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Reading Between the Wines: a beginner's guide to whisky

Burns supper is a great excuse to have a whisky, but whether you are going to be addressing your haggis or not, if you don’t know your malt whisky yet, you really should!

Whisky can have subtle fruity, floral, herbaceous and earthy flavours
Whisky can have subtle fruity, floral, herbaceous and earthy flavours

There are a number of arguments in support of giving malt whisky a go. First, is ‘national pride’ (if that’s your thing). Unlike modern kilts, tartanry, pipes and other nonsense introduced to Scotland in the Victorian times, whisky is something that is truly, and historically Scottish. Sure, we make it a little more lavishly than the home-stilled moonshine of old, but the principles, methods and ingredients are all the same.

Second, it is a big industry for us, and great for both local and national economies – we should do what we can to support it!

Thirdly, and most importantly, it invariably tastes really, really nice. I cannot think of one example of a single malt whisky that I would say “no” to the offer of (I cannot say the same for wine and beer). Our malt whisky industry has incredibly high production standards, and I feel safe to proclaim that Scotland produces the finest malt whiskies in the world

Whisky, however, is an acquired taste. If you are new to it, it can be very strong, acerbic, fiery and overwhelming. Once you are used to this, you can start to appreciate these characteristics alongside the more subtle flavours, which can be fruity, floral, herbaceous, earthy, or any number of weird and wonderful combinations. You will often hear people say that they “don’t like whisky”. I think this is never accurate; they just “don’t like whisky yet”.

In order to help those who ‘do not yet like whisky’, it is handy to know a few good ‘starter malts’; malts that aren’t too expensive, have some interesting regional qualities, but are countered with a gentler character. My recommendations below come without shop listings as you can find them readily in most good retailers (and pubs, if you want to try a measure instead). Prices vary, so you can shop around, although it is useful to note that specialist whisky shops often have a few bits and bobs open for tasting behind the counter – provided you are nice to them!

Single malt whisky is (quite broadly) regionalised into: Lowland; Speyside; Highland; Island; and Islay. Sadly, Lowland malts are far apart and few between these days. Famous for mellow but richly floral whiskies, this region only has a few distilleries in operation. Being a Glasgow boy, I’d point you towards a bottle of Auchentoshan 12 year old, from out Clydebank way. It’s a fabulously relaxed (and relaxing) malt: smooth, gentle, creamy and nutty, with a zingy, cigar-box finish.

There are dozens of distilleries, densely packed along the banks of the river Spey. These mostly produce whiskies which are beautifully honeyed and rich, as well as fresh, grassy and citrusy, representing the softest regional style. I like the Cragganmore 12 year old, as it has these classic Speyside qualities, but with an emphasis on treacly richness alongside a spicy, warming finish that lasts.

The term ‘Highland malts’ covers a huge area stretching from pretty far down the country (the bottom end of Loch Lomond) up to the very northernmost ends of the Mainland (Wick). Understandably, the styles throughout this area vary. As we’re speaking about Wick anyway, why not try their local tipple, Old Pulteney 12 year old? This is coastal malt, with honey, pine and a hint of seaweed on the nose, a surprisingly sweet and soothing flavour, and a finish of fresh sea air.

Island malts hail from all over – Arran, Mull, Jura, Skye, Orkney, and more recently (since 2007), Lewis. Hopefully, one day there will be a working distillery on every island! Again these malts vary in style, but Highland Park 12 year old is famous for being a good, approachable all-rounder in the flavour stakes: dried fruits, roasted hazelnut, rich treacle, and a hint of peat smoke – nom, nom, nom!

Finally, Islay. This island is the home of powerful, pungent and peated malt, and has so many big-name distilleries that it gets its own category! If you are a beginner, beware that some of the whiskies from Islay are among the most intensely flavoured things you will ever taste. If uninitiated, start with something a little more reserved like the Bunnahabhain 12 year old. It has a lovely coastal aspect, with a wee note of smokiness, but has a lovely, warming flavour that really shows off its rich sherry finish.

Whichever of these you try, have it neat – no ice, no water – and sip yourself happy!

Reading Between the Wines: what to drink with spicy foods

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