Adventures With ScotchNovember 8, 2011 By: Robert Plotkin
Malts From the Islands, Campbeltown and Lowlands
While dwarfed by the relative size of the bourbon and Canadian whisky markets, Scotch remains one of the identifiable standard bearers of urbane consumerism. Its cache of uncompromised quality, breadth of expression and dynamic range of flavor has made Scotch a global heavyweight.
“Even though Scotch is not the largest of the whiskey markets, the category still carries more gravitas than other whiskeys,” contends Larry Kass, director of corporate communications for Heaven Hill Distilleries, based in Bardstown, Ky. “Scotch offers more expressions, superb marketing and packaging and a strong academic/educational bent. Collectively they’re positioned in a sophisticated, upscale way, lending an importance and weight that’s disproportionate to case sales.”
Of particular note to retailers, Scotch whisky has a loyal consumer base, one that is particularly well-heeled and diversifying in age. The category continues to appeal to men in the 40- to 50-year-old demographic. These are consumers who know precisely what they want. The category as a whole, however, also is gaining the attention of younger consumers.
The consensus is that Scotch enthusiasts are different than your average spirits drinker. They’re more prone to try new releases and sample unconventional bottlings. They are driven by the sense of discovery and the need to experience something new and exciting. It’s all like an urban adventure. Distillers appreciate these compelling desires because they are the same forces that drive them.
New Island Malts
There is no more memorable road on the voyage of discovery than the one leading to the adventurous malts of the Scottish islands. One such franchise belongs to Highland Park from the island of Orkney, the northernmost distillery in the world. The microclimate of the isolated and wind-swept island is dominated by the North Sea and North Atlantic. Its U.S. portfolio includes seven expressions of Single Orkney Malts — the standard-bearer 12 years old, 15 Years Old, the limited-edition Highland Park 18-year-old, and the 25-year-old Highland Park. The latter is an unfiltered, cask strength (96.2 proof) whisky made with several malts over 35 years in age. The distillery’s highly acclaimed Orcadian series now features three vintage bottlings: 1964, 1968 and 1970.
The Isle of Jura is in the Inner Hebrides off the eastern coast of Scotland. For 300 years, the island’s lone distillery has produced whiskies using mountain water and lightly peated malt. Isle of Jura Superstition features a blend of peated whiskies and older, traditionally finished malts. The range now also includes a 21 Years Old Single Malt and Isle of Jura Prophecy, a 92 proof blend of old heavily peated malts finished in Oloroso sherry butts and bottled unfiltered in its natural state.
When it comes to adventurous malts, the Scottish island of Islay reigns supreme. The isle’s oldest distillery is Bowmore, which still crafts whiskies with its own floor-dried malted barley peat-enriched water from the River Laggan. Their range in the United States includes Bowmore 12 Years Old (40% alcohol) and Bowmore Darkest Sherry Malt, which is aged 15 years and bottled at 43% alcohol. New to the portfolio is the Bowmore Tempest Small Batch Release No. 2, the second in a series of small-batch releases, but the first to be offered in the United States. Bowmore Tempest (56% alcohol) is aged in first-fill Bourbon casks for 10 years in the distillery’s famed vaults.
The Laphroaig experience is most comparable with bungee jumping. It intimidates many, but those brave souls willing to take the plunge are rewarded with the ride of their life. Such is the excursion waiting for those fortunate enough to sample Laphroaig Quarter Cask Single Islay Malt. It is first matured in ex-bourbon barrels and then transferred to quarter casks for finishing. This double maturation in a smaller barrel allows for greater contact with the wood.
The famed Laphroaig portfolio also includes a 10 Years Old Cask Strength, 15 Years Old and 30 Years Old. Each is an intriguing spirit deeply imbued with the flavor of the sea.
The Ardbeg distillery is one of the oldest and smallest distilleries in Scotland. Aged for 10 years in seasoned American oak casks and bottled at 92 proof, Ardbeg Single Islay has the distinction of being the most heavily peated single malt. New to the Ardbeg portfolio are the 10th Anniversary edition of Rollercoaster, which is bottled at cask strength (57.3% alcohol), the 2nd edition of Supernova 2010 (60.1% alcohol) and non-chill filtered Airigh Nam Beist Vintage 1990.
New Malts from Campbeltown and the Lowlands
Located on a peninsula near the island of Islay, Campbeltown was once considered Scotland’s whisky capital. Where more than 30 distilleries once flourished, Springbank and Glen Scotia are the last remaining entities.
Springbank is the oldest family-owned distillery in Scotland. The principals are fiercely independent, insisting on making their whisky in the same manner for 150 years. The family is involved in every stage of production — from the cutting of peat to final bottling. The distillery’s range of handcrafted triple-distilled, lightly peated malts is awash with choices. Its core releases are 46% alcohol and include bottlings at 10 years old, 15 years old and 18 years old.
Among the distillery’s creative range of single malts are recent arrivals Springbank 11 Years Old Madeira Wood Finish Cask Strength (110.2% alcohol), Springbank 12 Years Old Cream Sherry Wood Finish Cask Strength (112.2% alcohol), Springbank 12 Years Old Fino Sherry Wood Finish Cask Strength (112.6% alcohol) and Springbank 12 Years Old Amontillado Sherry Wood Finish Cask Strength (110.2% alcohol). The Springbank distillery also produces the heavily peated, double-distilled Longrow malts, a range that includes Longrow 7 Years Old Gaja Barolo Wood Finish, which is bottled at cask strength (55.8% alcohol) and the Longrow 10 Years Old (50% alcohol).
First introduced in 2005, Hazelburn Single Malts are the newest releases from the Springbank Distillery. The unpeated whiskies are triple-distilled, matured in Sherry oak and bottled at 46% alcohol. Hazelburn malts bottled in limited quantities in two expressions — at 8 years old and the recently released 12 Years Old.
Malts made in the Lowlands of Scotland often are overshadowed by those produced in the Highlands. It’s an unfortunate oversight as Lowland malts are soft, light and fruity, largely because of the region’s propensity for triple distilling.
The best-known distiller of the Lowland malts is Auchentoshan, whose core range includes the Classic Lowland Malt (no age statement and 40% alcohol), Auchentoshan 12-year-old (40% alcohol) and 21-year-old (43% alcohol) malts. The most prestigious of the region’s whiskies is Auchentoshan Three Wood Lowland Single Malt, a distinctive triple-distilled malt finished in three different types of oak casks: used bourbon barrels, oloroso sherry butts and Pedro Ximenez sherry casks (43% alcohol).