When the politicians in Scotland were making a case for Scottish independence, you would have heard them boast quite rightly of a country rich in natural resources, rich in history and rich in entrepreneurialism. The television, radio, golf, Bovril, the flushing toilet and penicillin can all trace their inception back to a Scotsman.
Hot on the heels of TV and golf comes Scotland's other major export - Scotch whisky. Loved the world over, this liquid gold is seeing a growth in profile with the likes of the newly launched Haig Club, a partnership between mega-distillers Diageo, uber-brand David Beckham and star-maker extraordinaire, Simon Fuller. Similarly, high-end luxury whisky brand The Macallan has recently unveiled its equally impressive partnership with photography legend, Mario Testino, all adding to Scotch’s rising stock.
With demand in certain key emerging markets having risen significantly over the past decade (although there is a sales decline in the first half of this year to around £1.77 billion), it is very much seen as the go-to status drink. Wherever a single malt Scotch is to be found, either sitting proudly on a back bar or nestling in the drinks cabinets of the rich, famous and influential, the category is a glowing advert for its country of origin.
But it is not just Scotland that makes whisky and last week, Jim Murray, a whisky writer who self-publishes his ‘Whisky Bible’ annually, has, for the first time, left out Scotch whisky from his top five of the year (with a Japanese whisky hitting the top spot.) Although this has dropped something of a hand grenade into the whisky category, it is of course just one man’s viewpoint. So is it a fair one?
With its own set of rules and regulations, Scotch is highly protected. Single malt Scotch whisky is made from just barley, water and yeast and must be matured for a minimum of three years in oak casks in Scotland. Single grain whisky (of which Haig Club and Girvan are the only two current mainstream examples) is produced from any grain (usually maize), yeast and water, and must also be matured for the same length of time, with a blended Scotch whisky being a mixture of the two styles.
Top 10 whiskies to try…that aren’t from Scotland
Top 10 whiskies to try…that aren’t from Scotland
1/10 Overeem Single Malt Sherry Cask whisky 43% (Tasmania)
This absolute gem comes from the Old Hobart distillery in Blackmans Bay, Tasmania. Huge, rich, ripe, spicy dark sherry notes make this a rival to some of Scotland’s most robust whiskies. Highly recommended.
2/10 Tullamore Dew 12-year-old sherry cask whiskey 46% (Ireland)
Sweet honeyed notes, rounded out by a gloriously rich finish mark this as supreme whiskey making from the Emerald Isle.
3/10 Bains Cape Mountain Grain whisky 43% (South Africa)
Bains Cape Mountain Whisky (named after Andrew Geddes Bain, who pioneered the awe-inspiring Bainskloof Pass) is a grain whisky distilled by the James Sedgwick distillery in Wellington. It's young, vibrant and fresh, perfect in a large wine glass, over ice, with soda water and a lemon zest.
4/10 Karuizawa – Japanese Single Malt whisky - 1983 - Cask #7576 - 57.2% (Japan now closed)
Arguably the rarest and most highly sought after of Japanese whiskies, Karuizawa is like whisky in 3D. Hugely resonant, dark and dry, with masses of sherry wood influence. The ultimate late night contemplation whisky.
5/10 Balcones Texas Single Malt- 53% (Waco)
An award-winning single malt whisky from the US, specifically Waco in Texas. Despite being very young (around three years old) it is matured in very small casks in the hot Texan climate, meaning it develops a superb complexity in a short space of time.
6/10 Paul John – Edited – Indian single malt whisky 46% (Goa)
A surprising combination of rich fruit, hints of chocolate malt and a light smokiness (from using a peated barley) Paul John is the latest in a string of world whiskies to gain the plaudits from whisky connoisseurs around the globe.
7/10 Nikka – Yoichi 10 Year Old single malt whisky 45% (Japan)
Another Japanese delight, Yoichi is one of the only major distilleries in the world to still use traditional coal fires to heat its stills. Its elegant citrus fruit notes and balance of delicate floral smoke means it pairs very well with sushi.
8/10 Corsair – 100% Rye whiskey 46% (Tennessee)
A true ‘craft’ distillery in every sense of the word. This 100% rye whiskey from Tennessee has a hugely intense spiciness, white pepper, roasted nuts and a savoury, cinnamon-dusted BBQ pork note on the palate.
9/10 Millstone 100 Rye whiskey – 50% (Holland)
The Dutch are famous for supposedly bringing us gin back in the 16th century and now they have an excellent take on American rye whisky too. Bold, peppery and spicy; try this in a Manhattan or Sazerac cocktail for added vibrancy.
10/10 Penderyn Madeira Finish single malt whisky – 46% (Wales)
Where would we be without an alternative whisky from the British Isles? In a poorer place, that’s where. Lovely soft fruits, sweet malt and a delicate spice on the finish, help to highlight why the Scotch aren’t the only ones in the UK who can make consistently good whisky.
Outside of Scotland however, the rules are a little more relaxed (although to be called whisky in the EU, a three year minimum maturation in oak must be observed) and this gives a bit more freedom. But with freedom comes great responsibility... and varied results.
Take Japan for example. With over 90 years of whisky making heritage, inspired by Scottish techniques, the country now has around eight working whisky distilleries, with the drinks giant Suntory owning two of the most popular, Yamazaki and Hakushu. The success story of Japanese whisky is nothing new and it has been topping polls for over a decade, especially the World Whiskies Awards, where it has a consistent presence year on year.
Over in Ireland, whiskey brands such as Redbreast and Green Spot are gaining recognition as more premium alternatives to the ubiquitous Jameson and Bushmills.
Even Tasmania has seven whisky distilleries - the likes of the Overeem brand, made at the Old Hobart Distillery is now stocked by Selfridges and graces the prestigious back bar at Claridge’s. Also, and whisper it quietly, the English are even at it - from Norfolk to the Cotswolds and even down in Cornwall.
But a rising tide floats all boats and as the cachet of Scottish-made whisky rises, so do the boats in the rest of the sea, but of course, it doesn’t mean they are all super-yachts; there are some much smaller, well crafted vessels, but equally a few knackered old fishing boats in there too...
Let’s not forget that a Scotsman invented the TV, but you probably wouldn’t buy a Scottish TV nowadays. Japanese? Yes. As for whisky... we’ll take quality, wherever it comes from - and at the moment, that is as likely to be from outside Aberdeen as it is from outside Osaka.
Joel Harrison and Neil Ridley are award winning spirits writers and presenters. Their new book, Distilled, is out now on Mitchell Beazley Publishing