GREAT SCOTCH! : A Tasting of 42 Unblended Whiskeys Yields No-Fault Malts With Varying Subtleties

Single-malt Scotch whiskey, once a well-kept secret of Scotland, is now the choice of many Americans, with tastes that range from almond to coconut to cinnamon to vanilla. Single-malt sales are up 11% from last year, an industry bulletin reports, for the third consecutive year. Sales of single-malt Scotches--Scotches not blended with other whiskeys--make up 35% of the revenue generated in U.S. Scotch sales.

"The single, or unblended, malt whiskeys of the Highlands are to Scotch what chateau-bottled classed growths are to Bordeaux," wrote Hugh Johnson, England's leading wine writer. "Each is superb, recognizable, consistent and exactly like no other whiskey on earth."

Although every single-malt Scotch whiskey has the same ingredients--malted barley, water and yeast--taste differences are born of geographical and geological influences. There are four regions of production: the Lowlands, in the south; Campbeltown, northwest of the Lowlands; Islay, on the West Coast, and the Highlands in the north, which includes Western and Speyside. There is little mystery to the pungent sea-spray influences of Islay malts or of the Highlands, where the waters' tumbling cascades flow through glens and heather-scented vales.

Then there is the malting process of the barley, steeped in the water to trigger the germination process within the barley grains. The germination is halted by kilns fired with peat, which adds an overlay of smoky flavor. Mashing the barley converts the starches into sugars, allowing fermentation. This then leads to distillation, the route to crystal-clear spirits, to be aged in oak barrels, like wine. The wood, particularly if it had once held sherry, can lend further exotic tastes to the whiskey.

And we, panelists who had assembled for a three-hour blind-tasting of whiskeys, learned that taste differences are influenced also by the glass in which the whiskey is served. With George Riedel, of the Riedel Glassworks family of Austria, we tasted three whiskeys, one of them Laphroaig, in the Riedel Single Malt-Whiskeyglas. In the snifter, the powerful Islay malt delivered an almost knockout punch, but from the flared-lip, straight-sided, thistle-shaped Riedel glass, the Laphroaig landed on the tongue with a subtle touch of sweetness, followed by a virtual explosion of aromatic intrigue. In a traditional tumbler, aromas are lost, Riedel explains, and snifters emphasize alcohol at the expense of finesse. But the shape of the Riedel glass directs the spirit onto the tip of the tongue, where sweetness is perceived, arriving onto taste buds gently, accentuating softness, roundness and silkiness.

For this tasting, we tried 42 whiskeys by region, first nosing neat, then splashing with pure water (one part water to two parts whiskey). Our tasting session resulted in extraordinary unanimity of appraisal, albeit some differences. A 20-point scale was used, with 20 being the best. Tasters were wine and spirits authority Mark Salter, Henry Preiss, importer of connoisseur-quality wines and spirits; Steve Wallace of Wally's West, leading L.A. wine and spirits merchant, and myself. Here, by region and order of perceived excellence:

LOWLAND MALTS

ROSEBANK1980. 60.1%/vol. Single Cask Cadenhead bottling. $66; scored 16.6/20. Distilled at the Rosebank Distillery, Camelon, Falkirk, Stirlingshire. Imported by Preiss Imports, Santa Fe Springs, Calif. Gentle, golden whiskey, hints of wood, with a light smoky nose.

HIGHLAND MALTS

GLENMORANGIE1971 Vintage--86 Proof. $165; scored 19. Distilled by the Glenmorangie Distiller, Coy, Tain, Rossshire. Imported by Brown Forman, Louisville, Ky. This sipping nectar, with traces of butterscotch, has lingering, incomparable richness.

BALBLAIR1965. 44.6%/vol. Single Cask Cadenhead bottling. $260; scored 18.9. Distilled at the Balblair Distillery, Edderton, Tain, Rossshire. Imported by Preiss Imports, Santa Fe Springs. I gave it a full 20 for its almost buttery richness, balanced elegance.

GLENGOYNE17 Years Old--86 Proof. $65; scored 18.5. Distilled, matured, and bottled by Lang Brothers Ltd, Glengoyne, Sterlingshire. Imported by Paterno, Chicago. Time-distilled poetic concentration with no peat influence. The Queen Mother's choice. Intriguing taste from extended wood aging.

GLEN MHOR1976. 43%/vol. Single Cask Cadenhead bottling. $84; 18. Distilled at the Glen Mhor Distillery, Inverness, Invernessshire. Imported by Preiss Imports. Light golden whiskey with surprisingly exotic aromas.

