The simple definition of a single malt whisky – the product of one distillery in a specified location – disguises the rich diversity and complexity of a drink that now spans the world.
Most people hear ‘single malt’ and think ‘Scotland’, where the multiplicity of distilleries and production techniques has taken the simple legal recipe of water, malted barley and yeast (nothing else can be added), and elevated into, at its best, an art form.
But, for all its scale, Scotland doesn’t have a monopoly on the creation of single malt whiskies, and distillers all over the planet are now examining and deconstructing single malt to come up with a new world of flavour that’s also a hugely rewarding one to explore. Here are eight single malts from Scotland, Ireland, England and the US.
Top single malt whiskies to try
Bushmills 2001 Feuillette Cask (Causeway Collection)
The first in a new series of ultra-limited bottlings from the Antrim distillery, this spent its last two years or so in a small Burgundy feuillette cask. Layers of warmly spiced dried fruit, then dessert apple and ripe red fruits, with a touch of black banana on the finish. It’s cask strength, but easily smooth enough to cope. Alc 49%
Clynelish 14 Year Old
Whisky lovers tend to fall into two camps: those who love Clynelish, and those who are yet to try it. This classic core expression is a great place to start, offering a masterclass in complexity and balance that showcases the Highland distillery’s ripe citrus fruit, distinctive waxy quality, light spice and just the merest whisper of smoke. Alc 46%
Cotswolds Sherry Cask
This is the latest terrific offering from the Cotswolds Distillery in Stourton, which makes excellent gin, as well as hugely promising young whiskies using locally grown, floor-malted barley. This is fully Sherry-matured and, while a little shy on the nose, is hugely expressive on the palate, with plum, damson, plush leather and warming nutmeg. Alc 57.4%
Craigellachie 13 Year Old
If you find a lot of modern whisky rather too smooth and polite, Craigellachie could be the antidote. Famously sulphurous off the still, mature Craig keeps some of that struck match/cordite character, but always counterbalanced by a perfumed fruitiness that brings pineapple and baked apple to mind. Distinctive, but balanced. Alc 46%
Highland Park 18 Year Old Viking Pride
What makes a whisky great? Complexity, character, balance. Longevity too – more than 20 years after its launch, this remains exceptional thanks to its restrained smoke, wonderful fragrance of fruit and flowers, and sumptuous combination of heather honey and vanilla fudge. Tasting it again is like a warm hug from an old friend. Alc 43%
Kilchoman Fino Sherry Cask
Kilchoman was the first new distillery I visited, but its inclusion here has nothing to do with sentiment. This is the latest of a consistently fine series of releases from the Islay ‘farm distillery’, and shows its trademark savoury, maritime smoke couched in beautiful floral and citrus aromas, with a touch of green apple. Perfumed and elegant. Alc 46%
The Glenlivet 12 Year Old Illicit Still
The Glenlivet competes with Glenfiddich for the title of best-selling malt whisky on the planet, but don’t let its ubiquity put you off. This cracking new expression is a great introduction to the Glenlivet spirit character: stewed apples melting into candied pineapple with a drop of water, white flower scents and mint Toffos on the finish. The higher abv adds some grip. Alc 48%
Westland Garryana 2019 Release
In the Pacific Northwest, Westland is on a mission to investigate all the whiskey possibilities of provenance and raw materials, with this cult bottling an exploration of the unique qualities of local oak species quercus garryana. Youth is no hindrance to its hugely complex mix of red fruit, spice, smoke and dark chocolate, underscored by drier cereal and oak notes. Alc 50%