"Toffee, coconut, peppercorn, vanilla, apricot. Just some of the familiar flavours you may detect when you taste Scotch malt whisky for the first time."
Toffee, coconut, peppercorn, vanilla, apricot. Just some of the familiar flavours you may detect when you taste Scotch malt whisky for the first time. Distilled all over Scotland for hundreds (some say thousands) of years, Scotch whisky comes in many different guises.
More than 100 distilleries are licensed to produce Scotch whisky and, at any one time, there can be around 18 million casks maturing in distillery warehouses in Scotland. The resulting spirit is sold across the world, as far afield as Venezuela and Taiwan.
But it's the malt whiskies that have aficionados swooning - particularly the unique single malts, each of which is produced, without blending, at just one distillery. Unlike blended or grain whisky, a true malt whisky is made from only water and 'malted' barley. This means the barley seeds have been allowed to begin germination before being dried and ground. After grinding, the ground malt is mixed with hot water, drawn off, fermented and distilled at least twice. The resulting liquid - called the 'make spirit' - is then lovingly poured into oak casks and allowed to slumber for at least three years, but usually many more.
The casks are made from mature European or American oak, with only the very best casks being reserved for single malt whiskies. Almost every cask will have a story to tell, having previously been used to hold bourbon or sherry. The flavours from the wood, the local water and the time spent in maturity all combine to give each malt whisky its own character.
Experts claim that the flavour continues to open up for as long as 20 minutes after it's poured; adding water and gently rotating your glass helps to release the aromas. The older the malt whisky, the more mellow it should feel when you sip it.
If you're new to malt whiskies, there's no better place to start than with the Lowland varieties. Described by experts as lighter and less smoky in flavour than their Highland and Island counterparts, Lowland malts are still packed with personality. So, if you plan to visit Glasgow or Edinburgh soon, why not take in a distillery?
On the outskirts of Glasgow, overlooking the River Clyde, sits Auchentoshan distillery. The pretty white-painted building was established in 1823 and survived a devastating air raid in March 1941, which flattened much of the surrounding area.
Today, the distillery is a very modern affair, with a brand-new visitor centre and a range of six triple-distilled single malt whiskies to suit every occasion. 'Our whiskies appeal to the contemporary whisky drinker and the female palate. We're definitely not about tartan and shortbread!' says distillery manager Iain McCallum. 'Just like Glasgow has changed over the years to become a city synonymous with finance and dotcom investment, the Auchentoshan distillery has moved on, too. Our whiskies are classic malts with a fresh taste. They mix well in cocktails, and the younger Auchentoshan whiskies in particular taste fantastic with sushi, because they don't dominate the flavour of the fish.'
If you visit Auchentoshan for yourself, try the mellow, vanilla-scented Classic and the intriguingly named Three Wood, which is matured in three different types of wooden cask.
Close to Edinburgh, Scotland's capital city, the Glenkinchie distillery sits among rolling fields and wide open skies: perfect Lowland barley-growing country. Victorian in style, the red-brick buildings have changed little since the distillery was built in the 1890s. Certain elements of old-style distilling also continue today, including wooden 'washbacks' for fermentation, large copper-pot stills and a single cast-iron worm tub to cool the spirit, rather than a more modern condenser. The result is two Glenkinchie single malts: the pale, sweet 10 Year Old and the more biscuity-flavoured 1988 Distillers Edition.
Nestling in a wooded valley close to Loch Lomond and within easy reach of both Glasgow and Edinburgh is Glengoyne distillery. Strictly speaking, the amber liquid produced at this picturesque distillery is classed as a Highland malt whisky. But, unusually, Glengoyne's single malts are made from air-dried barley, rather than peat-smoked, which creates a cleaner, more delicately flavoured whisky - not unlike the fresh, light, Lowland malts.
The youngest of Glengoyne's malts is matured for 10 years, while the oldest is a vintage whisky laid down in 1972. Whisky fans can also invest in 'limited edition' special bottlings, chosen by Glengoyne's distillery manager and by its loyal warehousemen.
The Edinburgh Experience
Finally, if you're staying in the centre of Edinburgh, you can enjoy a variety of Lowland malts at The Scotch Whisky Experience, an interactive whisky tour right next to the Castle on the Royal Mile. Tales of whisky-making history, tastings, a perfectly scaled model distillery and a whisky barrel ride through time make this a family day out with a difference.
Take the lowland whisky trail:
Tel: 01389 878561
Tel: 01360 550254
Tel: 01875 342004
The Scotch Whisky Experience
Tel: 0131 220 0441