Last week I was asked about what is the best Scottish Malt Whisky. Note that that I do not call it Scotch or even Scotch Malt whisky, and there is no “e” in whisky here unless it’s the plural “whiskies”. Indeed, calling it “Scotch” is considered an insult in Scotland. Why? Well would you go to France and ask for a “Frenchie Cognac”? See what I mean!?
Getting back to the question… I replied, as my Dad always does (and he used to give lectures on Whisky) that there is no such thing as a bad Malt whisky, it’s all just a matter of taste. Personally, there are 2 whiskies that I really don’t like; Talisker and Glenfarclas. Now that’s not to say that they are bad whiskies, they just don’t tickle my palate. For me, and I am only speaking for me, I usually gravitate towards the west coast whiskies and would always put Ardbeg, Bruichladdich and Springbank in my top 10. I’m also partial to a couple from the east coast and really enjoy Clynelish and, its sadly deceased neighbour, Brora. Of course, there’s more whisky out there than I’ll ever be able to taste, but I’m doing my best to research them all.
A great place to do some serious research is the Scottish Malt Whisky Society in Leith. The Leith branch is located in what looks like an old warehouse near the docks. It has a lovely tasting room for members that is much like a Gentleman’s Club with comfy leather armchairs, dark red painted walls and wood panelling. The Society offers a vast range of malts, but the cunning thing is that none of them are labelled with the name of the distillery, they just receive a number. So how do you know what you are drinking? Well if you know your whisky you can deduce the source of the cask, because you are supplied with a “menu” list of the whiskies that gives cryptic clues to the distillery of origin. For example a Bowmore might be described as “Supplied by the distillery where the church has no corners!”. Bowmore has an unusual circular church which was designed this way so the devil had no corners in which to hide. Well that’s the story!
So why don’t they just tell you the name of the distillery? Well the society buys individual casks direct from distilleries and each cask can vary considerably in taste due to a variety of factors, but mainly due to the character and former contents of the cask. As a result, the casks that you can taste at the SMWS are not necessarily representative of the whisky that the distillery sells. This variation in the casks doesn’t matter to the distillery as they blend their casks to produce a consistent flavour of whisky that they can market.
When I last visited the society I asked for a Lagavulin and the waitress (a rather modest title for a lady with a vast knowledge of whisky) warned me that it wasn’t a good cask and instead questioned me on what aspects of a Lagavulin I liked. I told her I was looking for something with the same complex, rich, sweet and peaty flavours and she immediately suggested I try their cask of Brora. She was spot on with her assessment so I wanted to know how she managed to be so good at her job. Apparently, when she started at the Society she was presented each day with 6 malts and had to blind taste them until she could correctly identify each of them. The next day she got another 6 malts and so on, and so on. Man, how I’d love that job!