The Angry Corrie 52: Dec 2001 - Feb 2002


Spirit of the hills

The long dark nights of winter ... rain battering the window ... gales rattling the slates. Ideal weather to end a wild day on the hill with a glass of whisky. Or two. Or 201. Helen McLaren, aided by her fellow fan of a dram Jon Metcalf, explains...

Uisge beatha - the water of life. The perfect way to round off a day in the hills. The traditional accompaniment to bothy nights, starlit camps and special hill celebrations. Ideal, too, for those moments of quiet reflection. And - just when you thought it was safe to put up your feet with your favourite dram - ideal material for compiling another damn list!

Recently, on the rhb newsgroup, various hill folk were discussing whether or not baggers were also collectors of things other than hills. The usual culprits such as stamps and birds were mentioned, then I chipped in that I'd once thought of compiling a list of single malt whiskies but had never got round to it. I really should have known better: a few days later, a whisky list duly arrived courtesy of Gordon Adshead down in Cheshire. (For details on how to obtain this, and on how to join the rhb newsgroup, see below - Ed.)

Gordon's original list has since been added to and now stands at 201 malts; but, as with any list, compilation was no simple matter. It would be equally as hard to decide which malts to include on your own personal tasting list, as this will depend largely on three factors: what's available, how much time you are prepared to spend tracking down the rarer malts, and how much you are willing to spend. What about closed distilleries, for instance? Do they "count"? The whisky is likely to have been available for a while, gradually becoming rarer, not to mention more expensive, until it runs out altogether. For example, the last 34-year-old cask of Ben Wyvis was bottled this year and currently sells for over 600 a bottle. However, the precedent has already been set for omitting Ben Wyvis from attempts on lists (ha! - see page 5 - Ed.), so don't worry, you'll be in good company on that one. (Jon Metcalf's own version of the Adshead list runs to 335 malts, as he includes numerous long-defunct distilleries around Campbeltown and elsewhere.)

New distilleries such as Arran are easier. All that's required to bag all these is a little patience as it takes at least seven years, if not longer, to produce a single malt worth drinking. In bagging the full set you will have to take into account all the different ages and strengths (for which a visit to the Lochside Hotel in Bowmore to view the huge selection of Islay malts is highly recommended). Then there are the different "finishes": Glenmorangie, for example, has produced 14 finishes to date, the most common being the port, sherry and madeira wood finishes, governed by the type of cask used for the final maturation. The quest to taste all the single malts, should you care to take it on, will provide you with a lifetime's interest and variety.

If, like many of us, enjoying a dram is often associated with days on the hill, then there are many variations to this theme depending on your inclination. You may, for example, decide to sample those malts such as Ben Rinnes that share their name with a hill. Or you might opt to visit each distillery and climb the nearest Marilyn while you are there. This would take you to some off-the-beaten-track places - Glentauchers is handy for the horrible Knockan and Talisker is beneath Arnaval. As for Royal Lochnagar - Creag Ghiubhais, Geallaig Hill, Meall Alvie, the Coyles of Muick and Conachcraig are all closer to the Crathie distillery than is Lochnagar itself.

Or maybe islands appeal to you, or a particular part of the country? And, for those who like a real challenge, there is the Adshead Round of visiting all 42 distilleries on Landranger 28 in one day, accompanied by a sympathetic driver of course (and a doctor - Ed.). As far as we know, this still remains to be attempted, let alone successfully completed. It will be a staggering achievement for whoever manages it first.

As we all know, it is the planning, doing, enjoying, discussing and reminiscing that are important, and that applies equally well to malts as to hills. One thing is certain, however - ask folk which is their favourite malt and you'll likely receive a different answer from everyone. While many agree that hills in the west are, by and large, better and more interesting than hills in the east, there is no such general agreement when it comes to malts. In fact when Jon, Gordon and I were discussing the subject before writing this article, it became apparent that we agreed on very little except that we enjoyed drinking the stuff. We couldn't even agree on whether or not to add water, for goodness sake!

Anyway, here are a few personal mini-listings, courtesy of Jon and me, for you all to disagree with.

Cask and it shall be given: best of the bunch

Jon Metcalf -

  • Black Bowmore The A'Mhaighdean panorama of the malt world. Infinite layers of tar, treacle, smoke, liquorice and bramble. Islay's - and so the world's - finest ever dram. Auction only these days at around 1300 a pop, though originally sold for just 6% of this.
  • Lochside Scotch Malt Whisky Society cask 92.6 (see http://www.smws.com/) Almost as toweringly great as the Bowmore - certainly in the Ailsa Craig or Sgurr Alasdair class of distinctiveness. In spite of a whopping 64% alcohol by volume, after 32 years in wood this drinks very smoothly and is not for me improved by added water. No longer available.
  • Macallan Gran Reserva Speyside first-fill cask flagship produced from 1979-82 vintages (eg 1980 is currently available at 80). Sunshine, spice and resin: like a fine morning in Glen Quoich. And, unlike that glen, this benefits from the addition of a little still water as the wood flavours are almost too intense.

Helen McLaren -

  • Ardbeg If I could bank a taste it would be Ardbeg. Straightaway you are reminded of the west coast of Scotland, the salt sea air, the tarry rope. Heaven in a glass.
  • Scapa Orkney's less well-known whisky, and undeservedly so. Full of character.
  • Glen Grant Its dry finish is much to my taste. For years I tended to ignore this whisky as it was "always there" - what foolish notions we get at times. Best at ten years old or more.
  • Cask-strength whisky I rate any cask-strength whisky highly and always add water to bring out the flavour. Be warned, though - it will make a solitary drinker of you!

Making a dram out of a crisis: ones to avoid

Jon Metcalf -

  • Cragganmore Rated by the pundits, but tastes like a supermarket's own-label shampoo.
  • Lochnagar Sadly not a patch on its great namesake. Shares the detergent notes given above for Cragganmore.
  • Glenfiddich Vapid learner malt except for the Solera Reserve which I'd grudgingly admit to the second division. It's beyond my comprehension that this is the world's best-selling malt, although I appreciate their creation of the market. By and large I'd blend the lot.
  • Current bottlings of Springbank 12 year old and Ardbeg 10 year old Neither repel me, but both now feel like minimum efforts to fill a market slot, from places you Knockandhu unrecognisably better. I'm sure the whisky under these labels tasted better a decade ago.

Helen McLaren -

  • I have none that I dislike, just some that I like better than others. I do however tend to agree with Jon that some "minimum efforts" can be disappointing - eg Tamdhu and Glen Moray, although a cask-strength bottle of the latter was superb.

Finally, a note on blind tastings. These can be arranged very easily with friends. Have someone pour half-a-dozen drams for each person and then, with the help of some tasting notes, try to work out which is which. Not as easy as it sounds. It does however help to remove any preconceived ideas you may have, and produces some interesting surprises into the bargain - such as why did we struggle to differentiate between Glenkinchie (East Lothian) and Bunnahabhain (Islay)?! If you want to find out more, then away read a book, browse a few websites - or better still, buy a bottle (or two) and enjoy. Slainte mhath!


Gordon Adshead's whisky list is available from him at: gordon@adshead.com; suitable for use in Excel, Works etc.

To join the relative hills newsgroup, go to http://groups.yahoo.com/, search on rhb, follow the prompts.


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