If you travel around Scotland tasting malts, even if you never leave your armchair, you will discover the most wonderful variety of flavours. From honeyed sweetness, the medicinal burst, the spicy kick to the soft grassy delicacy, Scotch single malt is as diverse as Scotland’s landscape. It makes me wonder, what influence does geology, landscape and climate have on our luxurious dram?
Geology and Climate
The importance of geology as an influence on the taste and character of a whisky is hard to place, but the water used in each distillery varies according to the local rocks through which it flows.
The oldest rocks surrounding a distillery are on west coast of Islay at Bruichladdich. Some 600-800 million years old, these are said to impart an iron-like flavour. (Try Bruichladdich’s Classic Laddie. If you like your peat, Bruichladdich’s Port Charlotte is a roaring alternative!) In the highlands, the water flowing to the Glenmorangie distillery picks up minerals from sandstones and limestones and this contributes to a firmer-feeling and fuller-bodied malt. Glenkinchie, meanwhile, is a Lowland malt that uses water filtered by chalky hills and here a high calcium content results in a sweet yet crisp, light and slightly nutty malt. (Would recommend Glenmorangie Nectar D’or – and Glenkinchie 1996 Distiller‘s edition.)
Talisker is a malt that particularly interests me because of its individuality, and as its Skye distillery doesn’t share rocks with any other distillery it’s easy to believe that this partly explains its unique taste. The surrounding volcanic basalt makes high quality water for whisky production, but it may also enhance the peppery, hot barbecued chilli spice, woody feel of Talisker. Can you taste the lava?… (Try Talisker Storm – an explosion of flavours)
Land, sea and air.
It is not just the direct impact of geology that affects the malt you are drinking. The vegetation through which water travels on its way to each distillery reflects a complex interplay of geology and climate, as does the local geomorphology. Water flowing through peats and heathers contributes to peaty robustness or subtle honeyed tints, whilst the use of low-temperature spring waters in the coils which condense the spirit can result in an especially rich and clean whisky. Distilleries in shaded mountain locations are known for this characteristic, whilst those on the coast can exploit sea air to impart a medicinal, briny character.
Each Scotch single malt is a product of its locality. Bowmore’s water rises from iron-tinged rocks of Islay and picks up peat as it flows through moss, ferns and rushes. The acidity in Islay water has been found to pronounce notes of iodine, smoke and brine flavours, in research done by Rachel Barrie. She additionally supported the high minerality content of highland water, making for slightly peated, often honeyed and slightly spicy flavours. Speyside’s water rises from granite, and is soft and sweet in comparison, Macallan being a prime example, this malt’s delicacy and softness is a classic speyside.
Recognising the influences the natural world has on our luxurious dram has certainly enhanced my appreciation of the differences between single malts. Focus on the origins of those subtle bursts of flavour and it opens much more of the complexity within.
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