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BW Businessworld

Taste History

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I drink only single malts!" Should we laud this pompous ass? Or look upon him with awe? Should we hang on to every word that drips from his lips? Or, oops, was that a drool? In our search for identity, we often lose sight of the real deal. Complexity of flavour. And the joys of discovery.

So why the fuss? When did the world suddenly wake up to this mystic creature? This wonder from the wild, the golden nectar. The mother lode! Malt whisky has always existed. It was the first and only whisky to be distilled in Scotland (and Ireland, too) for years on end. All over the Scottish countryside, where the land was fertile and water in plenty, farming families discovered the joys of distilling. Travelling monks ensured that alongside preaching God's word, the art of  ‘uisge beatha' (whishke baha) or ‘water of life' was well established. Barley was in plenty, and what was left over from food and fodder was malted and either fermented (beer) and drunk, or distilled (malt whisky) to keep.

Whisky stills were crafted from copper (steel was yet to be discovered). What may have star-ted as default by the fabricator became a keeper of the family tradition, dictating the character of the whisky. The distiller, his still and skill created liquid history, each with his own unique identity. This golden potation often took the name of the distillery. Each of these malt whiskies from family-owned distilleries were soon called single-malt whisky. Single, as each one came from a single distillery. And this distillery made only that one malt whisky to which it gave its name. So, Glenfiddich came from Glenfiddich, Glenmorangie from Glenmorangie, and so on.

In spite of these beauties being around, they were way ahead of their times. The larger part of the populace found these flavour-filled malts too much to handle. A few traders played with  flavours, toned them down with neutral whisky and created blends. John Walker was one of the pioneers. Customers loved them, and pushed malts to the back seat. Even today, only 10 per cent of the single-malt production is bottled in its name. Most goes into blends.

In the late 1960s, Glenfiddich bottled some of its malt as single and braved the market. As first mover, it still holds high recall. Almost a decade later, single malts from Diageo arrived. Cragganmore, Oban, Cardhu, Glenkinchie, Talisker, Lagavulin... By the 1980s, the world woke up to the origin of blends — the single malt. Soon, it turned viral. Barely 40 years since the first rumble, people ask if blends will become obsolete now that single malts have arrived! Really?

TOP GUNS: Single malts Isle of Jura, Talisker, Lagavulin and Cragganmore

So, where does one begin? Which is the best? Calm down. Let's study some geography now that we have touched upon history. Scotland is divided into five (four, if I'm to be correct and not told off by those in the know) whisky-producing regions, each giving a hint of what they offer. The Highland malts are full flavoured with great character, some hinting at sherried sweetness, some gently smoky. The sweet, mouth-watering Glenmorangie, silky Oban, buttery Clynelish, the marmaladey Dalmore, the soft Dalwhinnie and the bold Glen Ord. Speyside, though the heart of the Highlands, is often looked at on its own. Its fertile valleys house almost 60 per cent of Scotland's distilleries. Big, warm, deep, fruity malts come from here. Glenfiddich, The Glenlivet, The Macallan, The Balvenie, Cardhu, Cragganmore, Glen Elgin, Glen Rothes...

The Lowlands are the gentle souls. Soft, easy and calming. Glenkinchie and Auchentoshan are front runners. Campbeltown, well, all I can say is "once upon a time it thrived, now it barely survives". Then there are the islands. Orkney on the head of Scotland — freezing cold with Highland Park and Scapa being saviours of its natives. My favourite is Talisker, from the Isle of Skye. Sweet and luscious with a huge smoky push at the end. Tobermory from Mull and Isle of Jura from Jura. But the smoky, peaty, phenolic monsters from Islay are the ones to reckon with. You either love 'em or hate 'em. Ardbeg, Lagavulin, Laphroaig, Caol Ila. Smoked Goa sausages and spicy smoked pepperoni. Seriously. Bunnahabhain is the exception. Its easy palate almost makes you wonder, Islay? Really?

Now, here's my most basic cheat sheet. It is designed simply to put it all in perspective.
Level 1: This is the beginning. Glenmorangie 10, Glenfiddich 12, Glenkinchie 12, Dalwhinnie 12, BenRiach Heart of Speyside, Glen Elgin 12, Clynelish 14

Level 2: Step up. Glenfiddich Solera Reserve 15, Glenmorangie Lasanta (sherry finish), Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban (port finish), The Balvenie Double Wood, The Macallan Elegancia, The Glenrothes, Cragganmore 12

Level 3: Getting There. The Macallan 18, Glenfiddich 18, Talisker 10, Macallan Select Oak, Highland Park 18, Caol Ila 12, Ardbeg (any, one step at a time), Laphroaig 10, Lagavulin 16

Level 4: Anything above 18, as your palate is well seasoned now!

The key to opening up your palate is to taste everything that comes your way. I have just started you off. Stay with what you like till you find something better. The best is yet to come.

Finally, there is life beyond Scotland. Try the Irish — the bold and chewy Bushmills from Irish distillers or the fiery, peated Connemara, the elegant Locke's and the mellow Tyrconnell. There are the defiant Japanese — Yoichi, Yamazaki and Nikka. And when you think you're done, out pops a range of single malts from a Bangalore distillery, Amrut. There is the sweet, biscuity Amrut Single Malt, and the warmly peaty Amrut Fusion Single Malt (a blend of Indian and pea-ted Scottish barley) with a sweet toffee nose, hint of spice on the middle enveloped by a honeyed finish. Close your eyes and sip. Taste history.

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 26-09-2011)