What I did not know or fully appreciate until reading Clay Risen’s instructive and entertaining Single Malt: A Guide to the Whiskies of Scotland is that my own experience was typical. A telling landmark discussed by Risen was the publication of Michael Jackson’s The World Guide to Whisky, the first edition of which appeared in 1987, two years after my stint as a bartender only able to offer a handful of the usual blends plus the lonely Glenlivet. At that time, single malts accounted for about five percent of total Scotch whisky production, with very few options available, especially in the United States, and just five distilleries accounting for over 75 percent of the already small sales. (Yes, Glenlivet among them.) Jackson’s book revealed that there was a world of whisky out there, and subsequent editions have reflected the expanding options of whiskies from around the world and a spin-off volume devoted to the single malts of Scotland is now in its seventh edition. Today, single malts still only account for about 10 percent of Scotch whisky, but the production volume is much larger and, more importantly, so are the number of different whiskies on offer. Even after restricting himself to those single malts widely accessible in the United States, Risen’s book contains tasting notes for over 330 single malts from about 75 distillers.
What is a single malt whisky? Above I used the term “blended whisky” to distinguish Dewar’s from Glenlivet 12, but actually almost all single malt whiskies are blended. Very few of the whiskies Risen reviews are what bourbon lovers would call “single barrel,” that is whisky taken from, well, a single barrel. Instead, almost all single malt whiskies include spirit taken from numerous barrels and usually from distillations of different ages. Distillers do so in part in order to ensure a relatively common product over time, so that the Oban 14 you enjoyed five years ago is similar to the one you are eagerly anticipating drinking tonight. But they do so mostly to produce the intended end result. The ability to imagine how often very different ur-spirits can be combined to create a final product that is in turn often very different from its component parts makes up the magical art of the whisky blender. About 90 percent of whisky distilled goes into what is usually labeled “blended scotch whisky,” with over 3,000 products by recent count, ranging in quality from the bottom shelf to the top. As Risen explains, although some of these blended whiskies are worthy rivals of single malts, there are simply too many to review. The remaining 10 percent of production are destined for single malts.
In order for a whisky to qualify as a single malt, it must meet three legal criteria: first, it must be made exclusively of malted barley, yeast, and water, and only those three ingredients (with the exception of trace amounts of caramel, for coloring only); second, it must be aged for at least three years in an oak cask in Scotland; third, it must be made at a single distillery in Scotland. What is astonishing about single malts, as well as whiskies in general, is how many variations can be composed from so few, and such simple ingredients. How the barley is processed produces the major variations, notably whether the barley is dried using peat (decomposed organic matter, mostly moss, dug out of Scotland’s many bogs), and the cooperage, namely what kind of wood casks are used to age the whisky, including whether it was previously employed to house bourbon, sherry, port, et cetera, and how long it is aged. However, even the shape of the still alters the profile of the spirit, largely due to how long the distillate is in contact with the copper with which it interacts. And then there are factors beyond the distiller’s control, including the vagaries of the weather, since the expansion and contraction of the casks due to variations in temperature will affect the spirit.
In his brief history of Scotch, Risen includes one overarching lesson: single malts are a happy accident of history. This is apt since the leading theorist of the unintended consequences of economic markets and public policy was himself a Scot: Adam Smith. But even though the author of The Wealth of Nations discussed international wine markets to illustrate his theories, he did not have a single drop of single malt before his demise in 1790. For a simple reason: It did not exist. Yes, whisky could be had in Smith’s time, and for about three centuries beforehand, but it scarcely resembled single malt. To borrow a term from Appalachia (a region largely settled by Scots on the wrong side of history): it was “white lightning.” Unaged distillate of whatever grain, even fruit or vegetable, could be coaxed to produce alcohol. The querulous Highlanders were known for their consumption of uisge-beatha, meaning “water of life” in Gaelic, corresponding to eau de vie in French and similar terms in other languages that attest to the vital importance of distilled beverages. I first met with the term in reading Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley, which I did while on a tour of the distilleries of Scotland. Scott’s novel was published in 1814 and is widely recognized as the first historical novel, with a story set during the Jacobite uprising of 1745 and featuring an English army officer seduced by the hospitable and tragically romantic Highland clans, whose exotic ways included drinking uisge-beatha. His novel does not relate the historical anecdote that the Scottish troops were administered the Eucharist with whisky and oat cakes on the eve of the climactic battle of the uprising. Perhaps the next day would have turned out differently if it had been a single malt.
Whisky was first introduced into Scotland during medieval times from Ireland. Tradition has it that none other than St. Patrick brought whisky to the emerald island during the fifth century. As Risen notes, the legend is exceedingly improbable given that the technology for distilling alcohol did not exist in the European West until centuries later, with the requisite alembic still introduced from the Arabic world (hence “al-embic” and “al-cohol”). Pesky facts. I say we double-down on the legend by adding that the patron saint of Ireland used whisky as fuel to fire his cleansing the island of snakes. The first written mention of whisky in Scotland does not occur until 1495, specifically in the royal finance rolls. Indeed, attempts to tax and regulate whisky production would turn out to be an important factor in the history of single malts, once again by way of unintended consequences. Onerous taxation chased distillers into the hills, just as would happen a couple of centuries later in Appalachia, with the same result: high-octane moonshine. Only after a set of laws dating from around the same time as the publication of Waverley and designed to encourage legal distillation did whisky slowly begin to become what we would recognize today.
