Real men drink whisky. So do women

From lemony Lowland bottlings to seaweedy Islays, single-malt whiskys appeal to a wide range of tastes
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Indy Lifestyle Online

When whisky was seen only as a males' drink, life was so much simpler. Men knew what to do. They bought a well-known blended whisky and drank it with their buddies. No one ever asked any effete questions about taste or aroma. Why would they? A blended Scotch can contain as many as 40 malt whiskies, so every taste is met in just one bottle. One size fits all, like an elasticated waistband.

When whisky was seen only as a males' drink, life was so much simpler. Men knew what to do. They bought a well-known blended whisky and drank it with their buddies. No one ever asked any effete questions about taste or aroma. Why would they? A blended Scotch can contain as many as 40 malt whiskies, so every taste is met in just one bottle. One size fits all, like an elasticated waistband.

New man changed all that, and he was quickly joined by new woman. The new person cooks and tastes, and might notice that whiskies are not all the same. He or she might identify the lemongrass flavours of barley in a Lowland single malt such as Auchentoshan; the oiliness of a Campbeltown classic such as Springbank or the rare but prized Longrow; the seaweed in an Islay malt like Laphroaig; or the honeyed notes in a whisky such as Balvenie, from the heathery Highland glens near the river Spey.

Those are the classic regions, and the most fashionable is Islay, with its intense maritime flavours. This island also supplies the best of the bargains among supermarket "own-brand" malt whiskies. Safeway Islay Pure Malt (£15.99) has a good whiff of sea air and a touch of pepperiness.

At the same price, Sainsbury's Pure Islay is more medicinal and oaky. St Michael Islay (£14.99) is the mildest, though still with plenty of coastal flavours. Waitrose Islay (£16.49) starts sweet, then has a quick hit of iodine dryness.

The woman in my life - who is expecting a bottle for St Andrew's Day on Thursday - insists upon an Islay malt, but wants Ardbeg. On a winter's night, she enjoys the fruitily tar-like tinge of the current 10-year-old. The older, smokier bottlings are more my preference. For a more subtle Islay malt, look out for Bruichladdich, with a tinge of passion fruit. It is my tip for next discovery among single malts.

Singles are for individualists, and they always want something they haven't tasted before. That is why the numbers of malts bottled have increased so dramatically. The first edition of my Malt Whisky Companion, 10 years ago, reviewed about 250 bottlings; the current version has 800.

Most lovers of malts like to explore every corner of Scotland, perhaps making a gentle start at the southerly Solway, with lemony Bladnoch, and heading on to the mainland's northernmost distillery at Wick (Old Pulteney, with its briney, windswept, malt) or the Orkneys (for the lusciously peaty Highland Park). To the east, look out for the cinnamon tinge in Glenkinchie or the earthiness of Fettercairn.

Then comes the historical study. Dated bottlings are much appreciated by the connoisseur, especially if the "vintage" matches a birthday or anniversary. These limited editions can be expensive, but they recognise that whiskies are a natural product, differing slightly from one year to the next. Vintages are the latest fashion, following "cask-strength" bottlings (with alcohol by volume in the 60s or 50s, rather than the usual 40s) and "wood finishes" (in which the whisky spends its last few months of maturation in wine casks from Bordeaux, Oporto or Madeira). There is a wonderfully fragrant whiff of peat smoke in a 1984 Vintage Bowmore, from Oddbins at £45. Macallan has a new, unfiltered, cask-strength edition of its 18-year-old, entirely aged in fino sherry casks. This unusually intense, salty, half-litre bottling costs a serious £80, and is available on the internet www.themacallan.com).

Among the newest wood finishes is a Glenmorangie that has spent its last months of maturation in Cÿte de Nuits Burgundy casks. This gives this normally delicate, vanilla-tinged malt an extraordinarily long finish, with almondy dryness and marzipan sweetness (Oddbins, at a generous £125).

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