Let’s start by stating the obvious: you don’t really need any reason to drink single malt except for the most important one: you like it. But as my friend Marc Castermans used to say in his old blog: “Whisky is all about the experience”. (we need a reboot Marc)
I know this list would be different for most people, yet I’m also pretty sure most malt lovers will at least have a few of them in common with me.
You are drinking something that most likely has a history
A lot of distilleries were founded in the eighteen hundreds, especially those in Scotland and Ireland. Even the top Japanese now are about a hundred years old. Before that, whisky was made in farms, illicit stills and more of those colourful places.
A lot of history, stories and anecdotes are available. I recommend reading some of the works of Charles McLean and the late Michael Jackson. (the beer and whisky writer obviously, not that catholic priest wannabe) And there’s a lot more to be found. Visit the website of your favourite Single Malt or google its name.
Better yet, go on a trip to Scotland or Ireland. Check out the distillery and the visitor centre. Also try to chat up some of the older workers down there, they will typically have some great stories and urban legends about the place. For more of those visit a few pubs close by. As soon as people realize you have a passion for a product they are usually proud of, they will open up with more local myths and legends that you will remember every time you have a dram of that particular distillery. Trust me, it will only make the experience better.
You want a few hints and tips to get you started? Sure thing.
This article has a few great stories and myths about Scotch Whisky.
And here is a nice timeline about the history of whisky.
It’s about quality, not quantity
Sure, you can guzzle down some cheap blend by the bottle, but that’s not what single malt is all about.
Single malt lovers don’t drink to get drunk. They drink to really enjoy their whisky. (Incidentally this also goes for premium blends and bourbons, or other premium spirits) They might have their go to drams, but they also like trying new stuff, single casks, special editions and so on.
They go to whisky fairs, clubs, tastings and whisky bars. They frequent stores that allow tasting some of the wares before you buy them. And they get more knowledgeable about what they drink.
That does not mean all single malts are good. In fact, I tasted some horrid stuff. But that too is part of the experience, and it only brings more excitement and colour to the hobby.
It does mean it is about the search for quality, about enjoying the experience.
One of my favourite movie quotes comes from Ferris Bueller’s day off: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
Every time single malt lovers treat themselves to a dram they are doing exactly that: making sure they don’t miss life. After all, whisky is the water of life.
A dram will last you a long time
Obviously this one is related to the previous one. When a drink is about quality, you want it to last.
Sure, it’s good for your tough guy image to ‘clang’ away a boiler like they do in western movies and series like Deadwood. But let’s face it, that’s a terrible waste when done with a great whisky.
The very nature of single malt makes it last just that bit longer though. Starting with the smell. I can nose a great whisky for minutes on end before I even take the first sip. Not only is the experience very pleasant on its own, but it also builds anticipation for the next phase. And don’t forget, our sense of smell is actually more complex than our sense of taste.
In fact, I can name a few whiskies where someone at the table noted ‘they could just smell this until it’s gone’. That also gives me hope for when my liver ever lets me down, I can still enjoy smelling my whisky stock. Not the same, but better than nothing. And since I do care about quality and not quantity, I do give my liver time to regenerate.
After the nosing comes the sipping. Again, you take your time to make sure you fully experience the whisky. A well-known rule of thumb is you should keep the whisky in your mouth for at least one second for every year of maturation. But to me, that is selling short some of the younger whiskies. I’ve had some killer Ledaig recently and those were only 8 to 9 years of age. Trust me when I say I kept them in for more than 9 seconds before I swallowed. Or what to say of the stunning Private Cask ride to Arran, which had aged for only 8 years but tasted like a typical 20+ years old whisky.
And there’s so much you can do while tasting whisky. A few tips: before you take a sip, have a good drink of mineral water. It will give you pretty much the same experience than adding a splash of water to your dram, but without actually doing it. Or while having a sip of whisky in your mouth, suck some air in and feel the taste exploding in your mouth.
And then you swallow. Things are far from over then, since single malt usually provides a long and complex after taste. Take the time to enjoy that as well. Wait a bit before you take the next sip. It will be worth it.
If you take all this into account, you should be able to understand why a dram will last you a long time. And that’s without friends present …
The depth and variety of single malt is enormous
You don’t have to look any further for proof than on this blog: I manage to find a lot of smells and flavours in most malts I taste. But it’s really just the tip of the iceberg, I’m a small fish in a huge pond of whisky bloggers who all write or vlog passionately about the sensations they get while tasting a great dram.
And they can be very different. Even with fairly strict rules, the whisky industry still has a lot of variables to play with: the water, the malted barley, the yeast, the form and material of the stills, mash, pipes, the fuel used for heating (coal, peat, …) Also, the wood used for maturation, the size of the barrels, the time spent in those barrels, the climate of the place where the maturation takes place … and don’t get me started on finishes.
