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A world of whisky: Understanding whisky styles

The whisky scene is more exciting than ever before. So where do you start if you want to find your perfect dram? Richard Woodard introduces the main production areas and eclectic styles on offer, with recommendations of bottles to try from Scotland, Ireland, Japan, the US and beyond.

At no point in history has there been as diverse a selection of whisky on offer as there is today, with distilleries springing up all over the planet to challenge the traditional heartlands of Scotland, Ireland, the US, Canada and Japan.

From a smoky Islay style to the fruity tang of Irish single pot still; from the soft subtlety of a Japanese blend to a full-volume Sherried Taiwanese malt… there’s never been a better time to track down the best whisky to suit your palate and pocket.

A whisky distillery beside barley fields under a blue sky with clouds

Cardhu Distillery in Speyside

Scotland

Scotland’s damp, cool climate may frustrate holidaymakers, but it’s ideal for making whisky, with distilleries working their magic from the Borders in the south up to the islands of Orkney. Blends – combining malt and grain whiskies – make up most of the market, but single malts – small-batch whiskies produced at one distillery using only barley, water and yeast – hog the headlines.

There are also blended malts – a mix of two or more single malts – and single grain whiskies, which, as the name suggests, come from a named grain distillery.

It’s easiest to split Scotland up regionally, but don’t think for a moment that a distillery’s location dictates its style. Think all Islay whiskies are peaty? Then try Bruichladdich or Bunnahabhain. Speyside = spiced fruit? Not in the case of Benrinnes, or Mortlach, or a number of others.

Campbeltown

Situated on the Kintyre peninsula on Scotland’s west coast, facing the Isle of Arran, Campbeltown was known as Whisky City in the late Victorian era, with more than 20 distilleries sending out their wares from its busy harbour. But bust inexorably followed boom and, one by one, they all shut down, except for Springbank and Glen Scotia, with a resurrected Glengyle opening in 2004.

Now there’s an annual Malts Festival, and a renewed interest in Campbeltown’s whisky – once notoriously smoky and heavy, now with a newfound balance and finesse.

Highlands

The Highlands should put to bed any notion of a dominant regional style; how can an area stretching from Loch Lomond, northwest of Glasgow, to John O’Groats at the northern tip of mainland Scotland be anything other than diverse?

Don’t expect too many common threads from its 30 scattered distilleries: from softly fruity Oban to the down-and-dirty meatiness of Ben Nevis; from the textured waxiness of Clynelish to rich Dalmore; from lightly grassy Royal Lochnagar to the earthy smoke of Ardmore. The good news? This refusal to be pigeonholed makes Highland whiskies all the more fascinating to explore.

Islands

Scotland’s labyrinthine network of islands once offered ideal conditions for illicit distillation, but relatively few distilleries survived into the age of legal production – although their number is now expanding again. They are both geographically and stylistically disparate, from the sweet peat of Highland Park on Orkney to Tobermory on Mull with its soft fruit. Some – such as Talisker on Skye with its peppery smoke, or Jura’s slow-maturing flintiness – have a long history. Others, such as the marvellous Arran, or Abhainn Dearg on Lewis, are relative newcomers. With Isle of Harris and Raasay newly open to visitors (though subject to Covid-19 changes: check producer websites) and more due to open in the near future, it’s a full-on island renaissance.

Islay

This small island, the southernmost of the Inner Hebrides archipelago, embodies a particular style of whisky: peated, with a rich array of smoky, maritime flavours leaping from every glass of Ardbeg, Bowmore, Caol Ila, Kilchoman, Lagavulin and Laphroaig. But even here there are exceptions: the bewitching fruit of Bruichladdich and Bunnahabhain offers a smoke-free zone (although both make peated whisky too).

The ‘Islay = peat’ equation also disguises the diversity of the island’s smoky malts: from Laphroaig’s medicinal lift to the sometimes feral fruit of Ardbeg; Lagavulin’s linear clarity and, after long ageing, Bowmore’s remarkable bouquet of tropical fruit. There’s much more to this place than smoke.

Lowlands

The rise of blended Scotch and a tendency (especially in urban distilleries) to favour quantity over quality led to the near-destruction of the Lowlands as a single malt- producing region in the 20th century. It still produces more spirit than any other region – but mostly grain at vast plants such as Cameronbridge and North British.

