Food & Drink: The single reason to indulge in malts a la mode

The traditional drink on St Andrew's day is whisky. But with so much choice, why wait?

FOR THOSE us who like a malt whisky on St Andrew's (30 Nov), or any other day, there has never been such a choice as there is this year.

As consumer interest has grown, the Scottish distilleries that previously passed on all their whisky to blenders have increasingly set some aside for bottling as single malt. If a distillery has not done so, an independent merchant or bottler has acquired stocks of the whisky and done so himself (look out for newish bottlers such as Murray McDavid, Adelphi and Scot's as well as more familiar names like Cadenhead or Gordon and MacPhail). The only malt whisky still not bottled as a single is from Kininvie, a distillery established as recently as 1990. In contrast, some distilleries mothballed, long-closed or even demolished, bequeathed stocks of maturing whiskies that are still being bottled.

Those distilleries whose whiskies can be found as singles total more than 100, but others' malts appear in a variety of strengths, ages and styles of maturation. This year, I have sampled more than 500. This astonishing total reflects distillers' efforts to find new ways of presenting their products. There are even fashions emerging among whiskies. Here are some malts a la mode:

Millennium malts

Most of these have some genuinely distinctive feature. For example, more peat was used in drying malt in the days when distillers did this job themselves. This is evident in Macallan's crystal-packaged Millennium edition (at no less than pounds 2,000) - a 50-year-old with the sooty smokiness of an open fire behind its more familiar rich, sweetish, complexity. Likewise, Glenmorangie's Original, at just pounds 175 and 24 years, which has a more toasty smokiness to underpin its lighter, spicy delicacy. Both distillers today use bought-in malted barley, as a majority of their competitors do. The younger and less expensive Glenmorangie Millennium (around pounds 25 from Sainsbury's and other multiples; 12 years) has a syrupy touch from its maturation in new Bourbon barrels. The usual 10-year-old is aged partly in Bourbon barrels, being used a second time for Glenmorangie.

Cask strength

Depending upon the degree of evaporation during ageing, most malt whisky emerges from the cask with an alcohol percentage in the lower fifties or sixties, but is diluted to the standard 43 or 40 and chill-filtered. The latter procedure ensures brightness, but removes some flavours. Cask- strength malts, aimed at the connoisseur, are usually not "processed" in this way. In Aberlour's a'bunadh ("The Original"), at 59.6 per cent (pounds 35.99 Oddbins), the usual berry-fruit and nut-toffee character becomes so chewy as to resemble alcoholic nougat. The more mature millennium version is pounds 69 from Whisky Magazine (020-8563-2975 or www.whiskymag.com).

Vintage-dated

"Single" means that all the whisky in the bottle came from one distillery, but not necessarily one batch. Normally, bottlings of single malt are composed from several production runs, in order to achieve a consistency of character. The year on the label refers to the youngest whisky in the bottle. If, rather than an age, a year is indicated, that whisky will be influenced by slight changes in the barley and weather during maturation. The honeyish Balvenie is offered with both a year-date and cask number. I found a distinctly acacia-like note, and more butterscotch, in the 1967 (rrp pounds 199).

Wood finishes

Most malt whiskies are aged in either former Bourbon barrels or sherry butts or hogsheads. The practice of transferring them towards the end of maturation to some other type of cask (perhaps previously used for Madeira, Port (both rrp pounds 24.99), or most recently Cognac (rrp pounds 85), was pioneered by Glenmorangie. Now, other distillers are following suit. Bowmore's typically smoke, salty, ferny, flavours are now available in a balance with the cedar and fruit of claret wood. The peachy Glenlivet steps into yet-newer territory, with a fruitier-than-usual, crisp edition "finished" in previously-unused Limousin oak (rrp pounds 24.99 Oddbins).

Vatted (or "Pure") malts

These are not singles. A "vatting" comprises several malt whiskies, but none of the grain (unmalted barley, wheat or maize) that lightens a blended Scotch. A good example is Corriemhor Cigar Reserve (around pounds 28), with an appropriate smokiness. The influence of orangey-tasting Dalmore malt whisky is evident. St Andrew's Day? I might save this one until after Christmas dinner.

Specialist stockists: Peckham & Rye, Glasgow and Edinburgh; 0141-445 4555; Vintage House, London, 0171-437 2592 www.sohowhisky.com; Milroy's, London, 0171-437 0893; The Wee Dram, Bakewell, 01629-812235; The Whisky Shop, Lincoln, 01522 537834.

READER OFFER

The revised, edition of `Michael Jackson's Malt Whisky Companion', with over 800 single malts tasted and reviewed, is available to `Independent' readers at the special price of pounds 10.00 inc P&P. Readers should order by telephoning 01279 623 946 quoting reference 180771 (`The Independent') together with credit card and delivery details and the ISBN reference for the book: 07513 07084

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