Singin’ the Praises of Single Malts

(for Patron magazine)
by Marni Andrews

“The water of life” is what Scotland on Sunday terms malt whisky and who’s to argue? The good life is notable for quite a few things—not the least of which is time and the resources to indulge a taste for one of the fastest growing ultra-premium spirits: single malt scotch. As a category, single malts have been marketed for only the last 25 years and have exploded in popularity in the last 15 years.

“Younger drinkers and particularly women are flocking to single malts these days,” says Ed Patrick, founder of The Companions of the Quaich, a non-profit single malt enjoyment society based in Toronto whose 120 members include construction workers and judges. “People seem to be drinking less these days but they’re drinking better.”

In effect, this crowd knows what they’re drinking and what they want it to taste like. Plus, they’re willing to pay for it. They certainly aren’t averse to paying $60 for a bottle of quality single malt, though they may balk at the $10,000 price of the Bowmore distillery’s new 40-yr-old. Only 294 bottles were made, and it’s said that none of the men who produced the whisky were still alive when it was bottled. James McEwan, manager of Bowmore, describes the characteristics of older whiskies as being like people. “Whisky changes, like us. At 15, it’s like a young guy who chases women. At 21, it’s like us at 40—older, mellow and more mature.”

New York business consultant Robert Levin, 34, is a member of the new and growing single malt appreciation club. He has attended single malt tastings in the U.S. and in Canada while on business trips, and he indulges his new passion whenever he can.

“I used to work more, but I decided that taking time for a glass of good scotch was worth the sacrifice.” He often smokes a cigar with his malt. “They balance each other out,” he explained as he relaxed at a hotel bar with a Partagas in one hand and a glass of Glenrothes in the other. “Just make sure you don’t let the bartender put ice in it,” he warned. “Never let them do that.”

Ice, and even water for that matter, is a contentious issue with single malt people. While many devotees believe that cask-strength scotch (bottled full strength and usually from a single barrel) needs a splash of spring water to open up the flavour, an equally vocal camp claims that water only ruins a fine scotch. Where the purists do agree is on the subject of ice. Richard Paterson, Dalmore master blender, will demonstrate his views about pairing ice and malt during a particularly energetic moment in his usually lively presentations. He’ll scatter an ice bucket of frozen cubes into the audience as he emphatically announces, “And don’t let the bartender tell you it needs ice!”

Ian Innes, publican and owner of The Feathers Brewpub in Toronto’s Beaches area, is proud of his monthly single malt tastings. The immaculate pub draws a loyal crowd of 50 or so for these events, which usually cost $35 and include 10 whiskies. Innes attaches a theme to the evening, for example New Imports, Cask Strength, or Silent Stills (distilleries that have closed down), and makes sure his staff is outfitted in appropriate garb befitting the reverence of the occasion. He is knowledgeable about his product and clearly enjoys the opportunity to educate others about the wonders of the single malt. The Feathers is notable for carrying close to 230 single malts, which qualifies it as one of just a handful of such bars in the world.

Innes, 54, who hails from Edinburgh, specializes in cask-strength scotch. “What’s so interesting about single malts is that there’s such a huge range of taste,” he explains over an impromptu tasting for my benefit. “Most Scots drink a blended whisky; single malts are too expensive for them. But the majority of my single malts are priced at $4.95. I don’t see the point in stocking a lot of single malts if no one can afford them,” he added.

The variety of flavours available from malt whisky can be astonishing to the uninitiated when someone first starts to taste. There is Highland and Lowland and Island, which represent the three possible locations of a distillery, but also many of the terms commonly associated with wine: fruity, almondy, sherried, full-bodied, peppery. There are a host of words evocative of the sea, particularly with Island distilleries, which mature their whisky in oak casks kept seaside. It is usually Island distilleries whose tasting notes will include descriptions such as salty, seaweed, iodine and kelp. Laphroaig, which is reputed to be Prince Charles’ brand of choice, produced a 10-yr cask strength single malt that Innes described thus: “Great waves of iodine, kelp, oil and hospital disinfectant come crashing down on the tastebuds and damn near destroys ‘em! Fantastic!” Many Laphroaig devotees swear they can taste the sea in their dram.

The malted barley destined for scotch is dried in an oven fueled by peat, fermented with yeast, and distilled. It is the peat fires that give scotch its distinctive smokey flavor—and one that blends naturally with cigar smoke.

The distinctive taste of scotch also comes partly by way of using oak casks, which are required by law for scotch in Scotland. Two kinds of oak are used: European and American. A good long time ago it was discovered that casks that had previously held another wine or spirit caused whisky to mature better. Sherry is generally thought to be the best first inhabitant; however, sherry casks are expensive, so it is far more common to use American oak casks that have first held bourbon.

