Single Malt Scotch
Single malt scotches are among the most prized (and expensive) spirits by connoisseurs, and rightfully so. The painstaking craftsmanship that goes into making them magnified by their extended maturation results in some of the best pours in the world. They are endlessly complex, with flavors covering a range of smoke, honey, flowers, brine, fruit, nuts, iodine and plenty more, often all at once.
In cocktails, the big and intense flavors of a Single Malt scotch can easily overwhelm. This, coupled with their higher price point, is why I only fix cocktails with single malts on specific and special occasions (one example of those: a Rob Roy with Highland Park 12). The mastery of a well made single malt is best enjoyed "naked" with a little water or ice if you choose. For general mixing purposes, I recommend using a blended scotch, at least for starters.
Single Malt Scotch Basics - All of this covered in more detail on the Scotch main page.
Must be made from 100% malted barley, all from one distillery - which is what the "single" refers to.
Must be distilled at least twice in copper pot stills.
Must be aged for at least 3 years in oaks casks, but often much longer. Over 90% of the industry uses recycled bourbon barrels. The other 10% is mostly ex-sherry.
The smoky flavor that some scotches have comes from peat, which is burned to dry the barely. More about peat here. Smoky scotch is also sometimes described as “peaty”.
Single Malt Regions
The most conventional approach to navigating the single malt category is by region. There are officially five: Islay, the Highlands, Speyside, the Lowlands, and Campbeltown. There are also the Islands off the northwest coast, which are more of a sub-region and technically part of Highlands.
The natural assumption is that each region's particular climate and geography (aka terrior) will supply the scotches made there with certain defining characteristics. But in reality, any style of scotch can pretty much be made anywhere. The flavors qualities that are associated with the different regions are mostly the result of stylistic tradition. The factors that have the most influence on a scotch's profile are whether or not peat is used, the type of barrels it was aged in, and for how long. Where it was made has a much lesser impact.
Still, geography does play a tangible role in some cases. It's most apparent when comparing scotches from coastal areas to those from inland areas. Conveniently, these traits are generally amplified by their region's particular styles, which makes parsing them out even easier.
Seaside Scotches - Peat bogs naturally form closer to Scotland's coast. As such, these scotches are traditionally peated, some quite heavily. In addition to smoke, the proximity to the ocean can impart these scotches with maritime flavors like brine, sea salt, and iodine. But they can include floral notes of fruit and spice as well. The Islay region is the standard-bearer of the seaside scotch group. The islands, Campbeltown and some coastal parts of the Highlands and Speyside fit in as well.
Inland Scotches - Here, the geographical influences come from the grassy valleys (aka "Glens") and fields of heather. Heather is a type of shrub that has a woody flavor with floral, musky aromas. It’s often used in men’s bath and body products, which seems appropriate in this case. Inland whiskeys traditionally exhibit pretty much every common scotch flavor except for smoke - though even that shows up from time to time. They range from light and grassy with honey and bright fruit flavors to full-bodied and rich with notes of dried fruit and baking spices. These scotches primarily come from the Highlands, Lowlands, and much of Speyside.
Below are brief summaries of each region's characteristics along with a few of the single malts made there (and some pronunciation help). Each distillery typically releases multiple expressions of a single malt with different age statements and barrel finishes. Here, I’m speaking mostly about the frontline or best-known bottlings. For an expanded look at each distillery's line, follow the link to the distillery’s website. For a more a more comprehensive view of the world of single malt scotch, you can go down the rabbit holes at the thewhiskyexchange.com and masterofmalt.com. Nice knowin' ya!
While tiny, Islay is one of the most prominent of the Scotch regions and the only island recognized as a stand-alone region. It's proximity to the ocean and salty sea air, coupled with heavy peating, produces some of the most intensely smoky and savory scotches. These are not for the faint of heart and beloved by hard-core scotch-ophiles. In cocktails, they're great in small quantities to add a smoky accent, like the float on a Penicillin cocktail. The scotches listed here are all big-time peat bombs, so I listed their PPM just for fun, which is a rough indication of how smoky the scotch tastes.
