Scottish Single Malt Whisky

Jon, Hans, and Odin came together to do a few runs on iStill Equipment … and to taste and discuss Scottish Single Malt Whisky.

Now, we all know that single malt is the top boss, when it comes to whisky. But, since it is so much hyped, and since production is increased more and more … is it actually still any good?

That’s what the three of us discussed. Hans and Jon are long time single malt whisky experts. They have been tasting and judging single malts for decades. Jon fancies Port Ellen, Hans is more of a Longhorn fan originally. Odin? Well, I do not consider myself an connaisseur on tastings, but I know quite a lot on the fabrication process. And I have a definition of whisk(e)y that I am very attached too.

Here it goes: “A whisk(e)y is a distilled beverage in which the drinker should be able to identify the grain(s) it is made from.” In short: when I drink a whisk(e)y, I want to taste the grain. And it is even better if I can recognize the actual grain bill. And with that being stated, we sat down, poured ourselves some 40 year old Ardbeg and started talking about single malt whisky …

A definition of whisk(e)y

Jon and Hans agreed with my definition, which was a bit of a surprise to me. The single malts I have tasted the last 5 to 10 years were all overly peated and tasted of Sherry or Port of wood. Jon and Hans explained me that this is why they (and most single malt whisky experts) appreciate the older ones. Not by definition the ones that have aged on casks for a long time, but whisky that has been bottled long ago. Like the 40 year old Ardbeg.

Some 40 years ago, the emphasis wasn’t on (over) peatiness and wood. No, 40 years ago, single malt whisky was still about the grain. Wood and peat were the side notes, not the main features as today. And I must say … after trying the Ardbeg that was bottled over 40 years ago … I could taste the grain and I loved it!

Pouring ever poorer whisky?

Whisky is supposed to age and become better over time. Single malts that have been matured longer have a higher profile and … a much higher price tag. How can the Scottish single malt distillers keep up? Is the huge demand having an impact on quality?

Jon and Hans told me they felt newer releases of single malts were definately of poorer quality. That’s why they drink the stuff that was bottled 30 to 50 years ago. They gave MacAllan as the perfect example of a once great single malt that has fallen into the hands of the marketeers. More product is being put on the market, but it is product of a lesser quality. It’s a worrying trend they see taking place at many Scottish single malt distilleries.

We drank some Port Ellen. Again, over 40 years old, and it had the same graininess to it that the old Ardbeg  had. Another whisky that I liked and another whisky that met my definition of that one should be able to recognize the grains a whisk(e)y is made from.

Does whisky age in the bottle?

Everybody I met told me that this is not the case. To me that made no sense. Every drink keeps on developing. Esterification (the process of tastes developing) takes place where alcohol and particles meet in a sour environment. The longer that situation exists, the more esterification there will be.

Jon and Hans agreed. Bottle ageing indeed takes place … but not always! Discussing the do’s and don’ts in single malt making, we concluded a lot of manufacturers now chill filter their products, thus taking out most of the particles enabling esterification in the bottle to continue. Many also add caramel for a darker colored whisky … but the side effect of caramel is that – since it is basically sugar – the whisky becomes sweeter. Here you go: caramelization makes the drink less sour and, yes, esterification in the bottle is being stopped.

Another development is to release whiskies at 40%. That’s too low an ABV for tailsy alcohols to stay in solution. And since distillers do not want a film of oil on top of their whisky … more filtering is applied to get rid of these oils. Mind you: it’s the tails that – over the years – contribute most to taste development! Well, as long as they are there, off course!

We had this discussion while digesting some Longhorn single malt. Again, one that was bottled decades ago. And again: the grain was definately there. I started to understand more about the do’s and don’ts of single malt whisky making (and marketing). Here’s a summary:

  1. Single malts bottled recently tend to favour peat and wood;
  2. Single malts bottled decades ago showed much more grain flavors;
  3. Single malts that have been chill filtered and/or caramalized do not further age in bottles;
  4. Single malts that are not filtered or caramalized continue aging after bottling;
  5. Single malts bottled decades ago are in general better than the ones currently marketed.

How about a new and very fresh Dutch single malt?

Of course Scottish single malt cannot be produced in Holland. But some 1 1/2 years ago I took a swing at it. I had a Belgium malter peat barley (30 ppm). I cracked that barley with a 3 plated mill. I then used my Braumeister to make wort and I fermented the wort into a 6% beer. This beer I distilled in the iStill 50 with the 1.5 distillation approach. I took a very wide Hearts cut at a high power setting (50%), because I wanted this product to be worth ageing. And since the catalyst wasn’t developed yet, the final drink didn’t see any copper. Lots of sulfur due to no copper contact … but in the end even the sulfur might add to the esterification process. I aged my single malt shortly on some toasted American white oak (shortly, because I wanted the grain taste to dominate, not the wood), and stored the result (without chill filtration or caramel) in bottles. At 58% to simulate cask strength.

I tasted this single malt a year ago and it was rough. I tasted it again half a year ago, and it was still rough. Jon, Hans, and I tasted it again last Friday … and we liked it! Yes, it is not as smooth as the other whiskies we tried. Yes, it needs a few more years to properly age out. But the taste, diluted to 45%, was very good. Definately a single malt with some peat and wood. The grain was there. Not as smooth as the whiskies that were bottled 40 years ago, but otherwise similar in taste!

Some more conclusions:

  1. With (almost) all the Scottish single malt producers moving towards heavily peated and over oaked products, there’s room for craft distilled single malt that focusses on the grain instead of the wood and peat;
  2. There’s really no need to (cask) age more than three to five years;
  3. The age statement on a bottle of single malt should not just be about how long it has matured on cask. If the single malt is non-filtered and non-caramalized, the year of bottling should be clearly (and proudly) stated, since a whisky – thus produced – is being kept in the bottle longer, its taste and value go up.

Here’s a picture of us talking and tasting. Thanks, Jon and Hans for a great afternoon, a great discussion, and all of those great single malts you guys had with you!

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