I used to be in wine tasting. And don’t get me wrong, I still love a good red. And I also am very much still into tasting craft beers. The latter has at least the same variation whisky has, maybe even more. But if you take depth into account, nothing beats a complex spirit like single malt.
Aren’t there malternatives available? Sure, there are some awesome rums, cognacs and Armagnacs. But while they do match malts in depth, there is at the moment less variation available. They are getting there though, and I’ll start reviewing some for this site in the near future.
For now, I’ll keep navigating the seas of maturation: sherry, bourbon, virgin oak, mixed barrels, first fill, second fill, …or the mystical ‘oak barrels’ which means they have barrels remade from wood that have both sherry and bourbon barrels as origin. (And probably no one knows the exact percentages anymore)
I’ll try to get some golden promise from yonder, or even bere barley. I’ll laugh at those idiots that keep saying the type of grain really has little influence on the taste, and you can’t taste the caramel colouring or chill filtration. But most of all I’ll keep enjoying what I know while detecting the subtle or not so subtle nuances, and I’ll keep being surprised from time to time, even after tasting a few thousand different malts already.
The malt moments
Well this is a pretty important one, in fact I wrote an earlier blog post about it. For some reason, quality whisky has some kind of magic quality to create memories that last. It probably has to do a bit with the next point in this list. The best whisky experiences always involve sharing drams with other people.
Now that does not mean you cannot have a malt moment by yourself. I for instance can really enjoy poring myself an exceptional dram and read an exceptional book or listen to a great album. Hey, I actually can put a lot of thought in it: some people do whisky and food pairings, I do whisky and book or album pairings.
Maybe I should do some for this blog? Let me know in the comments.
Still, the best malt moments are with friends. I’ve already written about some in aforementioned blogpost, but I’ve had a lot more. Some happened at club tastings, others at whisky fairs. Some on a trip, and definitely quite a few in private tastings sessions, with a friend or even when I’m tasting for this blog with Werner, Jürgen or someone else.
They aren’t manufactured, although you can help faith a little bit. For instance, when my mom and I bought a bottle of 42 year old Glen Grant distilled in 1942 for my dad’s 70th birthday (yes he was born in 1942) and he decided to open it up for a few of my friends as long as they also brought an awesome bottle for an evening of tasting you just know you’re in for a spectacular evening.
No, high end tastings are not a guarantee for malt moments, but they sure help. The setting is another big deal. Someone I mentioned in this blog has built an amazing whisky mancave on his attic. So, when this guy invites you over along with a few friends, chances are you are in for something memorable.
Still you do need some stuff to happen to really remember those malt moments. Someone knocking over a bunch of whisky bottles when climbing into that very attic for instance. His reaction of horror followed by relief when they were all empty was the start of a great evening.
Malt moments make sure your whisky lasts even longer. You have fond memories of the drams, the people you shared them with and the fun things happening while you did so. And every time you meet those people again, those stories get retold. And who knows, I might blog about them again.
As a whisky lover you meet the nicest people
It’s not exactly rocket science to figure out this one has a lot of synergy with the previous reason. Those tastings, festivals and malt moments would not be the same without the people. And for some reason most malt whisky lovers are great people.
Of course, it helps that you share a passion with them to begin with. When all else fails, you always have malt whisky to talk about. But I can’t shake the feeling that there is more in play. Perhaps it takes a certain personality trait to get passionate about premium alcohol. And when you think of it, it makes sense.
Malt Whisky lovers obviously care about enjoyment, variation and subtle differences. Premium whisky has nuances and layers. So perhaps the same can be said of whisky lovers.
Fact is as a rule they are almost always passionate about more things. And a few of those in my experience are pretty prominent: love for music, love for food, love for travel, love for culture. But most of all, love for coming together and sharing a good dram or two.
It’s also a community that enjoys hearing each other’s stories. And there are a lot. Mostly because of those malt moments. It really is all related.
I like it
In the end, that’s the ultimate reason. And I mean this not only about myself, but with every single whisky drinker in mind. Everyone should be able to enjoy what they really like. And if you really like malt whisky, that should always be the prime reason to have one.
That also means you should not be pressured into drinking whisky when you don’t like it. But that’s probably not an issue if you are reading this. So, grab that bottle and treat yourself already.
Whisky is a great hobby. I’m sure you might have different reasons for liking it, but I’m equally sure at least some are the same. And I do hope if nothing else reason number 1 is omnipresent.
I’m curious, do you share my opinion? Do you have other great reasons to like single malt? Please do share in the comments below!