Some Recommended brands:
Laphroaig 10 (laff-ROY-ig)- A classic peat bomb, in a good way. Seaweed, salt, iodine. Their high proof Quarter Cask is a real treat too. 40-43ppm.
Caol Ila 12 (cah-ol EE-lah) - Medium-bodied, with plenty of oily, peaty, richness. 30-35ppm
Ardbeg 10 - Big time peat, but with some fruit too, and high proof at 46%. 55-60 ppm
Lagavulin 16 (lahgah-VOO-lin) - Along with the big smoky flavors, some ginger and a touch of tea. To be honest, the combo of herbs and smoke brings cannabis to mind. 35-40 ppm
If you’re new to single malts, the highlands are a good place to start. It is the largest region, encompassing the majority of Scotland. In general terms, Highland scotches can exhibit any of the inland scotch characteristics listed above and even a few of the seaside ones. Due to its size, some experts choose to divide the highlands up into four sub-regions to make it easier to categorize: northern (medium-bodied and delicate), southern/central (lighter, fruitier), eastern (full-bodied and rich), and western along the Hebridean Coast (powerful with some smoke). Some good breakdowns of each can be found here and here.
Some recommended brands:
Glenmorangie 10 (glen-more-AN-jee)(Northern) - The most popular highland malt. The 10 year has a honeyed roundness that's delicate, a bit rich and gives way to fresh fruit.
Aberfeldy 12 (Southern/Central) - Clean, fresh, with bright fruit, plenty of honey and a hint of peat.
Ardmore Traditional Cask (Eastern) - High proof, 46%. Big bourbon influence with caramel, vanilla, spice, and a good dose of smoke
Oban 14 (oh-Bahn) (Western) - A delightful mix of maritme smoke, honey, orange peel and apples.
Speyside is a region tucked within the Highlands centralized around The River Spey. Though smaller, it is home to half of the distilleries in Scotland, including many of the most recognizable brands. Like the highlands, most of the flavor comes from the barrels rather than the land. Also like the Highlands, the profiles range from light and grassy to rich, fruity and full-bodied, sometimes with a touch of smoke. Just to make things confusing, some speyside scotches will say they are highland scotches on their label.
Some recommended brands:
Macallan 12 and 18 - A quintessential example of a sherry cask scotch, especially the 18. Rich with dried fruit and little smoke.
Balvenie 12 (BAL-venny) - A blend of bourbon and sherry casks. Rich and balanced with orange citrus, honey and a touch of spice. Little to no smoke.
Glenfiddich 12 (glen-FIDD-ick) - The top-selling single malt. Spring-y, grassy and approachable with fresh fruit flavors, think apples and pears.
The Glenlivet (glen-LIVE [rhymes with give] - ett) - Also light and grassy with plenty of fruit - pear, melon, peach - and a hint of black pepper. The brand name officially includes the "the".
These are technically part of the Highlands according to the official Scotch Whisky Regulations. "The Islands" are scattered around the perimeter of Scotland and include the islands of Arran, Mull, Jura, Skye, and Lewis & Harris (that's one island) to the west and Orkney to the north. The Scotches made here display a varitey of profiles, though in general they tend to skew towards smoky, maritime flavors.
Some Recommended Brands:
Highland Park 12 and 18 (Orkney Island) - Two of my favorites single malts, of any region. There are nods to the entire single malt flavor spectrum. Deeply rich and complex with just enough smoke.
Talisker 10 (Isle of Syke) - Another favorite of mine. A beautiful balance of campfire embers and dried fruit.
This small peninsula to the south was once the most bustling of all the scotch regions, but now few distilleries remain. Still, it maintains a passionate following, with some hints at a revival.
There are two main Campbeltown distilleries. Springbank, which also makes the Hazelburn and Longrow brands and does everything in house from malting to bottling. Their scotches utilize peat, especially Longrow. Then there's Glen Scotia, affectionately known as "Old Scotia" which was founded in 1832 and makes scotches that are more in the light and grassy camp.
The Lowlands play a vital role in scotch world as the producer of much of the grain whiskey used for blended scotches.
As far as single malts go, the region is fairly sparse. The few single malts that are produced here are usually distilled a third time, so they tend to be on the lighter side. Auchenstashen is the best known lowland single malt distillery.