That's the spirit: why single-cask malt is the whisky of choice

The Scotch Malt Whisky Society
Image Courtesy of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society

Guest article by The Scotch Malt Whisky Society

Most whisky connoisseurs acknowledge the superiority of single malt over the cheaper, blended varieties in which the precious malt is mixed with grain whisky.

But most “single” malts are actually a marriage of different whiskies. So though single malts from, say, the Lagavulin or Laphroaig distilleries contain only whiskies produced there, they will still contain liquor from different barrels, mixed to achieve consistent flavour.

More and more whisky fans are now taking their appreciation a step farther by turning to single malts from a single cask. These have a unique taste that comes from the natural balance between spirit and cask and are valued for the difference between spirits from the same distillery, rather than the similarity.

Every cask of whisky develops differently, producing a complexity and flavour unlike any other cask from the same distillery, or its commercial single malt. You can fill two of the same types of cask with the same spirit on the same day and store them in the same warehouse and they will develop differently.

Science cannot explain why this happens. It’s all about place and the craft of the people making the spirit. One distillery manager puts it down to the thousands of little quirks in each distillery, passed down over years.

The Scotch Malt Whisky Society
Image Courtesy of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society

When the whisky from that single cask is gone, its particular flavour has gone. So a single-cask malt captures a moment in time – the day it was distilled and the cask filled. That date can resonate for connoisseurs and collectors who may prize, perhaps, a bottle distilled on the day they were born.

At tastings drinkers can focus on the aromas and flavours of each spirit, without preconceptions about its distillery of origin. Then they can turn to identifying the flavours present in that distillery’s commercial bottling, or how the same spirit has developed differently in different types of cask.

At the forefront of the single-cask movement – and a good place to start to experience its pleasures – is The Scotch Malt Whisky Society.

The Society was born in the early 1980s when a small group of whisky enthusiasts in Edinburgh managed to get hold a single cask of Speyside malt. They enjoyed it so much that their “leader”, Pip Hills, drove north in his Aston Martin Lagonda in search of another. As car enthusiasts will know, Lagondas were not designed to have casks of whisky strapped to their roofs, but that didn’t deter Pip, who, according to Society legend, came back to Edinburgh with exactly that.

The Scotch Malt Whisky Society
Image Courtesy of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society

Word spread, and more and more people came to sample the glorious spirit. So the friends decided one evening over a glass that they needed to formalise things and in 1983 they opened their premises at The Vaults in Leith. A building with a long history in the wine and spirits trade, it has become a spiritual home and even a place of pilgrimage for members from all over the world.

These days The Scotch Malt Whisky Society is constantly exploring the whisky world to track down great casks before they are blended. Each of its bottles is labelled with the date on which it was distilled and each month there are new ones to try. To help bring home the freshness of this experience, rather than use the distillery brand, The Society has adopted a unique numbering system.

The first bottle was designated 1.1, signifying the first distillery to supply a cask and the first cask from that distillery. The Society is now bottling number 1.202 – another whisky from that first distillery. Over the years, The Society’s 30,000 members worldwide have been able to sample whisky from 132 distilleries.

The Society now has another venue in Edinburgh’s New Town and two in London. There are branches in 18 countries with the largest number of single-cask single malts anywhere in the world. It is the biggest bottler of single-cask single malts in the world.

These come primarily from Scotland, but also from Japan, Wales and Ireland, along with single-cask bourbons from the US as well as single-cask rums, Cognacs and Armagnacs.

Most commercial whisky is matured in a mixture of ex-bourbon casks and ex-sherry casks. Sampling whisky from a first-fill ex-bourbon or ex-sherry cask, or one that has been refilled, helps enthusiasts to begin to appreciate how different casks contribute to flavour. This makes the balance of commercial brands easier to distinguish, giving drinkers a better idea of what they are looking for in a proprietary whisky.

Then it’s just a question of sitting back, sniffing, sipping and letting the waves of aroma and flavour flow over you. Slainte!

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