Single malt whisky
I start with a confession
This is the first time I have written about the pleasures of sipping single malts. Of course, whisky is immensely popular in my native country, France (which may or may not have something to do with the ‘Auld Alliance’), and for most of the men in my family, and several of the women, whisky has always been the favourite apéritif.
But for me, a single malt was something a bit intimidating, to be enjoyed in Scotland as an unusual, almost exotic drink, rather like a glass of chilled tawny port in Portugal. Observant readers will note that I use the past tense. My recent tastings of Waitrose single malts have won me over. Gone are the days when a wee dram of malt was an almost medicinal nightcap, to be sipped only once or twice a year late on a wintry evening.
A single malt is always produced in just one distillery and consists of three main ingredients – fine malted barley, pure water and yeast to turn the sugars in the barley into alcohol. From this deceptively simple recipe, amazingly complex flavours are created, as the ingredients make their journey through fermentation, distillation and maturation to become fine whisky. Waitrose’s single malts are specially selected to represent the region they are from.
All distilled, matured and bottled in Scotland, they reflect the characteristics of its different malt-producing areas and the unique and different qualities of their water, soil and environment.
From Speyside come the sweetest whiskies. They are relatively light-bodied compared to other Highland whiskies, their flavours rich and complex, with fruity, almost honeyed notes. Their aroma is delicate and subtle. Malts from the islands of Skye, Jura, Mull and Orkney are characterised by a peaty, smoky aroma and flavour. Islay malts are the weightiest and most pungent and therefore generally the easiest to identify. They take their characteristics both from the peat used to dry the barley and their closeness to the sea. These factors give them what is often described as a seaweedy, iodine taste and a distinctive peaty flavour.
You don’t have to be an expert to appreciate single malts. One good way to sample a range of whiskies is to have a tasting party with friends – and Burns Night on 25 January (celebrating the great poet’s birthday) provides an ideal excuse.
Normal party rules apply, so make sure you have something to nibble on as you taste (see ideas overleaf). Food will also help you to soak up some of the alcohol. As well as your chosen malts, have several bottles of room-temperature still water to dilute the whiskies and to refresh your palate in between tastings. You’ll also need plenty of clean glasses. Allow three per person – two for tasting (it’s nice to hold on to a whisky and compare it to the next one) and one for water. Rather than straight whisky tumblers, I use tulip-shaped wine glasses because they are more suitable for nosing aromas. Line up your handsome malt bottles with their smart boxes behind them – the descriptions on the boxes and labels are both evocative and descriptive and make good reading as you sip the whiskies.
When you are ready to start, only pour a ‘finger’ of malt (about 35ml) in the base of the glass – a finger is the breadth of your horizontal finger from the base of the glass. Dilute it with a splash of still bottled water, such as Highland Spring, using a bit less water than malt. You’re in for a delicious surprise: the aromas always come out more strongly once the whisky has been ‘cut’ with water – you could say that the ‘spirit’ has been freed. Now put your hand over the glass, swirl, then remove your hand and inhale sharply two or three times. Don’t be shy – ‘nosing’ is the traditional way to compare and assess the qualities of spirits. Make a note of its characteristics. Now take a sip, and do the same for taste. Welcome to the world of whisky!
Aberlour A'bunadh single malt, £32.98/70cl
Aberlour A'bunadh is a natural, single cask strength malt whisky which is a fine after-dinner drink.
Buy it here
Balvenie Doublewood single malt, £31.24/70cl
This shows soft oloroso notes, with honey & vanilla. On the palate it's nutty with a touch of cinnamon.
Buy it here
Glen Moray whisky single malt, £18.99/70cl
A complex and characterful whisky light gold in colour, and gently spiced with butterscotch notes.
Buy it here
Glenlivet 12 YO single malt whisky, £28.40/70cl
Pale gold in colour, this Speyside malt has a fresh and light nose and a mellow, rounded flavour.
Buy it here
Scrambled egg and black pudding blinis
Scramble 2 eggs with butter and season with freshly ground black pepper. Divide between 12 cocktail blinis. Place cooked slices of individual Bury black pudding (from the Meat Service Counter) on top of the scrambled egg.
Smoked salmon canapés
Top Nairn’s Mini Oatcakes with a dollop of cream cheese and slivers of Scottish smoked salmon and a small sprig of dill. Season with freshly ground black pepper.
Smoked mackerel and horseradish wafers
Top Millers Damsel Wafer Thins with Waitrose Smoked Mackerel Fillets, flaked, and dab some creamed horseradish on top. Season with freshly ground black pepper.
Haggis and celeriac mash mini cups
Peel, chop and boil a small celeriac. Drain then coarsely mash and stir into a cooked 450g pack Waitrose Mashed Potato. Season generously. Serve in individual coffee cups or teacups, with a topping of cooked haggis (vegetarian or traditional).
This article was first published on Waitrose.com in February 2005