Of all of Scotland’s achievements, its inventions and its contribution to global society in general, whisky is without question the greatest. Feel free to dispute this, but you’d just be wrong.
‘Uisge beatha’ – ‘water of life’, more commonly whisky. It’s the gaelic maxim – a cliché almost – that all Scots know yet so few can pronounce. And that’s before sampling the stuff. There’s a mystery to whisky. A depth of flavour – aromas that offer hints of anything from fruit to solvents, seaweed to peat. It is a convivial, transcendent drink, whose popularity was seeded in the illegal potted stills owned by many people throughout rural Scotland, whose use for the excess of barley from harvests was the definition of canny. Whisky is a global phenomenon now. With so many distilleries owned and marketed by drinks giants like Diageo and Pernod Ricard, it has been given a makeover, and much like cooking and enlightenment about good food – it’s now sexy. Well it was always sexy, just nowadays more people agree.
More people are drinking single malt whisky than ever before. Scotland’s national drink is in fine fettle. So too its principal whisky-making region, the world capital of single malt whisky – Speyside . You may (and on occasion we have) counter this and say that Islay could lay claim to being Scotland’s preeminent producer of the single malt. But where Speyside trumps Islay is in its scale. It also has arguably the finest whiskies: in an Islay versus Speyside dinner party squabble, the issue could be boiled down to ester versus phenol, pitting the peaty medicinal malts of Islay against the sweeter, more floral efforts from Speyside. But then, after a short while, all your guests would leave.
What makes Speyside’s malts so prized and unique is down to a number of factors. Speyside is home to some 46 distilleries, some 38 more than Islay, and more than half of the distilleries in the whole of Scotland; they all share a great depth of knowledge about whisky, and this is reflected in the glass. Ester versus phenol, that, in the most crude of terms, describes the battle for your palate between Speyside’s ester-esque, solvent-style honey-sweet whiskies; where the Islay whiskies are often heavily phenolic, medicinal and with strong overtones of the sea.
A good whisky is as much a product of the area as it is the distillery. Where Islay’s whiskies are fitting of their inception in the Western Isles, Speyside whisky is less harsh, more bucolic. Speyside is not considered the garden of Scotland for nothing, with great swathes of fertile land opening out to the south of the Cairngorm mountain ranges. Irrigated by gin-clear spring water rivulets; Scotland’s fastest-flowing and mightiest river – the Spey – snaking its way through the region, an arterial route for wild Atlantic salmon. But the fishermen aren’t just there for the salmon.
Macallan, The Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, Balvenie… the names of Speyside’s distilleries read like a roll call of the greatest gantry in the best whisky bar in the world. They are not widely regarded as being peaty efforts like those of Islay, but some, like Macallan, do have smoky notes. The full gamut of classical Speyside tasting notes could encompass everything from heather, honey, fruit, spices, all encapsulated with the restoring hints of pear drops. The latter being curiously Scottish; where else in the world would the artificial sweetness of such a strange confection be one of the defining tasting notes of its most famous product?
And so to three of Speyside’s most popular and enduring malts. Glenfiddich is probably the most ubiquitous malt to be produced in Speyside, but before you think it may have surrendered its soul to big business it is still family run by William Grant & Sons, and its whiskies (or its expressions, to use a malt aficionado's vernacular) are wonderfully subtle and engaging, medium-bodied with classically sweet Speyside flowers notes.
Macallan is another Speyside classic. So great are its charms that writer Iain Banks considered using John Macallan as a nom de plume, and his praise for the distillery’s Gran Riserva is fulsome in the highest – Banks is of the opinion that it could be the ultimate malt. The most affordable – so no excuses for anyone not to sneak one into your Christmas stocking – is Macallan’s 10-year-old; matured in sherry barrels imported from Jerez, it has a pale golden colour, and slightly smoky palate that reprises the sherry casks in which it was matured. Sweet and slightly spicy, it’s the perfect introduction to Macallan’s portfolio of enigmatic malt whiskies.
The golden oldie is The Glenlivet ; it has the oldest legal distillery in Scotland, and its malts are demanded the world over – no more so than in the USA, where it is the biggest selling single malt. As is the Speyside distilleries’ norm, The Glenlivet is made from water drawn from Josie’s Well rather than the Spey itself. High altitude, desolately remote, and the peaty waters of Josie’s Well are all harnessed by 200 years of whisky making experience. It takes time to discover all of Speyside’s malts, and while all are available over the internet and at specialist retailers, a trip on the Speyside Whisky Trail is the ideal way to experience the distilleries first hand, and an insight into a huge part of Scottish culture.