October 13, 2017

In Good Spirits: The power of oak

Welcome fall with a honeyed dram that’s much younger than it tastes

By Joanne Sasvari

With fall’s cooler weather and gloomier days, our palates turn to the warming flavours of whisky, especially the spice and smoke, heather and honey of single malt scotch.
It’s hard to believe now, but not so very long ago, single malts were as unfashionable as spats and zoot suits are today. Sales plummeted. Distilleries across Scotland closed. Barrels of amber liquid were abandoned.
That was the 1980s, when the UK economy was in tatters and those who still enjoyed whisky preferred sweeter, cheaper blends. (Single malt is made from malted barley at a single distillery; blends can be made from a variety of grains from multiple distilleries.)
In the 2000s, single malts returned to fashion with all the force of a pack of Kardashians hitting a shopping mall. Suddenly, we couldn’t get enough of those spicy, nutty, fruity flavours that had developed while the whisky slept. In a few short years, we managed to drink up almost all the golden elixir that had been quietly aging all those decades. Where once you couldn’t sell old whisky for pennies, now it commands hundreds, even thousands of dollars a bottle.
So what’s a distillery to do to quench our thirst for a vanishing product?If that distillery is The Macallan, it uses every tool at its disposal to outwit time.
Most of the flavour in whisky comes from the barrels. In Scotland, those have traditionally been second-use bourbon casks, which contribute subtle flavours over several years. Now distillers are experimenting with different woods from different regions, and finishing their whisky in port, sherry and Sauternes casks. As a result, some young whiskies taste richer and deeper than older ones.
For instance, over the last few years, The Macallan has finished its products in sherry casks, which add lush fruity notes. In 2013, the Speyside distillery launched the 1824 series, which controversially replaced age statements with styles (Gold, Amber, Sienna, Ruby).
And now it’s introduced Double Cask, which combines American and European oak casks to extract the kind of rich, fruity, autumnal flavour it once took decades to achieve. As master distiller Bob Dalgarno says: “By combining wood influences, we have been able to produce a new Macallan.”
It’s not just a new Macallan, but a whole new world of whisky.

Three to try

Sip the flavours of the season in these under-$100 single malts.

Balvenie 12 Year Old Doublewood
This easy-drinking single malt has notes of vanilla, honey, dried fruit, gentle smoke and a peppery kick. $95

Glenfiddich IPA Experiment
Malt master Brian Kinsman used a Speyside craft India Pale Ale to conjure up notes of spring flowers and hops, alongside zesty citrus and sweet vanilla. $90

Laphroaig Triplewood
Three kinds of casks—first-fill bourbon, quarter cask and sherry butt—add sweet raisin, apricot, caramel and vanilla notes to the smoke of this powerfully peaty malt. $89.99

The Godfather Cocktail

Honey, vanilla, smoke, almonds — the flavours of amaretto and scotch whisky were meant to go together, as they do so beautifully in this cocktail named for the classic 1970s movie.

  • 2 oz (60 mL) single malt scotch whisky
  • ½ oz (15 mL) amaretto (such as Sons of Vancouver No. 82)
  • Place ingredients in a mixing glass with ice and stir well. Strain into a rocks (old fashioned) glass filled with fresh ice.
  • Serves 1.

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