How To Choose The Right Highland Whisky
It would be an understatement to say that there is such a dizzying array of excellent drams available in the world of Scotch whisky today, which can make taking your first steps into the world of whisky a daunting affair, especially where the Highland region is concerned. Being the second most populated of the five whisky regions, it can often fill newcomers with dread and trepidation, a sense that we’ll hope to assuage throughout this article by suggesting a selection of great starting points, broken down into a handful of categories, namely:
- Bourbon Casks
- Sherry Casks
- Peated Whiskies
So without further ado, let’s get cracking with a personal favourite cask type of ours:
One of the most classic styles of Scotch Whisky, whiskies matured in ex-Bourbon casks are numerous and widely available owing to the Bourbon industry’s insistence on casks only being used once, a rule which us canny Scots have capitalised on and put to good use for maturing our own whisky in.
Despite some common inference that Scotch whiskies aged in ex-Bourbon casks ‘all taste the same,’ due to many whisky drinkers’ growing too used to their ubiquitous nature, ex-Bourbon cask matured whiskies can (and do) play host to a huge variety of flavour profiles thanks to the versatility allowed in the malt bill of Bourbon (e.g. the mash of a Bourbon *must* be at least 50% Corn, from there on the malts used can be any variance of Rye, Wheat, Oats, Barley, dependent on how the distillers wish the resulting spirit to taste), ranging from lighter motifs like orchard fruits, vanilla, honey and caramel to richer notes of toffee, baking spices, banana, maple, pepper and leather, which thanks to liquid from the previous occupant of the cask soaking into the wood and trace amounts of the former liquid remaining in the cask, these qualities and flavours are leeched back into the new make spirit we rack into these casks.
A few tremendous examples of the style which we’d recommend trying for getting started with include, but are not limited to:
- Aberfeldy 12
- Balblair 12
- Glencadam 10
- Glenmorangie Original
Old Pulteney 12 (though it is worth noting that Old Pulteney’s whiskies feature a distinct salty note due to the distillery’s proximity to the coast)
Though we’re ardent supporters of ex-Bourbon cask matured whiskies, we do concede that the style seemingly most popular with whisky enthusiasts is the next cask type we’ll be covering:
If you were to poll whisky drinkers on their favourite styles of whisky, you could comfortably bet good money that a huge proportion of them would tell you that their favourite whiskies are matured in ex-Sherry casks (or is more commonly practised today, casks seasoned with Sherry, due to Spanish laws introduced in 1986 regarding the bottling of Sherry). The origins of this particular whisky style have since become muddied and lapsed into mythology, with several actors in the whisky industry of the era claiming ownership of having pioneered this particular school of maturation, however, we can be assured that the practice began in the early 19th century using casks which had been used to transport Sherry from Spain to the UK, shipping these casks back to Spain was not deemed a profitable endeavour so they remained here and were sent to Scotland to mature whiskies in. The end result has proven to be an enduring favourite among whisky enthusiasts, owing to the fantastically sweet qualities imparted to the liquid via these casks, with whiskies matured in Oloroso Sherry casks usually taking up the dark flavours and the nuttiness present in Oloroso. These dark flavours manifest in the form of figs, raisins, and many more fruity notes. The next most popular form of Sherry cask utilised in Scotch whisky maturation is Pedro Ximénez, which imbues whisky with robust notes of Christmas cake spice, dark chocolate, dates, raisins, and rich orangy citrus.
A huge number of distilleries have become synonymous with producing tremendous sherried whiskies, and we’d highly recommend the following examples for getting started with the style:
- Dalmore 12
- Edradour 10
- Glendronach 12
- Glenturret Sherry Edition
- Glen Garioch 12
Moving on to our final category, we now manoeuvre into a much smokier realm, one which many would claim is not for the faint of heart but we highly recommend at least seeking out and trying, as you’ll never find out if it’s for you without trying!
Peated whisky is given a smoky flavour by compounds which are released by the peat fires used to dry malted barley. The length and intensity of exposure to the peat smoke dictates the strength of this flavour as do the characteristics of the peat itself. Up until the advent of centralised commercial maltings (facilities where barley is sent to be malted and prepared for use in the distillation process), all whisky would generally be found to be peated due to the ubiquitous nature of peat as a fuel source for drying barley. Though most of the country’s distilleries have moved away from peating their barley, many Highland distilleries are still offering peated expressions as part of their product ranges, with distilleries in the western Highlands often making it a core element of their identity albeit less phenolically intense than their counterparts on the Isle of Islay. With a peated malt, you can generally expect to find some very medicinal notes strewn throughout the smokiness, akin to TCP, sticking plasters, earthiness, grassiness, hints of citrus and sometimes coffee. We would also recommend actively seeking out peated expressions which have spent time maturing in sherry, port or wine casks, as peat and sweetness is one of the most underrated flavour combinations you can find in the world of whisky!
With that said, we’d highly recommend the following expressions for getting started in the wonderful world of peaty drams:
- Ardmore Triple Wood
- Ardnamurchan AD
- Highland Park 12
- Isle of Raasay Single Malt
- Tomatin Cù Bòcan Signature
Hopefully with the guidance in the sections above we’ll be able to direct you towards a delicious whisky which will work for your tastes and take some of the stress out of picking from the many incredible options available on the market today. Happy dramming!