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Impressions Magazine

Selecting a Single Malt

11/05/2012 14:28 ● By John Lee

Single malt Scotch whiskey is a drink steeped in history, and has been distilled in Scotland for at least 500 years. Termed "aqua vitae," or "water of life," it has been used medicinally for centuries, and is today a very popular drink. The "single" means that it comes from one distillery, as opposed to blended Scotch like Johnnie Walker, which includes many different single malts in one bottle. 

 Things to look for include sweetness, smokiness (or "peat") and fruit-scented aromas. Since many distilleries use peat moss as part of the distillation process, many outstanding malts have a smokey, peaty aroma and taste. Some distillers use old sherry, port or even bourbon wood barrels to age their Scotch in, thereby giving the malt a chance to acquire some of the flavors of these barrels.

Single malt Scotches come from four main areas in Scotland: Speyside, Highland, Islay and Lowland. Since the flavor of the Scotch depends on the type of water and barley used and the process followed in its distillation and storage, regional differences account for many of the taste nuances you'll notice in Scotch. Once you become familiar with the various regional differences and discover what tastes best to you, you can stick with a favorite region and explore its myriad offerings.

Taste a Speyside malt. Speyside is a small region in northeast Scotland that is known for the pure waters of the River Spey. Some of the most refined whiskeys are distilled here. The peat factor is not great in these malts, so expect sweet, fruity-nosed flavors. Try the 12-year-old Glenlivet, which comes from Scotland's oldest legal distillery.

Try a Highland malt. Highland is a large region that is further subdivided into north, south, west and central. The Scotch flavors vary widely here. Try one of the best values in single-malt Scotch, Highland Park, which has a great peaty flavor that doesn't overpower the rest of the malt.

Taste an Islay malt. Pronounced "eye-la," the name denotes a series of islands off the west coast of Scotland. This is where some true "peat monsters" are distilled, and you should only try them if you have an adventurous palate. Some of these malts can taste almost medicinal, with a distinct salty and peaty flavor and aroma (or "nose"). A very popular brand is the 10-year-old Laphroaig.

Sip a Lowland malt. Most of the Scotch from this region is used for blended Scotch, but there are still a few single malts worth trying here. Don't expect too much peat flavor or aroma; these malts are much lighter in flavor than the ones from other regions, and tend to have a grassy or lightly fruity taste and aroma. Try the Auchentoshan single-malt Scotch. You can add a little bit of filtered water to release some of the flavors and aromas. Many professional distillers add water when they taste their Scotch. How much water you add is up to, but generally up to 20 percent of water in your Scotch will truly reveal the malt's qualities. Read the labels carefully, since many of them will list the characteristics of the Scotch. Single-malt Scotch can get very expensive, especially Scotch that was distilled in small batches or aged for a long time. You don't need to spend a lot of money, though, to get a great Scotch. Highland Park is considered to be one of the best values and can be had for under $50. Some of the best single malts are under $100. Do not add ice to your single-malt Scotch. Ice deadens your tongue to the myriad flavors in the Scotch. Add the ice to a blended Scotch, but leave the single malts neat or add a splash of filtered water.

Read more: How to Select Single Malt Scotch |

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