Article | Scotland

Peaty Seaweediness: A Non-Collector’s Account of Single Malt Scotches

Lover of all things Scotch but never much of a successful collector, long-time guide, musician, host, and expedition leader Ian Tamblyn has visited Scotland countless times. Here he regales us with just about everything you might want to learn about Scotch whisky and gives personal recommendations about what to sample.
Caol Ila cask

© Ian Tamblyn

One of the most dangerous things one can do on an Adventure Canada Scotland Slowly expedition is to mention that one might be giving a talk on single malt whisky. Within moments you will be surrounded by fellow travellers (mostly men) who are anxious to show you their photos of the 300 bottles of single malt they have in their collection. Even the very spelling of the word whisky can get you into trouble.

And so, from the outset of this offering I must confess I am not a collector of single malts (rather, the bottles seem to disappear quite readily!), and any knowledge I might claim to have on the subject of single malt is as tenuous as the froth distilleries shamelessly propagandize on their bottles.

Types of Whiskies

First, a primer. While of course it would seem that the Scots invented the distilling of barley into single malt whisky, immediately there is dispute. The Irish would counter that it was in fact Irish monks who invented the process. More open-minded Scots (if you can find one) might sometimes admit this to be the case, but will counter with, “Auch aye, but we perfected the process.”

Bagpipe player Scotland

© Larry Frank

There are basically two types of whisky created in Scotland: blended whisky and single malt. Blended whisky, as the name suggests, is made up of 50% grain alcohol and a 50% blend of single malts. In some cases, a single malt distiller like Caol Ila on Islay will sell a large percentage of their production directly to large brands like Johnny Walker for their various blends.

While in Scotland you may find that many Scots favour blended Scotch—after all, why would they waste good money on a single malt when a blend is half the price? It is felt by some careful Scots that the fad of single malts is a North American affliction and, indeed, there may be some truth to that claim. It is said that American soldiers brought home single malts after the Second World War and the popularity of single malt has increased since that time, particularly since 1980. However, even now, 90% of the world’s Scotch consumption is of blended varieties, notably Johnny Walker Red. Personally, I prefer Famous Grouse.

Jura disillery Scotland

© Dennis Minty

Isle of Jura, Inner Hebrides, Scotland

The second type of Scotch whisky is a single malt. This whisky will come from one distiller and will not be blended with any other whisky or grain alcohol. However, the chief distiller may combine different vats of liquor to ensure consistency of taste or to offer different expressions of the same single malt (mostly based on the type of cask one uses in the maturing process). In many cases, water may be added to the whisky at bottling time to reduce the alcohol level down from around 65% alcohol to the industry standard of 40%. Some distillers will offer a cask strength presentation of their given malt, but at a higher price of course.

Each single malt distillery will offer their whisky at varying years of maturation—that is to say, the length of time the whisky has matured in a cask before being bottled and sold. There is some difference of opinion as to when a malt is ready to be bottled, but five years is considered a minimum. The longer the single malt has been in the cask, the more expensive it becomes, as it has taken longer to recoup costs. (Single malts slowly evaporate through the wood over time, reducing the total volume in the cask the longer it is left, which also increases the price of more mature bottles.)

Scottish Distilleries

It is thought that there may be over one hundred single malt distillers in Scotland these days. It is difficult to assess these numbers because distilleries have been known to shut down and reopen several decades later. There is an excellent single malt on Islay called Port Ellen that shut down in the early 1980’s, even as other distilleries on the island came into production. As of this writing, it’s been announced that Port Ellen will resume production in 2023.

As mentioned, these distillers will offer various ages of their single malt whisky, but these days it has come into fashion to also offer a myriad of expressions of each single malt. So, while there may be a hundred distillers open, there could be over 300 different expressions to be found at a single malt bar or liquor store. All part of the fun, but the greater drain here will not be on the bottle, but rather your pocketbook.

The single malt distilleries in Scotland have been divided into five distinct regions, each one offering a general difference in taste or balance: Speyside, Highland, Westerly, Lowland, and Islay.

Islay Scotland

© Dennis Minty

Islay, Scotland

Much of these differences in taste comes down to peat, or the lack of it, in the distilling of single malts. After the barley has been left to germinate on the malting floors for about twenty-four hours, the barley is taken to the mash barrels. In the cases of Highland, Westerly, and Islay malts, the germinated barley is often passed over smoke rising up from a burning peat fire below.

The amount of time spent over the peat fire, and the nature of the peat fire itself, can and does affect the taste notes of a future single malt. The “peatiness” of a given malt is definitely a distinguishing feature. At the same time, it should be noted that a good 40% of the taste of a single malt is imparted by the bourbon or sherry casks wherein the single malt is matured.

Regional Taste Differences

Speyside malts are found on the east coast of Scotland. Glenlivet would be a good example. These malts are generally not peated in the malting process and there is a lightness to them. Glenfiddich is the most popular Speyside single malt. I personally find it to be a harsh drink.

Highland malts are distilled more in the northern interior of Scotland, though Highland Park and Scapa, distilled in Kirkwall on the Orkneys, are also considered highland malts. These malts are gently peated, have a bit more weight to them, and have generally been favoured as well-balanced single malts. The twelve-year Highland Park is considered to be the best all-rounder. Macallan single malt is also highly regarded, but all are noteworthy.

Westerly malts are distilled on the north west coast and islands of Scotland. Talisker single malt from the Isle of Skye would be an example of a westerly malt, as would Oban. These malts are known for their peaty flavour.

