corn, rye, or barley, and containing approximately 40% to 50% ethyl alcohol by volume. Whiskey is now produced all over the world, but whisky is only produced in Scotland.

Malt whiskey is produced from barley that has been soaked in water and allowed to germinate for a few days (a.k.a. malted barley). With the exception of water and yeast, no other product or fermentable material is added. And some of the really strong whiskeys, known as cask strength, don't even have added water. Other whiskeys are made from different grains; bourbon, for example is distilled from a mixture of corn and rye.

The barley is dried over a fire, but not just any fire. Peat, a dense, grassy substance found in bogs and burned for fuel, imparts a distinctive smoky flavor. Single malts from the island of Islay (pronounced Eye-Lah) for example, derive a distinctly peaty character from the reek, or peat smoke.

The mixture is later distilled, a process that utilizes the different boiling temperatures of alcohol and water to separate the various elements, and stored for years in a wooden barrel, or cask. "Just like a fine wine, a malt whisky is shaped by many different influences; the type of water at the distillery, the shape andsize of the pot stills, the climate within the warehouse, etc.," says Malt Madness.

Also important: the type of barrel. Whiskey aged in a sherry barrel, for example, has a distinctive color and flavor. Unlike wine, whiskey does not age in the bottle. A 15-year-old single malt you buy in 2006 will not be a 30-year-old whiskey in 2021.

Single malt whiskey is the product of a single distillery. Period. Blended whiskeys are, well, blended, containing the whiskey from any number of distilleries. In fact, many excellent distilleries sell nearly all the whiskey they can make to the much larger outfits that make popular blended names such as J&B, Cutty Sark or Ballantine's.

A decent blended scotch can be tolerable, but I'll stick my neck out and say don't even think of spending a lot of money for a fancy blend such as Johnny Walker Blue. If you want good scotch, buy a single malt.

Because single malts are influenced by so many local factors, such as the grain, the taste and quality of the water, the weather, the smoking material and so on, it makes sense to group them by geography. The simplest and most common taxonomy includes four regions: Highlands, Lowlands, Speyside and Islay. Campbeltown is a fifth, but only contains two active distilleries: Glen Scotia and Spingbank, whose varieties I found smooth and easy to drink.

Here, with some help from another useful single malt enthusiast site called Usige, is a rundown of those regions.

Highlands is the largest and most diverse category, comprising the mainland and many of the islands, except Islay. Although there are earthy, full-throated exceptions -- especially near the coasts -- the whiskies are mainly light/medium-weight and fragrant.

Naturally there are plenty of good Highlands whiskies too choose from, but I once had the pleasure of tasting a 12-year-old Glenturret, and recommend it for its smooth, soft taste. It has a hint of peat, but not so pronounced that it would bother a beginner.

Speyside is sometimes thought of as a division of the Highlands, while others consider it a stand-alone. These whiskies are aromatic, with light to medium body. Glenlivet, which you've probably heard of, and Macallan (a good choice for a novice) come from Speyside.

Riannon Walsh, founder and organizer of the Whiskies of the World Expo, held annually in San Francisco, suggested two Speysides: Glenrothes and Glenfarclas, one of the last family-run operations in the region.

Isle of Islay

Islay single malts are known for their distinctive peaty taste. Laphroaig is easy to find, and although I rather like it, many people find it too peaty, so it's not a good choice for a beginner. Both Walsh and I like Caol Ila, which is also redolent of peat, but not nearly as strong. It's a small distillery and its whisky will cost more than $50 a bottle, but it's well worth it. Speaking of price, there's probably no need to spend much more than $55 or $60 a bottle, unless you come across something really special.

Because Cao Ila does not chill-filter its whisky, it will turn a bit cloudy when water is added. But don't worry, the cloudiness is proof that you're getting all the flavor. Indeed, any bottle that says "not chill-filtered" is a bottle you might think of buying, says Walsh.

I haven't had many Lowland whiskies, and there aren't that many on the market, says Walsh, who suggests beginners start with Auchentosan, which she called "flavorful, but soft, slightly sweet and not at all peaty."

Then there's the overwrought issue of adding water or ice. Although some people would rather give up drinking than dilute their whiskey, the experts say that adding a bit of water to your drink is a good idea. It heightens the flavor, they say. Sometimes I'll add one small ice cube to my drink, but pouring it over a glass full of ice is a waste of money, in my opinion. Then again, if you really like it with lots of ice, go ahead. It's your booze, and you have the right to enjoy it in any way you please.

A final note: I never thought much about what kind of glass to drink whiskey from, but most experts say your garden-variety glass tumbler is a mistake. They recommend a flute to concentrate the aroma.

By the way, Walsh will be hosting a whisky tasting in San Francisco in late March. I've never been to one of her affairs, but it sounds like fun and I plan to attend. Maybe I'll see you there.

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