PM Spirits

Single Malts, but Don’t Call Them Scotch

PM Spirits

By ERIC ASIMOV 
MAY 12, 2016

It’s as Scottish as Robert Burns, tartans and the wail of the pipes. I mean whisky, of course, single malt in particular. The proverbial wee dram is a romance in heather and smoke, fascinating the world over yet always traced back to the foggy glens of Scotland.

Actually, that last bit is not true, and it hasn’t been for years. Single malts may always be associated with Scotland, but now they are of the world, made in every continent but Antarctica and all over the United States. The Japanese have been making single malts for decades, and the rest of the world is catching up.

How can Scotch be made outside of Scotland? It can’t. By law, a whisky can only be called Scotch if it is distilled in Scotland according to a set of specific rules. But single malt whiskey can be distilled anywhere.

navazos_palazzi_malt_whisky

No. 1: Navazos Palazzi Malt Whisky Spain Single Palo Cortado Cask Credit Tony Cenicola/The New York Times Noting the growing number of malt whiskies from unexpected origins, the Food section tasting panel recently sampled 20 single malts from anywhere but Scotland. We found bottles from Japan and Taiwan, from India and Canada, from the United States and all over Europe, including Ireland, which insists on using its traditional spelling “whiskey,” unlike the rest of the single-malt producing universe, which, in deference to its inspiration, follows the Scottish usage of whisky.

For the tasting, Florence Fabricant and I were joined by Sean Josephs, whose restaurants, Maysville in New York and Kenton’s in New Orleans, have exceptional selections of whiskies, and David Wondrich, the drinks correspondent for Esquire, who has written many books on cocktails and spirits.

Our 20 bottles represented a mere sliver of the non-Scottish single malts available. We could have easily filled our quota solely from Japan, if price were no object. But we operate with an upward limit of $100 per bottle; many Japanese single malts have achieved cult status around the world and now sell for hundreds of dollars each.

Even those that qualified for our tasting weren’t so cheap. Seven of the 20 bottles cost $80 to $100, and nine more were upward of $50. That’s a lot of money, especially since many excellent single malts from Scotland are available for less than $50. Is it novelty alone that would inspire paying $55 for a whisky from India or $85 for a malt from deep in the heart of Texas?

Certainly, we thought these whiskies offered something exceptional. We all agreed that this was a fascinating tasting, with an unusual breadth of flavors and styles. Whether they are good values is an individual decision. But the tasting showed that producing whisky under different circumstances can produce distinctive results in, say, warmer climates than Scotland’s or Ireland’s, where it will age at a different rate.

“The traditional approach has been so well traveled,” Sean said. “If these new approaches can be harnessed, it could really broaden the style.”

First, though, a definition: Single malt is simply whisky made from only water and malted barley at a single distillery. In Scotland, single malts are distinguished from blended Scotch, the province of familiar names like Johnnie Walker, Dewar’s and Chivas Regal, which are a blend of one or more single malts with whiskies distilled from other grains. Another category, blended malt Scotch, which used to be called vatted malts, is a blend of two or more single malts.

 

No. 2: The Lord Lieutenant Kinahan’s Single Malt Irish Whiskey 10 Years Credit Tony Cenicola/The New York Times
The formula for single malts can be transported wherever barley will grow and water flows. Ireland, which, in the murky mists of time, has a claim at least equal to Scotland’s as the inventor of whiskey, makes as many types as Scotland. In its purest traditional form, Irish whiskey is distilled from a blend of malted and unmalted barley. Until recently, single malt Irish whiskey, made from only malted barley, was fairly rare. But with the worldwide popularity of single malt, Irish distillers seem now to have invested in the style.

So have other countries with whisky-making traditions. The United States, where the major grains for whisky have long been corn and rye, has been drawn to barley single malts. It’s not clear whether all the countries making whiskies have rules governing single malt, but distillers with integrity will stick to the traditional definition, which includes aging the whisky in oak barrels for at least three years.

For start-up distillers, aging is the tough part. Whisky needs to mature. But the longer it rests in barrels, the longer the wait to sell. Making whisky is also a craft. As with gin, which requires a delicately balanced formula and a careful hand, small so-called artisanal distillers without much experience do not necessarily make better whiskies than seasoned producers.

In the tasting, the biggest problem we found was inconsistency. Some were exceptional, while others seemed as if they were unfortunate experiments by hobbyists. David, in particular, was disturbed.

“Only a few here have fully matured and hit their stride,” he said. “Some are too young and are not ready for drinking. It makes me mad that they are charging top dollar for whiskies not ready to drink.”

David said he believed even these distillers will improve over time. “Scotland will have competition on their hands, as they already do with Japan, where they know what they’re doing,” he said.

