There is no 'best malt whisky'. Some whiskies are more suited to drinking at bedtime, others as an aperitif. All the distilleries named below produce highly rated Single Malt Scotch Whiskies, a title that is revered by true whisky connoisseurs.
Nobody knows who first conceived the simple but ever wondrous idea of converting the humble barley grain into the spirit we call 'whisky' but all agree it has been a collective gift from our Celtic forefathers. They knew only too well that a cheerful summer was always followed by the ice and snow of winter. To ensure survival and to provide continued employment for the farm labourers Scotlands 'water of life' (or Uisge Beatha in Gaelic) was produced throughout in the Highlands - Scotch whisky.
Distillation in early times was an art, cultivated as much in remote highland glens as in devout Lowland abbeys. The earliest recordings of this ancient activity are attributed to Friar John Cor of Lindores Abbey in Fife who converted 'eight bolls of barley malt' into aqua vitae for his sovereign, King James IV.
Now, more than 500 years on, Scotch whisky has established itself as a gift to discerning connoisseurs throughout the world.
It can be enjoyed as a single malt and yet will blend easily with brotherly spirits from across Scotland. It will never fail to offer a challenge to those most wise parts of the human body - the senses of taste and satisfaction.
We hope you are encouraged to sample the marvellous range of flavours and styles, then perhaps take time to visit the source. Then you will realise how profound, through the medium of malt whisky, is Scotland's contribution to humanity ... the wide range of whiskies and their different characteristics.
Whiskies made within a particular region tend to have similar characteristics, so much so that in a blind tasting it is often possible to ascertain where the malt comes from, even when the precise distillery remains obscure.
However we must be cautious. Regional distinctions have been reduced in recent years, as increasing technological advances in the production process have allowed distillers far greater control over the final flavour of their whiskies.
Also such considerations as the origins of the cask, where the whisky matured, and for how long, can all influence the flavour and make regional judgements difficult.
I use the general division of Highland, Island and Lowland and then subdivide 'Highland' into North, Speyside, Central, East West and Campbeltown, 'Islands' into Islands and Islay.
North-Highland malts tend to be light bodied, delicate whiskies with complex aromas and a dryish finish. They are sometimes spicy, sometimes with a trace of salt. Some are faintly peaty (Highland Park, Scapa, Clynelish, Balblair); in others the smoke is more like Lapsang Suchong (Pulteney, Teaninich, Dalmore). They cannot take too much sherry-wood maturation although, the sherry-finishing technique developed at Glenmorangie suits them well.
The malts from distilleries north of Aberdeen - Macduff (the product is named Glen Deveron in its proprietary bottlings), Knockdhu, Ardmore, Glendronach and Glengarrioch - are medium-bodied, malty, slightly sweet, smooth, slightly smoky and with a surprisingly dry finish. South of Aberdeen - Royal Lochnagar, Fettercairn, Glencadam - they become richer, more toffee-like, with citrus notes, but still a whiff of smoke and still the dry finish.
West Highland malts are much less peated than their southern cousins in Islay, although they all have at least a whiff of smoke and a mildly phenolic flavour. If there is a uniting factor it is the sweet start and the dryish, peppery finish of these whiskies, particularly Talisker and Oban. One might add Highland Park, from Orkney. Ben Nevis is a one off; sweet, with a remarkable aroma and flavour of coconuts. The brand Tobermory is a vatted malt, not a single malt.
The offerings from the Central Highlands are a mixed bag. Generally they are lighter-bodied and sweeter that their cousins to the east, but not as sweet as Speysides. Like Speysides, they are fragrant - blossom, violets, elderflowers, heather, mint, spice, pears: all these words appear in the tasting notes - but they tend to have a dry finish like other Highland malts, apart from Speysides.
Campbeltowns are traditionally full-flavoured and full-bodied whiskies, famous for their depth of flavour and for their slightly salty tang in the finish. They were referred to as "'The Hector of the West', the deepest voice in the choir". The overall impression is often compared to 'sea mist'. Springbank is the senior offering. It can take long maturation to great advantage, becoming raisiny and rich.
Lowlands typically have a dry finish, which makes them excellent aperitifs. The dryness comes from the malt itself, not from peat (Lowlands tend to use unpeated malt), and this also lends a certain sweet fruitiness to the flavour and mouthfeel. Their aromatic intensity is low, and tends to be grassy or herbal, with grainy and floral notes. It used to be said that they leant a brandy-like flavour to a blended whisky.
Speysides are essentially sweet whiskies. They have little peaty character (although some have a whiff of smoke) and their salient characteristic is estery - typically, this aroma is compared to pear-drops or solvent (nail varnish remover, particularly). They can be highly perfumed: scents of carnations, roses, violets, apples, bananas, cream soda and lemonade have all been discovered in Speyside malts. They take maturation in sherry-wood well and can be rich and full bodied, medium and light-bodied.
Islay whiskies generally reverse the characteristics of Speysides, tending to be dry and peaty; behind the smoke, however, can be gentle mossy scents, and some spice. The southern Islay distilleries produce powerfully phenolic whiskies, with aromas redolent of tar, smoke, iodine and carbolic. Bowmore, in the middle of the island, shares these characteristics but is not quite so powerful, as does Caol Ila. Bruichladdich and Bunnahabhain are lighter and much less smoky. All Islays have a dry finish, the southern ones with quite a bite.
Today there are some 120 different malt whiskies on the market and even though a handful of these are rare, never in history have so many varieties been on offer.
Article by Charles MacLean
Author of five books on Scotch. Charles is also Editor of the world's best selling whisky magazine - 'Whisky'