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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 right whisky to suit your palate and pocket.

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.

Ireland

In the late 19th century, Irish whiskey ruled the world, comfortably outselling its Scottish rivals. Then a series of blows, from the rise of blended Scotch to geopolitical upheavals, sent it plummeting to near destruction.

Remaining producers clung together for survival as Irish Distillers and, very slowly, things began to shift. There are now new distilleries all over the country, from a resurgent Dublin scene to remote coastal locations such as Dingle. The renaissance is creating a diverse array of styles, underpinned by traditional triple distillation, with its gentle, approachable profile personified by Jameson. Now single pot still – Ireland’s unique style, involving the use of unmalted barley – is blossoming again, and fresh takes on single malt and peated whiskey are emerging.

Japan

It’s more than a century since Masataka Taketsuru’s fact-finding trip to Scottish distilleries, which helped kick-start the Japanese whisky industry and its twin dynasties of Suntory and Nikka.

The likes of Yamazaki and Yoichi distilleries were set up to serve a domestic audience. Then, slowly but surely, the international fame of Japanese whisky spread, boosted in recent years by the eyewatering auction prices fetched by cult ‘lost’ distilleries Karuizawa and Hanyu.

That fame and Japan’s love of the Highball (expert mix of whisky with soda water and ice) have depleted stocks, leading to empty shelves and rising prices, but the best Japanese whisky retains a perfumed restraint and complexity that delivers a clear flavour message without ever needing to shout.

USA

The dominance of Jack Daniel’s and Jim Beam reinforces the image of a particular style of American whiskey: corn sweetness, with new charred oak barrels delivering flavours of coconut, vanilla and banana. But even ‘traditional’ distillers play a number of riffs around this central theme, from richly spiced rye to softly textured wheat, or the original American corn-dominant, young style.

The craft distilling revolution has only brought more diversity, as a new generation of producers questions every piece of accepted wisdom, experimenting and innovating to find something new to say: look for Westland, Balcones, Smooth Ambler, Hudson and WhistlePig.

Rest of the world

People are now making whisky in just about every country where whisky is drunk and, because this is fundamentally a product of place, they’re forging new styles and flavour profiles in the process.

England is rediscovering whisky-making as new distilleries start up, from Kent to Cumbria – each with its own distinctive approach and character – while the Nordics are doing great things with rye, and Australian whisky has now come of age. You can find great grain whisky in South Africa, and even India – that home of high-volume, ersatz ‘whisky’ made from molasses is making some excellent single malt that, thanks to climatic conditions, is matured and ready to drink at a ridiculously young age. Inspired by trailblazers such as Kavalan in Taiwan, as every year passes these new-wave whisky- makers are adding more must-see destinations to the world whisky map.


Whisky styles to try

Whisky from Scotland

Kilkerran 12 Year Old

Produced in the reopened Glengyle distillery, this is a successful evolution of the famously oily, pungent Campbeltown style: restrained, gently smoky and a great-value everyday dram. Alcohol 46%


Glenmorangie Astar

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

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%

Whisky Scotland

Kilchoman Loch Gorm 2020 Edition

Kilchoman distillery opened in 2005 near Machir Bay, and the charm of its early releases has now acquired added depth. This sweet, smoky whisky shows that full-on peat and Sherry casks can work together. Alc 46%


Ailsa Bay Sweet Smoke

A malt whisky produced, rather confusingly, within a grain distillery (Girvan), with a modern, multifunctional ethos. A winning mix of sweet orange, heather smoke and vanilla. Alc 48.9%


Mortlach 12 Year Old The Wee Witchie

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%


Berry Bros & Rudd, The Perspective Series 21 Year Old

A tie-in with photographer Lindsay Robertson, this is a masterclass of the blender’s art, marrying vibrant red fruit with the tangy, nutty quality of an aged amontillado. Light spice and honey only add to the drinking pleasure. Alc 43%

Whisky

Midleton Barry Crockett Legacy

Named after Midleton’s ex-master distiller, this is a great example of single pot still whiskey, combining juicy fruits with hedgerow florals and richer notes of toffee and honey. Alc 46%


Hibiki Japanese Harmony

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

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

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%


Kavalan Sherry Oak

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 Norfolk Malt ‘n’ Rye

At Norfolk’s St George’s distillery in the east of England, distiller David Fitt gets up to all sorts of tricks with grains and casks, with one result being this sweet, rich and oily combination of malted barley and rye. Alc 45%


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