Lowland single malts are mainly distinguished by a deceptively light, grassy style, epitomised by Glenkinchie and triple- distilled Auchentoshan, while Ailsa Bay ploughs a more idiosyncratic furrow. But things are changing, thanks to the return of single malt to Edinburgh and Glasgow, and the emergence of Fife. New plants such as Daftmill and innovative InchDairnie are helping to forge a new identity for the region.

Speyside

Strictly speaking part of the Highlands, Speyside was only legally defined as a Scotch whisky region in 2009. This is the epicentre of malt whisky production in Scotland, with nearly 50 distilleries in operation, including the world’s two best-selling single malts: Glenfiddich and The Glenlivet.

Some split Speyside malts between the lighter/grassier types – Glen Grant or The Glenlivet, for example – and richer drams, such as Macallan or Glenfarclas. That’s fine, until you meet the many exceptions, from meaty Mortlach and Benrinnes to the maritime spice of Inchgower. There is a lot of sweet fruit on show in Speyside, but the outliers are as intriguing as the central core. Even The Balvenie has a peated expression, after all.

Blends/blended malts

The single malt boom has overshadowed the whisky that catapulted Scotland to fame in the first place: the blend, an art-meets-science creation taking a complex array of grain and malt whiskies and making something greater than the sum of its parts.

Great blends such as Johnnie Walker Black Label or Ballantine’s 17 Year Old are sometimes underrated because they are products of scale, and with no obvious provenance. But they remain remarkable whiskies, offering excellent value for money, and typifying their own house style.

Blended malts are rising in influence, whether it’s the bar-friendly mixability of Monkey Shoulder, the fruit/smoke tang of the revived Johnnie Walker Green Label, or the often astonishing creations of independents such as Compass Box.

Stone whisky distillery building with large copper still

Jameson Distillery in Midleton, Ireland

Ireland

Some 150 years ago, Irish whiskey ruled the world. Its Dublin distillery sites were cities within the city, and two out of every three whisky bottles sold by London merchant Gilbeys were of Irish provenance. Irish whiskey took pride of place in the drinks cabinets of the wealthy. Scotch, by comparison, was viewed as a pale imitation.

But the late Victorian age sparked a gradual transformation. The inexorable rise of blended Scotch, coupled with the battle for Irish independence and the complacency of the big distillers, all but destroyed the industry. By the late 1960s, the few remaining Irish whiskey makers were forced to band together in order to survive.

But survive they did, and slowly but surely, Irish whiskey recovered. Then began a full-blown renaissance, spearheaded by the huge global popularity of Jameson, but now with an increasingly vocal supporting cast of ever more innovative distillers.

Whiskey-making has returned to the heart of Dublin, and new distilleries are springing up everywhere from Belfast to Dingle. They’re producing a diverse array of styles and taking Irish whiskey into exciting new territory. Modern Irish whiskey ranges from traditional, triple-distilled blends – to many, the secret of its modern-day global success, thanks to their soft, approachable flavour profile – to single malt, peated whiskeys and single pot still.

In many ways, single pot still brings things full-circle. Ireland’s unique gift to the whisky world owes its distinctive texture, fruit and spice to what began as a tax dodge: 18th-century distillers faced with crippling taxes on malted barley began using a proportion of unmalted grain instead – giving their whiskeys an unmistakable tang that you won’t find anywhere else. The result today can be tasted in superb pot still whiskeys such as Redbreast and the ‘Spot’ family from Irish Distillers.

Japan

Japan has been fascinated by whisky for 150 years, but early attempts to mimic the great distilleries of Scotland using science proved frustratingly ineffective. As the First World War drew to a close, a young chemistry student named Masataka Taketsuru was sent to Glasgow to study whisky-making – and the story of Japanese whisky truly began.

Taketsuru researched Scotch meticulously, undertaking apprenticeships at the distilleries of Hazelburn in Campbeltown and Longmorn on Speyside. He returned to Japan with a wealth of knowledge and a Scottish wife, Rita Cowan. Here he helped Shinjiro Torii establish the first dedicated Japanese malt whisky distillery at Yamazaki in 1923, before splitting with Torii and undertaking his own malt whisky venture, Yoichi, on the northern island of Hokkaido.