Oban Scotland

© Dennis Minty

Oban, Scotland

Because of the number of distilleries on the island of Islay, it has been given its own region. In terms of the smoky, peat taste of a single malt, Islay's various distilleries can offer an extreme expression of what Adventure Canada founder Matt Swan refers to as a “peaty seaweediness.” In recent years some distillers have gone off the deep end with single malts like The Bog Master or Smoky Joe. These offerings have gone too far and, in my opinion, and taste something like a tarred wooden cross-country ski.

Lowland malts represent the district from Edinburgh to southern Scotland. Distilled for the most part without smoked peat, these malts should not be dismissed, although there are fewer single malt distilleries in this region. The Lowlands are more known for their blends. Auchentoshen and Glenkinchie are both noted for their light, non-peaty taste.

Caol Ila distillery rocky sign

© Ian Tamblyn

Sampling Scotches & Shopping Tips

On most Scotland Slowly expedition itineraries, there are two main spots where I’d recommend sampling single malts if you get the chance: Islay and Orkney.

The island of Islay is the epicentre of distilling single malt whisky in Scotland, second to Dufftown, Speyside. Even though the island is only twenty-five miles long, there are currently nine working distilleries, with another one mothballed and two pending production.

If I was to guess, I’d say the best chance for a distillery tour would be at either Bowmore or Ardbeg. Frankly, once you have seen one or two distilleries, you have seen the basic way whisky is made. All that surrounds it is fascinating, but mostly myth building. In some cases, like at Caol Ila, the process is entirely computerized and industrial, whereas others maintain a quainter presentation of the process. I think Ardbeg outdoes anyone on their island for their tour, but then I am biased because I was quite smitten by a tour guide there. (If you visit, please say hello to Jackie Thompson.)

Distillery whisky stills Scotland

© Ian Tamblyn

Taking a distillery tour lets you witness the process of how whisky is made.

I would also say that if you don’t like single malt, I would pass on taking a tour. At the end of each tour small samples are given to the tour goers. I find it absolutely depressing to find full glasses left on the tables as tour goers leave the distillery! It hurts to see such a waste of great malt. I guess I am a Scot at heart!

In the Orkneys, there are two distilleries within the city limits of Kirkwall: Highland Park and Scapa. Both are great whiskies, and both offer excellent tours. As well, there are some excellent whisky shops and other shops in Kirkwall where you can find every kind of single malt you might desire.

If you are travelling back to North America or elsewhere outside of Europe at the end of the expedition, you will have limitations on the amount of alcohol you can bring back with you. I recommend buying one bottle of your favourite whisky and then purchasing a number of small whisky samplers. Nearly all single malt distillers offer the wee bottles of their malt and I’ve even found some of the rarer whiskies like Port Ellen in these samplers. Sadly, the cost for a bottle of single malt in Scotland is not much different than the price I pay back home in Ontario or Québec, but duty-free shops can offer good deals on selected brands.

Whisky Castle Tomintoul Aberdeenshire Scotland

© Dennis Minty

Specialty whisky shops, such as this one in Aberdeenshire, are good spots to find samplers to bring home as souvenirs.

Tasting Notes of Islay Single Malts

If you're wondering which Islay scotches to try or purchase, here are my personal reviews about their flavour profiles.

Laphfroaig: very peaty, also seaweedy. Not to everyone’s taste, but for those who like it, there is no better.

Lagavulin: peaty. This malt has repeatedly received top marks by whisky critics.

Ardbeg: very peaty. This distillery has the best visitor centre and tour.

Bowmore: peaty, more like a Westerly malt. This distillery gives a good tour, and the operation is now largely computerized. Most Scotch distilleries are owned by offshore interests—giant liquor conglomerates such as Diageo—much to the chagrin of nationalist Scots. This one is owned by Beam/Suntory in Japan.

Caol Ila: peaty. This is the largest distillery on Islay, but most of its production goes to blended whiskies. The twelve-year Caol Ila is my favourite malt.

Bruichladdich: not peaty. For those who do not like the taste of a burning bog in your mouth, this distillery offers a more Highland tasting malt. Re-opened in the 1990’s, the distillery has changed hands a few times since.

Bunahabhain: not peaty. This is another one that offers a more Highland tasting single malt.

Kilchoman: peaty, beautiful taste. This is a relatively small distillery.

Ardnahoe: This distillery just came on stream in the last few years, so I haven’t yet had the chance to sample. I believe they are offering both a peaty malt and a non-smoked iteration. I visited the distillery site and was very impressed by the location and the investment in a distillery that takes at least ten years to come on stream.

About the Author

Ian Tamblyn

Ian Tamblyn

Musician, Host

Ian is a prolific musician, playwright, producer, and host. He has received numerous awards and accolades throughout his nearly fifty-year career. He has released forty albums of his own work as well as acting as producer for dozens of other artists. Ian has also written fifteen plays and over one hundred theatre soundtracks.

Ian has received a number of awards and nominations. In 2012, he was made a fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographic Society for his guiding and creative work in the Canadian Arctic. He has been awarded the Estelle Klein and Helen Verger Awards for his contributions to Canadian folk music; he has an honorary doctorate from Lakehead University, a Distinguished Alumni Award from Trent University, and was voted English Songwriter of the Year in 2010 by the Canadian Folk Music Awards (amongst other awards and nominations in the music and theatre world).