GLENMORANGIE18 Years Old--86 Proof. $55; 17.5. Distilled by the Glenmorangie Distillery, Coy, Tain, Rossshire. Imported by Brown Forman, Louisville, Ky. Smooth, subtly aromatic with engaging complexity.

MACDUFF1978. 57.8%/vol. Single Cask Cadenhead bottling. $72; 17. Distilled at Macduff Distillery, Banffshire. Imported by Preiss Imports. Unfiltered whiskey may cloud with water, but remains rich in taste.

ROYAL LOCHNAGAR86 Proof. Selected Reserve. $139; 17. Royal Lochnagar Distillery, Crathie, Deeside, Aberdeenshire. Schieffelin & Somerset Co., New York. Deep, golden amber whiskey of gentle, friendly access.

ROYAL LOCHNAGAR12 Years Old--80 Proof. $30.99; 16.8. Royal Lochnagar Distillery, Crathie, Deeside, Aberdeenshire. Schieffelin & Somerset Co., New York. Classic Highland malt whiskey, subtle, charming, accessible.

GLENMORANGIE10 Years Old--86 Proof. $28.99; 16.1. Distilled by the Glenmorangie Distillery, Coy, Tain, Rossshire. Imported by Brown Forman; Louisville, Ky. Pale golden with aromatic touches of heather, peat, oak. Welcome zwang-on-the-palate for the 5 o'clock lift.

IRISH WHISKEY

BUSHMILLS10 Years Old--80 Proof $26.99; 16.4. Single malt Irish whiskey distilled and bottled by the "Old Bushmills" Distillery, County of Antrim, Ireland. Brown Forman, Louisville, Ky. No touches of peat in Irish malting; direct barley perfumes.

SPEYSIDE MALTS

THE GLENLIVET12 Years Old--86 Proof. $21.99; 19.3. Distilled by George & J.G. Smith, The Glenlivet Distillers Ltd. Edinburgh, Scotland. Imported by Seagrams. The quintessential single malt and a big winner. Classic style and taste.

BANFF1976. 61.1%/vol. Single cask Cadenhead bottling. $78; 18.3. Bottled by William Cadenhead Ltd. of Campbeltown. Imported by Preiss Imports, Santa Fe Springs. Outstanding merit; classic style with gentle peaty hints.

CRAGGANMORE12 Years Old--80 Proof. $34.95; 18.1. Distillery Cragganmore, Ballindalloch. Imported by Schenley Imports Co., New York. Long and lovely, with an inviting, heathery nose.

GLENBURGIE1978. 59.8%/vol. Single Cask Cadenhead bottling. $74; 18. Distilled at the Glenburgie-Glenlivet Distillery, Forres, Moreyshire. Imported by Preiss Imports, Santa Fe Springs. Subtle richness; elegant.

DALWHINNIE15 Years Old--86 Proof. $32.99; 17.8. James Buchanan Co. Distillers, Glasgow. Imported by Schenley Imports Co., New York. Appetizingly smoky in its aromatic address; soft finesse.

CARDHU12 Years Old--80 Proof. $25.99; 17.1. Distilled and bottled by The Cardhu Distillery, Knockando, Moreyshire, Scotland. Imported by Schieffelin & Somerset Co., New York. Honey, heather and vanilla give the nose happy discovery.

AUCHROISK--"THE SINGLETON"10 Years Old--86 Proof. $34.99; 16.6. Auchroisk Distillery, Banffshire, Scotland. Imported by the Paddington Corp. Ft. Lee, N.J. Gentle elegance here, with hints of honey in bouquet.

THE GLENDRONACH "ORIGINAL"12 Years Old--86 Proof. $34.95; 16.6. The Glendronach Distillery Co. Ltd. Aberdeenshire, Scotland. Imported by Hiram Walker & Sons, Farmington Hills, Mich. Smoke and wood are the lead-in, with full intrigue in finish.

ABERLOUR--GLENLIVET10 Years Old--86 Proof. $24.95; 16.5. Aberlour Glenlivet Distillery Co. Ltd. Aberlour Speyside. Imported by Austin Nichols & Co. Inc., New York. Classic Speyside golden whiskey; touches of peat, wood, smoke.

THE BALVENIE "CLASSIC"12 Years Old--86 Proof. $38.99; 16.5. Produced and bottled by William Grant & Sons Ltd. The Balvenie Distillery, Banffshire. William Grant & Sons, New York. Unique in its golden charms; the nose suggests hazelnuts.