Economic and political disasters turned out to be the crucible in which single malts were forged over the next few decades. Overproduction of whisky led to a sudden crash in the waning years of the 19th century, with countless distilleries boarded up and the supply reduced to a trickle. Not a single new distillery was built until 1949. Production in 1900 was 37.1 million proof gallons (a proof gallon being the equivalent of one gallon of spirits at 100 proof), but by 1932 it was 285,418 proof gallons. The dinosaurs fared better! The seven hobbling survivors simultaneously faced a series of laws intended to restrict production, in part the fruit of policies stemming from the temperance movement (though happily not resulting in an 18th Amendment to Albion’s unwritten constitution). Importantly for our story of unintended consequences, however, the laws regulating the ingredients, distillation, and aging of whiskies in order to reduce production and consumption of Satan’s favorite drink created the conditions for single malts’ eventual flourishing. A main villain of the story, turned hero by the unforeseen outcomes of his policies, was David Lloyd George. First in his role as chancellor of the Exchequer and then as prime minister during the Great War, the teetotaling Welsh politician followed up his regulation of the opening hours of pubs (still in partial effect today) by unleashing his animus against whisky, claiming that the unbridled consumption by workers in munitions factories and other wartime industries threatened national security. He probably wasn’t entirely wrong. The man credited with founding the modern welfare state in Britain thereby unwittingly elevated the status and quality of whisky, encouraging the production of a more mature, rounded, and complex spirit. The industry survived the Depression and a second World War to find an expanding world market, including in the United States. As noted earlier, single malts still accounted for a very small fraction of production and distribution, but at least they existed to be discovered and nurtured toward the end of the 20th century by Michael Jackson and Clay Risen, and me and you.
Risen’s book was written to educate the novice or intermediate enthusiast of single malt whiskies and to enrich the drinking experience. The format of the book is basically the same as his earlier guide to American Whiskey, Bourbon & Rye, which I reviewed for these pages five years ago and still heartily recommend. The introductory portion of the book includes a discussion of what defines single malt scotch, an account of the process by which it is made, a brief history of Scotch, a survey of the regions in which it is produced, and then recommendations on how to taste whisky. Risen suggests tasting whiskies both with and without a dash of water, and I have become convinced from diligent practice that the difference is often quite striking. The lion’s share of the book is then devoted to “Whisky Accounts”: profiles of over 330 different “expressions” of single malt. The term “expressions” was new to me, but it denotes each separate version of a single malt produced by a distiller. For example, Risen reviews eight expressions from Macallan, some varying by age (12, 15, 17, and 18 years), others by cooperage (“Double Cask,” aged in both American and European oak casks seasoned with sherry, and “Fine Oak 10,” bearing an age statement as well), and still others essentially by alcohol content (“Classic Cut,” Macallan’s term for what is often labeled “cask strength”). The profiles contain a brief discussion of the history of the distillery, the specific information about each expression, detailed tasting notes, an indication of price, and, finally, a summary rating (from “Not Recommended” to four stars).
Risen freely admits that the tasting notes and ratings are subjective, reflecting his own palate and preferences. As when I reviewed his earlier book, I assembled an expert panel to conduct a tasting, and we sampled one whisky from each of the six regions Risen identifies. As before, we found Risen’s tasting notes for the whiskies to be more nuanced than our less educated palates, or less vivid imaginations, could discern or describe. For example, the notes on the aroma (“nose”) for one of the whiskies we tried: “Raisins, rich honey, figs, fresh flowers, raspberries, rum cake, and pecans; water turns the honey note a bit spicy.” Maybe. Perhaps to aid me and my fellow novitiates, Risen includes a table of typical tasting aromas and flavors arranged into groups such as Peat, Wood, Spice, Citric, Dried Fruit, Chocolate, Sulphur, et cetera. His table is something like a stab at the famous wine aroma wheel, developed by a colleague of mine at UC Davis. Clearly our palates require more exercise.
As for the ratings, Risen is more generous with the single malts of Scotland than he was with the whiskies of his native land, with 11 expressions garnering three and a half stars and an astonishing 27 earning four stars. But perhaps this is deserved, as Risen limits his scope here to single malts, with arguably more higher highs and perhaps fewer lower lows. Broadly speaking, he gives higher ratings to more aged whiskies, which tend to have more developed and complex aromas and flavors due to their sojourn in barrels. That said, there are plenty of younger single malts that get high scores and older ones that do less well. Based on my embarrassingly limited experience of having tasted whiskies from a mere third of the 75 or so distilleries Risen includes, I would say his ratings are about right overall. In any case, they are useful at identifying single malts that may have particularly good bang for the buck. As with his earlier book on American whiskies, I recommend that you bring his guide with you when you seek out your next single malt. I look forward to poring over Risen’s book with my kilted whisky vendor.
John T. Scott is a professor in the political science department at the University of California, Davis. He specializes in early modern political thought, including the Scottish Enlightenment. His travels to Scotland with his brother and their wives took them to a number of distilleries as well as to their ancestral castle of Dunnottar, a breathtaking fixer-upper with a very large back tax bill. When his brother heard the news, he literally blanched (and then some), though he blamed it on the venison.