I feel the same way about malt whiskies. The volcanic Talisker, for example, is hottest as a single, but its peppery notes still burst through in its incarnation as a component of Johnnie Walker.
The latter now has a version called Johnnie Walker Pure Malt. In musical terms, this is an all-star small group: a vatting-together of several malt whiskies, all more than 15 years old. With a little pepperiness, touches of saltiness, smokiness and rootiness, against a firm, smooth, malty background, it is a decidedly sophisticated whisky: pounds 37.95 in speciality whisky shops and a little less in duty-free at the airport or ferry. If you are travelling this week, duty-free shops have some whiskies that are hard or impossible to find elsewhere.
There are even older malts in Johnnie Walker Blue. This is a blended Scotch, in that it also contains lighter grain whiskies. It is an astonishingly upmarket blend, at pounds 139, and even pounds 14.95 for a miniature. Some of the malts in the blend are up to 60 years old, and could impart a woody note. In fact, the whisky is pleasantly cedary, with notes of aniseed, and deliciously creamy. Another "super-premium" blended Johnnie Walker, the sherryish Gold, can be had for pounds 48.95. These heady prices make the classic Johnnie Walker Black seem excellent value at around pounds 20 and, yes, it does have more character and dimension than some malts.
Another darkly-named blend, Black Bottle, has returned to the shelves after some years of scarcity. This blend has a new owner but still evinces a seaweedy, peaty note against a big, malty background. In relatively gentle form, this is the taste of the Inner Hebrides. Black Bottle, at around pounds 11.99, is one of very few blends to contain malt whisky from each of the seven distilleries on the island of Islay.
I enjoy such combinations of the interplay of malts; they may also prove interesting to drinkers who normally cleave to more conventional blends. The same parent company produces The Famous Grouse Gold Reserve (pounds 18.99), a 12-year-old blend. If you like the regular Grouse, you will find this one yet richer and smoother, with a greater oloroso sherry spiciness (more than a dash of Macallan in there?).
If you enjoy Chivas Regal, look out for this house's Century, a vatted malt containing, as its name suggests, no fewer than 100 whiskies. An extravagant essay, even contrived, but delicious from its potpourri aroma to its rosewater and fudge flavours (and a touch of hazelnut from a proportion of Glen Grant?). About pounds 30.
If you prefer the soft Ballantine blends, look for a new vatted malt, from the same house, called Purity. This 20-year-old comes in a bottle shaped like a tear-drop. The tears are of pleasure, presumably. The whisky has the perfumy notes and aroma of fresh leather and, at about pounds 50, is still cheaper than a vintage car.
If Purity is not enough, seek out Eternity, with the aromas of polished oak, and a profound depth of nutty maltiness. Beautifully combined flavours, put together by one of Britain's star whisky-blenders, Richard Paterson, for Cognac entrepreneur Denis Charpentier.
Vatted malts and super-premium blends are minor categories of Scotch, but they both seem to be enjoying a revival.
One of the smaller companies, Burn Stewart, has a blend called Scottish Leader, the 15-year-old version of which (pounds 22.99) is remarkably rich, rounded and marmaladey. A lovely after-dinner blend. Another quirky blend from a small company is the creamy Putachieside (pounds 26.50), with a finish like salt on porridge; just the thing before a walk in the snow. A flavour- packed whisky with a Gaelic name is Te Bheag ("The Little Lady of the Isles"), blended for a company in Skye. This is unfiltered, and is soothingly oily, with touches of peat (pounds 13.99). Its bigger brother, Poit Dhubh (pounds 44.95), at 21 years, is earthier, spicier and very satisfying.
While the full flavours of malt whisky and the lighter notes of grain are combined in blended Scotches, what would the latter taste like au naturel? It is not just a question of barley malt versus other grains like wheat or maize, there is also the type of still. Malt whiskies are made in a batch process, in stills shaped like a kettle or cooking pot. This old method does not distil exhaustively, and thus leaves plenty of flavour in the whisky. A more thorough, continuous process in a column-shaped still makes for the lighter tastes of grain whisky. One of the few single grain whiskies is Cameron Brig (pounds 15.50), a rare novelty which nonetheless has a deliciously clean cream-toffee vanilla taste.
If you are in the mood to explore the whole wonderful world of whiskies this New Year, consider the Irish. They spell theirs whiskey. Although there are Irish single malts, most of the country's whiskeys are blends. One distinctive feature in Irish distilling is the use of a proportion of unmalted barley, which makes for grassy, oily, leathery, flavours. My current favourite is the astonishingly spicy, almost minty, Green Spot (pounds 23.50), blended for the wine merchants Mitchell and Sons, of Dublin.
Such flavours are more typically found in whiskies using a small proportion of rye, such as those from Canada. I find Canadian Club (about pounds 14) the most typical of the style.
Straight rye whisky, originally the spirit of Maryland and Pennsylvania, is almost impossible to find in Britain, but an ever-greater range of Kentucky Bourbons is available. In this style, the spicy flavours of rye meld with the sweetness of corn and the fresh notes of new oak from the Ozarks. I like the charred-oak, tar-like aroma of Four Roses (pounds 16.95); try it with Christmas pudding, if you've any left over.
A boxed set called The Bourbon Heritage Collection features miniatures of four Kentuckians and one Tennessee whiskey: George Dickel, with the medicinal smokiness of the deep maple-charcoal filtration used in that state.
The bottle I opened for Thanksgiving has all gone. My guests knew that a gentleman never closes a bottle.
Milroys of Soho, 3 Greek Street, London W1 (0171-437 0895); Cadenhead's Covent Garden Whisky Shop, 3 Russell Street, London WC2 (0171-379 4640); Weavers, 1 Castle Gate, Nottingham (0115 958 0922); Tanners, 26 Wyle Cop, Shrewsbury, Shropshire (01743 234500); Willoughby's, 2 Tib Lane off Croft Street, Manchester (0161 834 6850); Loch Fyne Whiskies, Inveraray, Argyll (01499 302219); Gordon & MacPhail, George House, Boroughbriggs Road, Elgin, Moray, Scotland (01343 545111)Reuse content