THE MACALLAN12 Years Old--86 Proof. $28.99; 16.5. Matured in sherry wood. Distilled and bottled by the Macallan Distillers Ltd. Craigellachie. Remy Amerique Inc., New York. Rich, golden whiskey of popular appeal; lively tang.

GLENFIDDICH86 Special Reserve Proof. $20.99; 16. The Glenfiddich Distillery, Banffshire, Scotland. William Grant & Sons, New York. Pale, golden brilliance; classic nose suggests oatmeal.

THE MACALLAN18 Years Old--86 Proof. $49.95; 16. Matured in sherry wood. Distilled and bottled by the Macallan Distillers Ltd. Craigellachie. Remy Amerique Inc., New York. Rich, amber, golden whiskey that's mellow-smooth on the palate.

CAMPBELTOWN MALTS

SPRINGBANK46%/vol. 30 Years Old. $385; 19.9. Malted, distilled, aged and bottled at the distillery by J. & A. Mitchell, Campbeltown, Argyll. Imported by Preiss Imports, Santa Fe Springs. Liquid gold, round, gentle, beguiling in all aspects.

SPRINGBANK46%/vol. 21 Years Old. $77.99; 19.1. From the Springbank barley area of Campbeltown, cask-strength golden whiskey that reminds you of its malted barley beginnings. Water releases the ester-atoms of bouquet, enriching the whole taste experience.

SPRINGBANK46%/vol. 15 Years Old. $54.99; 18.6. Pale golden whiskey, smooth in taste, gentle in persona.

SPRINGBANK46%/vol. 25 Years old. $127.99; 18.3. Time has enriched the whiskey's nose, adding hints of spice and herbs.

SPRINGBANK46%/vol. 12 Years old. $39.95; 17.5. Pale golden in color, but with a full bouquet of barley and fruit.

GLEN SCOTIA1977. 58.4%/vol. Single Cask Cadenhead bottling. $83; 17.3. Distilled at the Glen Scotia Distillery, Campbeltown, Argyll. Bottled by William Cadenhead Ltd. of Campbeltown. Imported by Preiss Imports. Stylish in its finish, pale to view, but with a classic nose of heather and peat.

WESTERN MALTS

TALISKERIsle of Skye 10 Years Old--91.6 Proof. $33.99; 17.9. Distilled and bottled by Talisker Distillery, Carbost, Skye. Imported by Schenley Imports Co., New York. Refreshing as a sea breeze, which influenced its birth as whiskey.

OBAN"Little Bay of Caves" 14 Years Old--86 Proof. $32.99; 16. Oban Distillery, Gran Argyll, Scotland. Imported by Schenley Imports Co., New York. Gentle, golden whiskey, perhaps for afternoon idylls.

ISLAY MALTS

BRUICHLADDICH1969. 54.4%/vol. Single Cask Cadenhead. $144; 18.6. Distilled at Bruichladdich Distillery, Bruichladdich, Argyll. Bottled by William Cadenhead Ltd. Campbeltown. Imported by Preiss Imports, Santa Fe Springs. Not medicinal Islay in style, but more gentle in taste; subtle.

ARDBERG1974. 56.8%/vol. Single Cask Cadenhead bottling. $86; 18. Distilled at Ardberg Distillery, Port Ellen, Islay, Argyll. Bottled by William Cadenhead Ltd. Campbeltown. Imported by Preiss Imports. Hints of currant jam in taste and smoke in nose.

PORT ELLEN1981. 63.9%/vol. Single Cask Cadenhead bottling. $67; 18. Distilled by Port Ellen Distillery, Port Ellen, Islay, Argyll. Bottled by William Cadenhead Ltd. Campbeltown. Imported by Preiss Imports, . Classic Islay whiskey, redolent of sea-spray. Big.

LAGAVULIN16 Years Old--86 Proof. $38.99; 17.5. White Horse Distillers, Glasgow. Imported by Schenley Imports Co., New York. Wholly harmonious; elements from sherry, the sea, oak and smoke.

LAPHROAIG10 Years Old--86 Proof. $33.99; 16. Distilled and bottled by D. Johnston & Co (Laphroaig) Isle of Islay. Imported by Hiram Walker & Sons, Farmington Hills, Mich. A worldwide favorite for its style, recalling the sea, the mists, iodine suggestions, but all in smooth tranquillity.

Also Tasted: Glenkinchie 10 Years, $32.99; Ardmore 1978, $75; Glen Garioch 1975, $84; The Glendronach (sherry casks), $34.95; Knockando 13 Years, $28.99.

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