Experts Explain What Makes the World’s Best Single Malt Scotch (and What to Look for When Buying)

Bottle of Glenmorangie Allta
 Courtesy of Glenmorangie


When it comes to producing some of the world’s finest Scotch whisky, Glenmorangie certainly knows a thing or two. Tracing its roots back to 1843, the Glenmorangie name has since become synonymous with the concept of excellence through innovation, thanks to its pioneering spirit and predilection for smashing the status quo.

 

 

Since 1995, Glenmorangie has been guided under the watchful eye of Bill Lumsden Ph.D., director of whisky creation, distilling, and whisky stocks, who’s celebrated in the industry for his scientific approach and inventive experimentations. The brand’s award-winning Private Edition series is a prime example.

Every year for the past decade, Lumsden and his team release a new limited-edition single malt, much to the delight of Scotch lovers around the world. It allows the team to get creative by carefully trialing new techniques and ingredients that tweak their beloved recipes—while staying true to the brand’s DNA, of course. The recent release of Glenmorangie Allta marks the 10th anniversary of the distillery’s Private Edition series, as well as the 10th addition to the series portfolio. It’s also the first single-malt whisky created from wild (and previously undiscovered) yeast found growing on the distillery’s own Cadboll barley.

After visiting their state-of-the-art distillery tucked away in the Scottish Highlands—and tasting Glenmorangie Allta—we wondered what exactly goes into making a truly exceptional single malt. And more importantly, what are some of the factors aspiring Scotch connoisseurs should look out for when purchasing a bottle? We spoke with a handful of experts in the space and gathered their tips, tricks, and advice to keep in mind for the next time you’re perusing the liquor store shelves in search of a new dram.

Glenmorangie Distillery
Ian Centrone

Begin With the Basics

There are two basic types of Scotch from which all blends are made, according to the Scotch Whisky Association: single-malt Scotch whisky (produced from water and malted barley at a single distillery by batch distillation in pot stills) and single-grain Scotch whisky (which, in addition to water and malted barley, may also be produced from whole grains of other malted or unmalted cereals).

Blended Scotch whisky is a combination of one or more single-malt Scotch whiskies with one or more single-grain Scotch whiskies. Then, you have your blended-malt Scotch whisky (a blend of two or more single-malt Scotch whiskies from different distilleries) and blended-grain Scotch whisky (a blend of two or more single-grain Scotch whiskies from different distilleries).

The Integral Ingredients

“You can only use three ingredients to make single-malt Scotch: water, barley, and yeast,” says Brendan McCarron, head of maturing whisky stocks at Glenmorangie. “So, in simple terms, you need the best-quality barley and lots of clean, cold water to distill a great spirit.” Caramel coloring can also be added to regulate color and consistency.

The Casks Count

By law, Scotch must be aged for a minimum of three years in oak barrels. And since other ingredients cannot be introduced into recipes, the types of casks used by distilleries wind up having a profound effect on the final flavor. “How a cask is made, the different types of wood used to make the cask, whether it’s old or new, how it’s toasted, the way it’s charred—all of these things play a role,” says whisky expert Nate Gana, the founder of Single Malt Daily and one of the leading industry voices on social media, with nearly 100,000 Instagram followers.

“If you don’t have good-quality barrels, then you’re going to have something a little bit rough and fiery on the palate,” agrees Lumsden. “From a consumer’s perspective, when they’re tasting Scotch whisky, there should be a soft, clean texture…not something that burns you. If that happens, that’s generally a sign of poor-quality barrels.”

Scottish Highlands
Ian Centrone

Regions Play a Role

To find a stellar single malt, people should “first and foremost look for the word Scotch,” says McCarron. “That means it was, among other things, distilled, matured, and bottled in Scotland.

There are four main regions spanning the country that are known for producing the spirit: Highlands (the largest of the bunch with the most diverse offerings); Lowland (known for producing lighter options with less peat); Speyside (home to more than half of Scotland’s distilleries); and Islay (typically characterized by its strong, campfire peat and dry finish).

You can use these regions as a guide, “but they aren’t fool-proof,” McCarron advises. “Usually coastal, Islay, and even other island Scotches are going to be peated, while Lowland and Speysides are going to be non-peated, so they won’t be smoky.”

Consider Its Color

Color can also help reveal some qualities about the spirit in the bottle, the same way its region does—but again, it’s not an exact science. “If it’s darker, it’s usually either older or sherry cask-matured, or both,” says McCarron. “You can always double-check by reading the bottle. Usually there will be some indication of which casks were used to mature the spirit.”

Scope the Age Statement

As we’ve learned, the type of cask used is imperative when it comes to a whisky’s flavor, but the amount of time it spends maturing in those casks is also vital to its development. Don’t get too hung up on the age statement on the bottle, though. Many people assume the longer a Scotch is aged, the better it will taste. But that isn’t always the case. “Don’t automatically think the 30 or 40 is going to be the best,” cautions Lumsden. It’ll be the most expensive, yes, but it might not be a top-ranking spirit, so stay open-minded.

“It’s always good to try [Scotch] at different stages,” says McCarron. “If there’s no age on the bottle, then there will most likely be a range of ages in the bottle. That might put some people off, but there are some incredible NAS (no age statement) whiskies you’re missing out on if you only drink by age statements.”

Bottle of Glenmorangie Allta
Courtesy of Glenmorangie

Ponder the Percentage

A bottle of Scotch can have an alcohol by volume (ABV) anywhere between 40 and 94.8 percent. Generally speaking, novice whisky drinkers would be advised to start with a weaker spirit, or dilute stronger spirits with a splash of water to suit their personal preferences.

“Cask-strength whisky, for example, is going to be very strong and peppery,” says Dr. Lumsden. In general, he recommends looking at Scotches that fall between the 43 to 50 percent range. “And if it’s got the magical words ‘non-chill filtered’ [on the label], then it basically means you’re going to have a nicer texture.”

Try a Taste Test

If you don’t want to risk splurging on a bottle you might end up hating and leaving untouched on your bar cart, try attending a Scotch tasting at a local liquor store. A quality shop will employ a well-trained staff member who can help point you in the right direction based on what you’re looking for.

Another solid option is to pop into your favorite watering hole. “If you’re completely new to whisky, then I would start in a bar to get an idea of whether you like a certain region or a certain cask type more than others,” recommends McCarron. “And if you’re a seasoned pro, I would encourage you to start stepping out and looking at something you don’t usually try.”

Ultimately, Go With Your Gut

There’s no right or wrong when it comes to enjoying Scotch (as long as you’re drinking responsibly). “One of the things I try to emphasize is that there are cultural and biological variables that affect the way we perceive different tastes and smells,” says Heather Greene (@thewhiskyauthority on Instagram), a whisky expert and author of Whiskey Distilled: A Populist Guide to the Water of Life. “It all ends up being very personal depending on how you grew up and your biology.”

Everyone has their own unique relationship with taste, too, so don’t think you’re wrong if you don’t pick up on a flavor mentioned in the tasting notes, she explains.

“Don’t be too uptight about it,” Greene adds. “Once you learn to trust your instincts, you’ll be able to develop your own personal preferences and find out exactly what you like.”