Single malt whisky 101

Updated: 4 Sep 2013

Choosing to go single, when it comes to whisky drinking, is a trendier choice these days and one that is encouraged by Kitty Kaye who shares some basics about its sophisticated character.

What is it?
Unlike blended whisky that comes from blending several whiskies from different distilleries, the single malt variety is exclusively from one distillery and only using malted grain of barley and in America, it’s commonly rye. This means, the pressure to get the flavour right is higher since they can’t mix and match to come up with something good.

A vital ingredient
That would be water! Since malting requires the grains to be soaked in water for days, the distillery’s water source is of utmost importance. It influences not only the whisky’s flavour but also its smoothness. Therefore, places with natural, crystal-clear, unpolluted spring water become the best producers of this highly-favoured, amber hued drink.

Best places on earth for singles
To date, the best producers for single malts are Scotland, Ireland and Japan. It’s been said that their natural spring water are unprecedented in terms of quality.

On the palate
Single malts are generally more refined in flavour and texture as compared to the blended kind. It’s praised for its smooth as silk texture, gentler aromas and ‘polite’, unobtrusive flavours. Rule of thumb here is, the longer it’s aged, the easier to drink it becomes. Single malt whiskies normally come in either 18, 16 or 12. There are, of course, those that are over 20 or even the rare 30-year old ones – just be ready to pay the price for a helluva good sip!

The 12-year old is a good introduction to single malt's personality

Scotch, Irish or Japanese?
Unlike a decade or two ago, single malt whiskies were virtually unheard of here in Malaysia. Today, there are tens if not hundreds from which to choose. Scotch whiskies are aplenty including triple distilled Auchentoshan (pronounced as ow-ken-to-shan) that’s more delicate than most in flavour, the fruity-caramel Glen Garioch (glen gee-ry) from the highlands, the effortless-to-drink Glenrothes and peaty Bowmore from Islay’s first distillery (an island of Scotland known for producing excellent single malt whisky). The Irish and Japanese are smaller in choice – the surprising Connemara with its masculine scent but feminine flavours and a few Japanese ones including the exquisite grand dame, 30-year old Hibiki and the elegant 12 or 18-year old Yamazaki.

Older, when it comes to whisky, is always smoother

Age does matter
While it’s all well and good to sip on an 18 or 20-something year old single malt whisky, it can be hard on the wallet. The youngest of the variety is normally the 12-year old and it’s a good introduction to a single malt whisky’s personality, texture and flavour. Once you’ve identified a brand you like at this age, move up to the 18-year old that's usually 20 per cent less in terms of pungent alcoholic flavour, a little higher in terms of peatiness and 20 per cent higher in terms of smoothness and caramel sweetness. As you go to older ones, there’s practically no rough edges and it’s very simply silk, crème brulee, oak and fruity (yes, it’s most surprising).

To begin with
A measure of your chosen single malt whisky will bloom with a splash of cool still water. Some prefer to have it on the rocks (ice cubes) and others with a dash of soda water. There are no hard and fast rules but dilute it a little because drinking it neat will highlight its 40 per cent alcohol content – which can be lethal. While being single is loads of fun in most bars around Penang, places such as The Den and Vino Vino Bistro specialise in it and Seafront Dining has a wide range of it.

Tags: Features