The two companies the pair founded – Suntory and Nikka – continue to dominate Japanese whisky. And what began as a spirit for a domestic audience, commonly quaffed with plenty of ice and water as a mizuwari, a form of highball, has slowly gained a huge global reputation, winning a host of international awards and fetching sometimes eye-watering prices at auction.

Closed distilleries Karuizawa and Hanyu have acquired a cult status among collectors to rival that of Port Ellen and Brora, and demand for Japanese whisky is such that aged releases are in desperately short supply. But the best Japanese whiskies have much more going for them than scarcity: there is a fragrance, delicacy and restrained complexity here that cannot be found anywhere else in the whisky world.

A bottle of Westland Whisky on a bar top

Westland whiskeys are made in Seattle, US

US

What is American whiskey? To the uninitiated, it’s probably the relatively narrow spectrum of flavour offered by the most popular American whiskeys on the planet: Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey and Jim Beam Bourbon. These showcase corn sweetness and dominant flavours of vanilla, coconut and banana, delivered by the use of new, charred American oak barrels.

But enthusiasts will tell you that there’s always been much, much more to American whiskey than these bold, unmistakable flavours. The country’s whiskey pioneers – immigrants from continental Europe who settled in Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia in the middle of the 18th century – planted what they knew. And what they knew was rye.

Now rye whiskey – typically characterised in the US by its punchy, peppery spice – has made a storming comeback after years in the doldrums. It has been resurrected over the past few decades by visionary companies such as Michter’s. And now American distillers are increasingly throwing the rulebook to one side in favour of innovation.

The boom in craft brewing brought in its wake a vast movement of craft distillers across all 50 states. While many of them are happy to put their own spin on traditional bourbons and ryes, an army of young distillers is prioritising flavour over tradition in a quest for great-tasting whiskey.

From Westland in Washington state to Balcones in Waco, Texas, right across to Hudson on the eastern seaboard, new-wave whiskey makers are exploring every aspect of their craft to bring fresh flavours to a growing audience. While bourbon remains the signature whiskey of the US, new styles such as American single malt are ushering in a new golden age for the country’s whiskey.

Rows of whisky barrels in a bond store

Barrels of whiskey maturing at Starward Distillery, Australia

Rest of the world

These days, everyone is making whisky. Leading online retailer The Whisky Exchange sells whiskies from 23 countries – and that list is far from being exhaustive. Each country – each distillery even – has taken whisky off into fascinating new directions of flavour and production technique.

Some of the countries involved have a lengthy whisky heritage of their own. Canada’s complex distilling history is shaped by multiple factors, including the discovery that rye could survive the freezing winters in the east, and the need to distil surplus grain on the western plains.

Throw in Prohibition in the US and you end up with a head-spinning combination of light, column-distilled whiskies with the dry spice of rye, multiple production techniques and the use of a number of different cask specifications. Canadian whisky is often light, but rarely bland – and increasingly appreciated as one of the great whisky-producing nations on the planet.

Meanwhile, there’s a full-blown whisky renaissance going on south of the Scottish border in England, where a host of dynamic distillers are making a hugely diverse range of whiskies. You’ll find them all over: from the mountains of Cumbria to the rolling hills of the Cotswolds and the Suffolk coast. Don’t try looking for a signature English style – because there isn’t one, and that in itself makes English whisky even more fascinating to explore.

India is perhaps best known in the world of whisky for making oceans of the stuff from the cheapest materials available, typically molasses – ‘whiskies’ that would more accurately be described as rums. But some distillers are casting off this reputation for ersatz spirit by making their own style of single malt. Thanks to the climatic conditions experienced during maturation, it can be eminently drinkable at an absurdly young age.

Twenty years ago, the whiskies of Japan began to gain global renown and, more recently, the same phenomenon has occurred in Taiwan. Here the Kavalan distillery has blazed a trail with a succession of award-winning releases, given their own distinctive style by the country’s unique maturation conditions and an eclectic selection of cask types.

Like Taiwan, Australia and New Zealand may not be the first countries on whisky-lovers’ lips. But the Antipodean nations are making some of the most exciting whiskies in the world right now through ventures such as Starward, Lark and Cardrona. Often producers source casks from local wineries to add extra layers of flavour and provenance.

