When one thinks of whisky, the reactions tend to be pointed — most people either love or hate it. As with wine, there are an endless variety of strengths and styles; soft, harsh, honey laden or smoky. Whiskies, however, are not just the property of the Scottish. Canadian rye, American Tennessee and Bourbon, Irish, the entire Atlantic rim is a treasure trove of whisky styles. Today we’ll take a little tour of Scotland.
The word for whisky comes from “uisge-beatha” (ish-ka ba-ha), which means the water of life. For centuries, whisky has been an integral part of Scottish culture. Scottish and Canadian producers tend to spell whisky without the “e,” while American and Irish denote it as “whiskey.”
Much like the wine appellations of France, there are distinct regional differences in the flavour and styles of Scotch. True Scotch whisky can contain only four ingredients: barley, yeast, water and plain caramel colouring, making it a truly pure spirit. It must be aged a minimum of three years in oak casks, though most are aged much longer. A couple of terms are necessary when discussing Scotch. Malt refers
to the process of sprouting the barley to produce sugar, then drying it before fermentation. If the barley is dried using a peat fire, the resulting whisky is said to be “peated.” The level of peat used in drying the sprouted barley grains determines the level of smokiness in whisky.
A beginner to Scotch might like to start with a lowland whisky. This is a region of gentle, floral whiskies, triple distilled as opposed to double, creating a more delicate flavour. Often referred to as “The Lowland Ladies” these whiskies feature dried fruit characteristics and are usually unseated. Auchentoshan is an excellent example of this style.
Speyside is a geographically tiny region of Scotland, but contains more than 80 distilleries. Speyside malts are among Scotland’s lightest, sweetest malts and can make for a great introduction to the more potent peated malts. Glenfiddich is a terrific example of a classic lighter Speyside, while Dalwhinnie has a touch of smoke with a clean, crisp malty finish.
Moving to the more powerful side of Scottish whisky, Campbeltown is located on the Mull of Kintyre and was once one of the most prolific whisky areas of Scotland. Known for their coastal character, Campbeltown malts are very dry and quite pungent, with a rich, spicy and gutsy character. There are currently only three distilleries in Campbeltown producing five whiskies, including Springbank and Longrow. They can be difficult to find, but well worth seeking out.
Whiskies from the island of Islay are also noted for their strong smoky character due to high peating. They are unique in their salty, sometimes medicinal character. They are strong but nuanced, and coveted by whisky lovers worldwide. Lagavulin, Ardbeg and Laphroig are noted producers.
The Highlands of Scotland include a vast area and a variety of styles. From the sweet and fresh Balblair, the spicy and orange notes of Highland Park, and the alternative cask aging of Glenmorangie, the Highlands offer a great opportunity for sensory exploration.
Several Halifax establishments offer whisky nights and whisky flights (sample size pours), which assist consumers in experiencing the varied styles and flavours of whiskies. The Press Gang features more than 235 whiskies and holds guided tastings on Tuesday evenings. The Old Triangle Irish Alehouse showcases an extensive selection of whisky flights from all around the Atlantic rim, with $10 flights on Wednesdays.
Whatever the level of experience, there are whiskies to suit every taste and to keep connoisseurs warm through the long cold winter ahead.
By Cheryl Doherty