Own-brands are no match for the Highlanders label

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Is the best whisky malty, heathery, seaweedy or briny?

Is the best whisky malty, heathery, seaweedy or briny?

If you are not sure of your preference, the best all-rounder is Highland Park, from Orkney - a single malt that has all those merits and more. That is only my view, of course, but I am on record as saying so in my book the Malt Whisky Companion.

I was invited to be a judge on the Which? tasting, but was out of the country. Would I have identified Highland Park blindfold? I hope so, and I am pleased that the judges on the day shared my view.

What about their joint winner, Majestic eight-year-old Islay Malt Whisky? I share their enthusiasm. It has a huge Islay oiliness, peatiness and smokiness. An excellent buy at £15.49.

I have enjoyed every own-brand Islay malt I have tasted in the last few years. I tipped them as "best of the bargains" among malts in The Independent a couple of weekends ago (Food & Drink, 25 November).

A couple of years ago, I was on a Wine Magazine panel that awarded a gold medal to Safeway Islay 10-year-old.

Why are the supermarkets' Islays so good? One reason: there are only seven distilleries on the island, and they all make very good whiskies. Another: Islay malts are meant to be salty, seaweedy and peaty, and no supermarket is likely to stock one that clearly fails to deliver those qualities.

Highland and Speyside malts, coming from 60 or more distilleries, are generally more heathery and honeyed, but those are more subtle characteristics, harder for the consumer to quantify and compare.

I feel that supermarkets are less choosy when buying from these regions. As the Which? judges concluded, there are no own-brands to challenge Highlanders like Glenmorangie, or Speysiders such as The Glenlivet.

Availability is a critical factor, too. Distillers have to decide today how much the market will need eight or 12 years from now. It Is impossible to judge with accuracy.

This year, the identical label and bottle, from the same shop, may contain something completely different from last year. Even two casks from the same year will be different, depending upon the quality of the wood and the position of the barrel in the warehouse.