There is a precision to single malt that encompasses not only the great range of taste but the rituals that should accompany its presence. Dalmore master blender Richard Paterson explained that there is a clear order and a specific agenda appropriate to consuming a fine single malt. He recommends drinking it after dinner, not before. And the palate should first be cleansed with Colombian coffee and Godiva chocolate (it’s the 64% cocoa butter content that’s critical) before the arrival of the single malt at the altar of the tongue.

Paterson suggests keeping the whisky in the mouth for about 25 seconds. “This is for enjoyment at the absolute height after dinner,” he explained, somewhat unnecessarily, “so that superb aftertaste will linger longer on the palate.” The legend of the single malt is nothing if not fully rich in ambience.

Innes is more to the point. “Have a Lowland single malt before dinner because they’re lighter, and maybe a single cask-strength after.”

All you really need to remember about scotch whisky is that as soon as it’s bottled, it stops ageing. It is not like wine in this regard. A 15-yr-old scotch 20 years from now will still be a 15-yr-old scotch. The second thing to remember is not to drink it with ice. Ever. Now you can go anywhere and order a fine single malt with impunity.

 How to Grow Your Single Malt Reputation

The single malt scotch bar, or at least a reasonable-sized collection within your bar, is now something of a trendy item, but it was not that long ago when such selection was unheard of. If you don’t operate a pub, have personal experience with single malts, or maintain an extensively-stocked premium bar, you may be wondering how you can learn more about this subject yourself and reap the rewards for your business. Following are some basic guidelines that should help you get started if you have an interest.

Many operators have taken The Gradual Approach. Their entry into the single malt market was spurred by a customer, who perhaps encouraged them to add more bottles to the back bar one at a time. These proprietors find that they’ll reach a critical mass of stock, when they will start selling much more because people become more aware of the selection. At this point it may be appropriate to round out the collection or even to order every available bottle. You’ll get media attention, which further differentiates you from other establishments and will ensure your dominance in the single malt area.

Or start off with a small but thorough collection. Ian Innes, owner of The Feathers Brewpub in Toronto, says, “You could do a lot worse than the Classic Six from United Distillers; they represent all the major areas.” The Six are Glenkinchie, Dalwhinnie, Talisker, Oban, Lagavulin and Cragganmore.

Either way, be sure you follow the tips below to maintain your place in the market.

  1. Educate Your Sales Force: Success is hardly as simple as buying a lot of bottles and hoping that droves of malt aficionados will arrive on your doorstep and keep coming back. The last thing you need is to display 50 bottles prominently only to hear a customer ask for guidance and have the bartender answer that he/she thinks they’re all the same. The entire staff should know a little something about each and every label: “This is a Lowland, which tends to be lighter bodied and more delicate. I’d suggest it for before dinner.”  Lisa Vorich, general manager of Bar None in Vancouver, had great success with a product education seminar put on for 40 staff members by the liquor reps. They set up booths so that staff could try different scotches and learn about them. The reps also provided product knowledge sheets. “Now my staff are able to tell customers what’s a good scotch and maybe upsell them.”
  2. Compile a Tasting Menu: Since your staff is hardly likely to become overnight connoisseurs, you should compile a menu of single malts, with short descriptions of every bottle that you carry. Ask your liquor rep and/or consult a few good reference books, such as Michael Jackson’s Malt Whisky Companion, for help.
  3. Allow Interest to Blossom: If a staff member seems really interested in the subject, give them freedom to pursue it. At sister restaurants Topolobampo and Frontera Grill in Chicago, purchasing manager Carlos Alferez from Mexico not only extended the tequila selection fourfold but compiled a menu to allow customers to make a more informed selection.
  4. Stock a Few Good Books: Chances are that if you start attracting customers interested in single malts, they’ll also want to learn more. Keep a few good reference books on hand, and let customers know that they’re available for reading at the bar. Be your own advertisement.
  5. Offer a Tasting Course: The number of professionals, and the just-plain-interested, who would sign up for a tasting course taught by a professional taster would probably amaze you. Accountants, stockbrokers, lawyers, etc. often consider this knowledge to be especially valuable for work-related functions with clients. Hold a multi-week course at your establishment and provide all the necessary accoutrements. Now you’re making a name for yourself as the place to go for single malt information.
  6. Provide Cigars: Not everyone likes cigars, but chances are that many of the single malt customers will either be cigar smokers already or would be interested in learning how to indulge in both at the same time. There is an art to pairing cigars with single malts, for example a robust Honduran Excalibur would go better with a strong whisky like Highland Park or an Island whisky like Lagavulin. Find out from someone who knows and add cigars to the tasting menu, perhaps paired in appropriate ways.


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