Modern Single Malt: Reshaping a Classic StyleBy Matt Strickland
People love themselves some single malt whisky these days. Single malt whisky conjures powerful feelings of sophistication and erudition. It is mystical and magical, often coming from pastoral and pristine places such as Islay or Aberdeenshire. Names like Bowmore, The Macallan and The Dalmore ring in dulcet tones to many a whisky drinker’s ear. This is single malt whisky in the most classic sense. But with the fanaticism steadily growing over the past few decades we’ve seen the market open itself up to some modern single malt producers.
These makers are operating in a different head space, eschewing the tartan traditions of their primary sources of inspiration. Instead they focus on bringing single malt whisky into the modern era. These modern single malts may share similar DNA to the old styles but make no mistake: these are different beasts entirely.
Modern Single Malt Features
The modern single malt can be a bit hard to pin down. Many of these distilleries are young and producing whisky in countries not known for producing golden drams from grain. Examples would include Kavalan (Taiwan), Milk & Honey (Israel), and Mackmyra (Sweden). Others might come from well-revered whisky producing countries but are producing single malt decidedly on their own terms — think Bruichladdich and Kilchoman.
These distilleries, and others like them, are less concerned with traditional practices and marketing artifices. For these distillers age statements reek as false and archaic signifiers of quality. Besides, most of them don’t have the mature stocks to fight in the age arena anyway. Instead, they are producing younger whiskies and showcasing the delights that come with allowing the base grain character to shine through the cask-provided features.
As a result, the whisky is often less sweet and has a distinct malty and grainy character that pervades throughout the palate. You can actually taste the grain in the whisky which is perhaps more novel than it should be. To top it off, many of these modern single malt producers are bottling quite a bit of their whisky at higher strengths. In fact, some commonly release cask strength offerings which amp up the flavor experience considerably.
Influenced by the Past
In some ways, the modern single malts of today are not that new at all. Whisky used to be sold much younger as a matter of course and convenience. The concept of aged whisky is a relatively new paradigm with Scotch single malts not regularly being matured in casks until the 1800s. Until then the whisky was sold virtually right off the still. Eventually casks became more common, but whisky was still sold at a comparatively young age, perhaps only a few years like our new-styled single malts.
Of course, whisky is subject to market forces and whims just like anything else. Over the years through weathering economic downturns and occasional bouts of lower sales, many distilleries built up sizable stocks of progressively older whiskies. Age statements steadily got higher and here we are today. The Macallan range has age statements from ten to nearly eighty years. These older drams can be exquisite, blowing both minds and wallets. But they are wholly different in character and philosophy from our modern single malts.
Many of these new distilleries are small and/or young. They often have limited stocks and so finding them on your store shelves can sometimes prove a rewarding challenge. Search and seize these liquid opportunities when you can. You will most certainly be rewarded with eye popping flavors and aromas that will make you rethink the category as a whole.
More Examples to Try
There are a number of bottles out there worthy of your liver’s attention. Kavalan’s Solist series showcases the effects of different cask varieties on their young and spunky spirit by being matured in the hot and humid Taiwan climate. The casks range from oloroso sherry to port to vinho barriques (and many more). These modern single malt bottlings are also sold at cask strength, so they are full-flavored to the extreme. A few drops of water will help.
Waterford Distillery in Ireland approaches single malt with a distinct drive to showcase the effects of terroir on barley. They single source barleys from different farms, then mash, ferment, distill, and mature them separately. In the end they’ve produced a young portfolio of beautiful single malts that preserve the pleasures of the grain while marrying flavors of ex-bourbon and virgin American and French oaks. This is an exciting distillery to watch.
Until recently Kilchoman was Islay’s youngest distillery (Ardnahoe opened its doors in 2018). The distillery produces a small line of modern single malt whiskies, some of which use grain that is grown and malted onsite. The Machir Bay release is as tasty a signature as they come. Peated to a brawny 50 ppm and matured for less than a decade in a blend of ex-sherry and ex-bourbon casks, this punchy Islay malt maintains a beautiful graininess on the palate that couples perfectly with excellent cask wood.
There’s a whole wide world of whisky and the modern single malt family that has emerged is just one new exciting corner of it to explore. And explore you should. These drams have new flavors backed by colorful stories, philosophies and people. The modern single malt is here. All you need is a glass and a friend to share it with.
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