Best whiskies for Burns Night
Hi everyone, it's French Nic here this week, taking the blog over from Mike to tell you a little bit about whisky. I hope you enjoy it!
Whisky - the age-old drink most often associated with Scotland, but nowadays made and consumed in all corners of the globe.
On the 25th January, we celebrate the life and work of Scottish Poet Robert Burns. I won't lie, poetry and literature are not my gifts, but like all my fellow whisky lovers, I do like the excuse to pour a good dram.
It wasn't always so. I remember the days when whisky to me was just one of the options (my least favourite) to mix with coke at a student union party. And yet a cask (and its contents of course) has recently been sold at auction for $2.23 million (Macllan 1991, if you must know). So what is it about whisky that is so captivating - not just to rich collectors but millions of genuine amateurs around the world?
I think we can all agree that in everyday drinking circles, gin has had much more buzz in recent years. That being said, whisky sales globally are on the increase.
Blended Malt, Single Malt, Bourbon, Straight Whisky, Rye Whisky... there's a whole world out there. New distilleries are opening. There's an increase in independent bottlers producing very interesting (and often good value) selections from lesser-known distillers. Labelling and packaging is getting more progressive and creative, building strong new brands.
So how does one approach whisky? What's so good about it?
It's not an easy drink by all accounts. For someone who's never drunk spirits neat, the alcohol content (min. 40% - but often much higher) makes it quite challenging. All I can say there is, one gets used to it... a bit like chilli. There's an initial hit, but once you get past that, you can start observing what's happening. And that's where whisky's strength and magic lie: this explosion of flavours and sensations, this concentrated, painstakingly extracted elixir from what started life as a "vulgar" beer. Like a diamond in the rough.
And what should you look out for?
At the vary basic level, spirit quality is paramount. You know any spirit - not just whisky - is good when it's not harsh either on the palate or after you drink it. None of that white-spirit-to-kill-all-that's-good-and-living feel there. There can be structure (often derived from wood tannins) and mouthfeel (from the alcohol but also all the other magical things) and that's good. But it should all be in balance. No harsh notes.
Then there's the actual flavours and aromas. Is it fruity? Is it smokey? Is it nutty? Is it all of these things?
A really good whisky will by itself invite you to smell it, each nose dive giving you another layer of sensations. The initial sip might surprise you in a multitude of ways, the second sip becomes more familiar as you dig deeper. The finish might continue telling its story for minutes after. All it takes is for one to be present and accepting of this gift. It does sound all Namaste-like, true. And yet, all whisky lovers will relate a similar story. I guarantee you.
Now, where should you start your journey?
I've put a quick and by all means non-exhaustive selection together to help you on your way.
However we're always on the look out for interesting malts to put in front of you and we'd love nothing more than to take you on a journey. So beyond this little exercise, we're always available for a chat and a shared experience. Do reach out!
Owned by independent bottler and distributor Gordon & MacPhail, Benromach distillery produce some of the best all-rounder Single Malts out there. Some rich, sweet dried fruits, some spice, some smoke, nothing overdone or outlandish, it's a textbook execution and a great place to start. If you're not afraid of something bolder, try the Cask Strength. It packs a punch, but it's aaallll good.
Another favourite of ours and often overshadowed by bigger brands, the Deanston is such good value. What it delivers on the palate is brilliant. It's soft and creamy, indulgent with gentle vanilla and honeyed notes and finishes with a hint of exotic spice and liquorice yet with a certain lightness of touch. I always have a bottle in the cabinet.
Mackmyra is a Swedish distillery. As a range, it's always been a very solid choice. For me, the trademark Mackmyra style is the pear and apple combo. Whatever bottling you go for, you'll get this comforting fruitiness. If you like it light, go for the Brukswhisky or the seasonal Bjorksav. If you want it a bit warmer and rugged, the Svensk Rok is great. It marries a peaty (smoked barley) style with a smoked juniper cask ageing. It's unique and I love it (P.S. makes a great old fashioned too, wink wink)
Redwood, named after the giant centuries old sequoia trees on the Northern coast of California. This Bourbon is a recent find and a delight. Unlike whisky from this side of the Atlantic, Bourbon is made from a majority of corn with some barley and sometimes other grains. With Bourbon, expect sweet notes like maple syrup and sometimes honey cured bacon with those dried fruits and nuts. The Pipe Dream is soft and easy yet surprisingly complex. An excellent place to start with American whisky.
Finally a personal favourite. Kilchoman is still a "baby" distillery compared to all the malts you've heard about. They started making whisky in 2005 on Islay, a place known for making peaty (smokey) single malts. They produce so little that their bottlings are not cheap, but the Machir Bay is their flagship bottling and smashes it out of the park. It's crisp and dense with bags of flavour, not just smoke. The peat smoke is not like a burning stack of hay, it's more deep and integrated into the liquid. The finish is insanely long. One of my favourite Islay malts and worth every penny.
Whatever you decide, be curious and enjoy the journey. It's a fascinating one.
PS. You can shop our full collection of whisky here.