The Last Minute Gift That Keeps On Giving
Christmas is nearly upon us. It’s the time when we ask ‘what can I buy the person who has everything?’ Come January, there’ll be many unwanted gifts returned, or donated to charity. But if you’re struggling to think of a gift, or even a treat for yourself, the answer for me is always a Single Malt Scotch Whisky from one of Scotland’s many distilleries.
Choose well and you’ll begin a love of whisky that can last a lifetime. The problem is, there are so many different bottlings you can get lost in a sea of labels, distillery names, wondering about age, about ones with no age, which ones are smoky, why is that one so expensive?... and so on!
For a long time now I’ve been working on a way to help people find the perfect Single Malt Scotch Whisky for themselves or for others. I call it ‘Flavour Profiling’ and it works by understanding the flavours the person likes and finding a whisky more suited to those. I should say though that this is not a science and only a process of elimination, and as such will never be 100% accurate. But it does help.
So let’s try and find you the perfect Single Malt. I’ll show you a few different combinations of flavour preferences, and then link those to a Single Malt distillery or two, and from there to a particular member of that family.
There are many places to start but I normally begin by asking one simple question:
If I were to offer you a bit of chocolate, would you prefer white, milk or dark?
If the person says White then I am thinking of light, delicate single malts, definitely all matured in American oak – ex Bourbon casks – and with a hint of sweetness. Definitely from either Speyside or the Highlands… which means Cardhu Gold Reserve in particular for me.
If the person says Milk Chocolate then I would be thinking rich, sweet flavours, maybe from first-fill American oak or a gentle hint of European Oak ex Sherry casks. Maybe more of a Highland style – either Cardhu Amber Rock or even the Oban Distillers Edition.
If the person said Dark Chocolate then I would be thinking rich, intense flavours with bitter notes. This would put me into the more robust flavours from European oak or even the influence of peat. Mortlach Rare old or Lagavulin 16yo or Talisker Distillers Edition to name a few.
My next question would be do you prefer a cup of tea or coffee?
There are questions after this, of course. If they answer tea, I then have to ask how they prefer it – the flavours of black tea are very different from those of milky tea or Green. We won’t even start on fruit teas.
Black tea has a tannic element to it, a very drying mouthfeel with bitter notes. Someone who drinks their tea black will prefer the intensity of a single malt matured exclusively in European oak or for a lighter style those with a more sharp, citric edge.
Someone who loves milky tea or even just tea with milk will potentially prefer a lighter American oak influence.
When it comes to coffee there are many different options. The difference between a latte and a double espresso is huge. Someone who enjoys a latte is more likely to enjoy the richness of a Speyside whisky such as Cragganmore 12yo or The Singleton of Dufftown Tailfire. A flat white drinker would be a step up from this in intensity and would probably prefer a Talisker Skye or even the Talisker 18yo but an espresso coffee drinker loves the intensity and bitterness so I would suggest Caol Ila 12yo, Lagavulin 16yo or Talisker Storm… And if they take sugar, the Caol Ila Distillers Edition or the Talisker Port Ruighe.
Next, if I were to offer you a meal would you prefer fish, chicken, beef or a vegetarian option?
If they were to answer fish then you have to ask if the fish is cooked or raw. If it’s cooked then you lose some of the intensive oiliness of the mouthfeel. Think about Sushi with soy sauce and the influence of Umami – this would suggest they’d like a whisky that’s rich and oily but gentle in flavour like the Glenkinchie 12yo. But if the fish is smoked like smoked salmon, then I would lean more towards the iconic combination with Talisker 10yo or Talisker Skye.
If they say chicken then you are looking at a more delicate Highland style, again with a more American oak influence. However, if you know they love a certain sauce, the answer is different again. If there is a tomato sauce then this would suggest an element of fruitiness and as such, a malt that has been influenced by European oak would be perfect. For this I would suggest one of the more delicate Distillers Editions such as Glenkinchie Distillers Edition. If the sauce is creamy with say Parma ham or bacon then I would suggest Cardhu Amber Rock.
If they were to take the vegetarian option then I would think big, vegetal flavours; which makes me think of the Knockando 12yo, as it has a rich nutty element to it and an intense citric note. Or perhaps The Singleton of Dufftown 12yo which, while fruity and flavoursome, has a core of nutty notes running through it.
Finally if they say beef then you can presume that they like big bold flavours and as such can look towards the upper echelons of flavour and consider malts that have been richly affected by European Oak and those that have been influenced by peat and are smoky – or even both. Great examples would be the Mortlach 18yo, the Lagavulin 16yo or the Lagavulin Distillers Edition.
Next is the question of wine: do you prefer white, red or rose?
If the answer stops with one of these then a general rule would be:
White is American oak, rose is Port influenced and red, European Oak.
If the answer goes further, I would use three examples – Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Riesling. If you know the person likes Sauvignon Blanc then the chances are they enjoy the soft fruity notes with a citric edge so a Lowland or Speyside style from refill American oak would be their preference. Think The Singleton of Glendullan Classic, The Singleton of Glendullan 12yo, Cardhu Gold Reserve or Glenkinchie 12yo. If they prefer Chardonnay then they probably like the buttery notes hidden among the soft stone fruit flavours so that would lead me towards first fill American oak, like Cardhu 12yo or The Singleton of Dufftown Sunray. And if they like the intensity of a Riesling then they may actually prefer the flavours of a Caol Ila 12yo.
For Red I will use the examples of Pinot Noir, Merlot and Shiraz. Pinot Noir can be quite delicate and as such is more like a Highland whisky and could be considered similar in style to Royal Lochnagar 12yo. Merlot is a rich fruity red with no tannins so for me I would suggest a Dalwhinnie 15yo while the Shiraz is a big flavoursome, tannic, spicy beast and as such I would recommend the Mortlach 18 or the Lagavulin Distillers Edition.
So let’s put this into context with a few examples of all of these together:
If they like dark chocolate, roast beef with a glass of Merlot and espresso coffee with brown sugar then I would recommend a Talisker Port Ruighe. The Talisker Port Ruighe is secondary matured in casks that have previously held Port so all the flavours they enjoy are there to be found.
If they like milk chocolate, chicken wrapped in bacon with a cream-based sauce and a glass of Chardonnay followed by a Latte, then I would suggest a Singleton of Dufftown Sunray or a Cardhu Amber Rock. Both have a strong influence of American oak and as such offer a creamy and fruity profile but with a hint of intensity.
If they like white chocolate, pan-fried fish with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc and a green tea to finish then I would suggest a Glenkinchie 12yo as the light, delicate flavours and hint of citrus notes would suit this person’s palate.
If they like dark chocolate, a vegetarian feast with a glass of Riesling and a flat white then I would suggest they have a fairly big palate but not necessarily one that enjoys smoky whisky. I would recommend a Knockando 12yo or a Cragganmore 12yo or even the Cragganmore Distillers Edition – especially if you know they have sugar in their coffee.
I hope this helps guide you to that perfect Malt this Holiday season. I would love to know your thoughts on this so please feel free to follow me on Twitter and Instagram @donaldcolville and if you have any other questions please feel free to ask using the hashtag #ChallengeDonald
Finally please remember that this is only a guide. It’s my personal advice and professional opinion. I’m offering to help navigate your way around the plethora of flavours available in this great world of Single Malt Scotch Whisky. If you find the perfect Scotch then let me know and #LoveScotch
Merry Christmas everyone,