But it doesn’t stop there. Distillers in the Nordic nations are making rye whiskies with a discernible local accent, while some of the world’s best grain whisky is now produced in South Africa. Fascinating new whiskies are also coming out of countries as diverse as France, Mexico, Israel and Wales.

It all adds up to one thing: today’s whisky lovers are truly spoilt for choice, because never in history have so many people, in so many countries, been making so much good whisky.

Whisky styles to try


Glen Scotia Victoriana

Scotland, Campbeltown

This rich, silky textured recreation of Campbeltown’s whisky past is all about black fruits, vanilla and cocoa bean, undercut by a maritime salinity and a whisper of coal smoke. Alcohol 54.2%


Glenmorangie Astar

Scotland, Highland

Bespoke American oak casks from Missouri add extra oomph to Glenmorangie’s gently fruity distillate, created by those famously tall stills. The 2017 release is deliciously perfumed, with notes of Amalfi lemon and butterscotch. Alc 52.5%


Highland Park 18 Year Old Viking Pride

Scotland, Islands

This remains the prolific Orkney distillery’s benchmark, thanks to its balance of smoke, fruit, cask and time. The epitome of perfect poise and distillery character. Alc 43%


Lagavulin 8 Year Old

Scotland, Islay

I can think of no whisky that says ‘Islay’ quite as eloquently as this one. From its punchy aromas of quayside smokehouse to its raw evocation of cured meats and beach bonfire. One of the world’s great peated single malts. Alc 48%


Mortlach 12 Year Old The Wee Witchie

Scotland, Speyside

Known as the ‘Beast of Dufftown’, Mortlach has a feral, meaty character that is showcased wonderfully here, thanks to the use of a judicious mix of ex-bourbon and Sherry casks. Alc 43.4%


Johnnie Walker Double Black

Scotland, blend

A great modern blend, this is Johnnie Walker Black on steroids, with extra smoke coming from peaty malt whiskies and super-charred oak. Layers of sweet vanilla and cereal notes add a lighter touch. Alc 40%


Green Spot Single Pot Still

Ireland

The perfect introduction to Ireland’s unique whiskey style: single pot still. Layers of orchard fruit, gentle spice and a creamy cereal character. Terrific value for money too. Alc 40%


Teeling Single Malt

Ireland

The Teeling family are leading the Dublin whiskey renaissance with gems like this: finishing in wine casks delivers hedonistic flavours of a high-class chocolatier, ripe red fruits and gentle spice, wrapped in a wonderfully creamy texture. Alc 46%


Hibiki Japanese Harmony

Japan

This blend of Yamazaki and Hakushu malts, plus Chita grain, exemplifies the subtlety of Japanese distillates, combining gentle fruit with layers of cream and white chocolate. Alc 43%


Michter’s US*1 Small Batch Bourbon

US

This takes bourbon beyond its signature coconut sweetness, adding layer upon layer of fruit, caramel and gentle smoke, undercut by a pleasingly earthy character. Alc 45.7%


Westland American Oak

US

Seattle’s Westland is one of a new breed of distilleries with a holistic vision of what whiskey should be. A richly creamy and complex whiskey that reconciles decadence and precision. Alc 46%


Lot No 40 Rye Whisky

Canada

This is unmistakably rye, but with a Canadian twist. There’s all the fiery punch and pepper you’d expect from American rye, but balanced with a light elegance and lipsmackingly sweet, figgy character. Alc 43%


Kavalan Sherry Oak

Taiwan

Taiwanese whisky? More than a decade since its first release, Kavalan continues to wow doubters with its fruity character and eclectic choice of casks. An oily, rich, Sherried delight. Alc 46%


The Lakes Whiskymaker’s Reserve No 5

England

Remarkable things are happening at this distillery close to Bassenthwaite Lake in Cumbria. For a youthful whisky, this is remarkably rich, with waves of Sherried coffee cake, polished antique wood and dried tropical fruit. Alc 52%


Starward Nova

Australia

Some whisky-makers are scared of wine casks; not Australia’s Starward. This is ripe stuff, packed with juicy red fruits and an almost Port-like character, accompanied by a beguiling backdrop of roasted walnuts. Alc 41%


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