The main difference between the Society's malts and the well-known single malts bottled by distilleries (The Macallan, Glenfiddich, Laphroaig and the like) is that the Society's are bottled from a single cask. Each of Scotland's 100 or more malt whisky distilleries is known for a specific taste. But within a particular distillery there is sometimes a massive difference between barrels. Most malt whisky drinkers, hooked on the taste of a particular distillery, expect every bottle to taste the same. So all single malts on the general market are blends of many casks from that distillery, mixed to iron out any flavour variations and produce a saleably consistent product.
The main cause of variation in flavour between casks is the barrel itself - in which Scotch whisky must by law mature for at least three years, though in practice malts are always matured much longer. Unlike winemakers, Scotch whisky producers never use new oak for their barrels, buying instead second-hand oak barrels, usually from US bourbon producers and sometimes, more expensively, from sherry producers in southern Spain. The barrels' previous contents leave a distinct mark on the whisky, and sherry casks, especially oloroso sherry, give a far richer colour and flavour than bourbon.
The Society buys single barrels from Scotland's malt distilleries. But why do they sell them? "A lot of these very fine casks that we bottle individually are highly distinctive and would alter the character of the malt bottled by the distilleries," explains Philip Hills, chairman of the Society. "We get on well now with all the distilleries - they recognise that we've created a market where none existed before. That can only be good for the perception of all whisky. And we recognise that they have a very fine product. It's like first-growth claret - by saying that it's absolutely wonderful you're not knocking other fine clarets just a little way down the scale."
The other difference from commercial malts is that the Society's malts are unfiltered. The distilleries super-chill and then filter their whiskies before bottling. The idea is to remove certain natural oils, which might otherwise cause the whisky to develop a haze if chilled or diluted. Cloudy whisky might upset some drinkers, but the filtering removes some flavour components along with the oils. Some of the Society's whiskies do turn slightly cloudy if you add water, which gives a very subtly silkier "mouth- feel".
In fact, you need to water the Society's malts before drinking them. Casks of whisky ready for bottling at the distillery typically contain between 56 and 64 per cent alcohol, and the commercial malts are all watered down to a standard 40 per cent. The Society's are bottled undiluted, but spirit that strong blows your taste buds, and the most subtle flavours may appear only when the whisky is diluted to even less than the commercial 40 per cent. But the high strength goes some way to explaining the fairly high prices of the society's whiskies.
From their current list, I particularly like the honeyed, limey, peaty malt "No. 4.22" (£36). There's never a distillery name on these whiskies, in deference to the distilleries' commercial malts. As newlyweds, we had to guess the origin of our purchases, or do a little homework, based on a clue in the list. There's still a clue: No. 4.22 is a 14-year-old from a bourbon cask, produced in "the most northerly of all distilleries, at Kirkwall in the Orkney islands". But now you can cheat by looking at the crib in the members' handbook to find it comes from Highland Park. Also particularly yummy is an Aberfeldy 18-year-old (£44) "from a fine sherry cask", which has some of the earthiness of Armagnac, smokey, chocolatey and savoury with a honeyed sweetness. I'd also be tempted by a nine-year- old Bladnoch (£34), from "Wigtown, established 1817 and the most southerly distillery in Scotland", aged in "refill sherry wood", which tastes, the list says, sliced tongue in cheek, "like licking fudge off a razor blade".
! The Scotch Malt Whisky Society Ltd, The Vaults, 87 Giles Street, Leith, Edinburgh EH6 6BZ, tel: 031-555 6522.Reuse content