 

No. 3: The Hakushu Single Malt Whisky Japan 12 Years Credit Tony Cenicola/The New York Times
Our overall favorite was from Navazos Palazzi in Spain, a joint venture between Equipo Navazos, the excellent sherry négociant, and Nicolas Palazzi, a spirits bottler. This is a singular whisky, a single barrel selected by the bottlers from a Spanish distillery, complex and savory with a hint of the sherry cask in which it was aged. I don’t expect to ever see it again, but it’s a great example of the quality that can be achieved. It, by the way, was one of two whiskies in our top 10 that were about 53 percent alcohol, calling for dilution with a little water.

No. 2, a 10-year-old Irish single malt from Lord Lieutenant Kinahan’s, was smooth, mellow, complex and lovely, while No. 3, a 12-year-old Japanese single malt from Hakushu, was exuberant and multilayered. These were among only three bottles in our top 10 with age statements, indicating that most of these whiskies were, indeed, being bottled young, both to meet demand and to increase cash flow.

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No. 4, the Tyrconnell Irish single malt, was well balanced and complex. At $30, it was by far our best value. The only American malt in our top 10 was the Balcones, from Waco, Tex., No. 5 on our list, tasting of toffee, cream and an array of herbs and spices. It was the other cask-strength malt, and likewise calls for a little water. No. 6 was the Armorik Breton from Warenghem in France, a spicy, floral malt with a rich, oily texture.

Other malts worth noting were the gentle, inviting Amrut from India, the clean and balanced Kavalan from Taiwan, and the Reisetbauer from the Austrian distiller better known for beautiful eau de vies. The Reisetbauer was the most polarizing in our tasting. Both Sean and David felt it was too young and primary, but I really enjoyed how the flavors developed and lingered.

Not to belabor the point, but the shelves of fine spirits shops hold many more of these unconventional single malts. Assuming the price is right, they are well worth exploring. A century for now, sipping a single malt may cause a reverie of Texas or Taiwan.

Tasting Report

★★★ Navazos Palazzi Malt Whisky Spain Single Palo Cortado Cask 52.5 percent $100

Complex and savory, with wide-ranging flavors of toffee, clover, butter, iron and salt. (U.S.A. Wine Imports, New York)

★★★ Lord Lieutenant Kinahan’s Single Malt Irish Whiskey 10 Years 46 percent $62

Smooth and appealing, with mellow flavors of fruit, flowers, butterscotch and spices. (Winebow, New York)

★★★ Hakushu Single Malt Whisky Japan 12 Years 43 percent $85

Bursting with sweet aromas and flavors of fruit and flowers, herbs, soy and vanilla. (Suntory U.S.A., New York)

Best Value

★★★ Tyrconnell Single Malt Irish Whiskey 40 percent $30

Mellow, with lingering flavors of wax, cream, iodine and licorice. (Kilbeggan, Deerfield, Ill.)

★★★ Balcones Single Malt Whisky Texas 53 percent $85

Complex, with dominant flavors of toffee, cream and caramel, supported by herbs and spices.

★★★ Warenghem Armorik Breton Single Malt Whisky France 46 percent $52

Spicy and floral, with an oily texture and flavors of apple blossoms, cream and smoke. (Heavenly Spirits, Lakeville, Mass.)

★★½ Bastille 1789 Single Malt Whisky France 43 percent $70

Young and powerful, with savory, spicy, medicinal flavors. (Palm Bay International, Boca Raton, Fla.)

★★½ Amrut Indian Single Malt Whisky 46 percent $55

Gentle and inviting, with flavors of cinnamon, licorice, vanilla and butter. (Purple Valley Imports, Pittsburgh)

★★½ Kavalan Classic Single Malt Whisky Taiwan 43 percent $100

Clean and balanced, with mellow flavors of vanilla, spices and smoke. (Anchor Distilling, San Francisco)

★★ Reisetbauer Single Malt Whisky Austria 7 Years Chardonnay and Trockenbeerenauslese Barrels 43 percent $90

Polarizing, with aromas of fruit and lingering flavors of lanolin, wax, heather and salt. (Skurnik Wines, New York)

Recipe Pairing: Almond-Apricot Tart

Terroir matters. What stood out in these single malts made anywhere but Scotland was their general lack of smokiness. Sweeter, nuttier touches came through instead, with hints of brown butter. It was a game changer for food pairing. The whiskies would be lovely to sip with dessert instead of with a platter of smoked salmon canapés. And not necessarily confections of chocolate or coffee, my preferred flavors for accompanying Scotch. Almonds and apricots were my choice, bound in a filling that suggested frangipane and depended on mascarpone. The tart can be served at room temperature, chilled or lightly warmed. FLORENCE FABRICANT