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Whisky business

It is a spirit that conjures ancient Celtic images of rugged British highlands, deep red tartan and warm open fires, but whisky has become international, as Martine Nouet discovers.

Distilled, matured and enjoyed on all continents, whisky has become an iconic drink. Figures speak volumes: one bottle of whisky is sold every second in the world. But using just the one word to describe this drink is naming the wood for the trees. If the spirit is singular, it can also be pluralist.

The cereal used in the making, the way it is brewed, distilled and matured or blended, the location where it is produced; these are all criteria which determine a style.

Scots and Irish are still debating (or arguing) which of the two countries invented whisky. One thing cannot be denied, whisky — uisge beatha or water of life — has celtic origins.

Scotland has undoubtedly taken the lead with blended whisky and more recently single malt, the category in which the gold nuggets are found. Single malts are now exhibited (and tasted) in festivals around the world.

I was delighted to be a guest of honour at Sydney and Canberra Whisky Live last year and I was impressed by the number of whiskies displayed on the stands and also by their quality. The ‘thirst’ for knowledge of people attending was just as impressive.

Scottish flair

Scotland does not only boast beautiful castles, its hundred or so distilleries are as renowned as the ‘Grands Châteaux’ from the Bordeaux wine region. Double distilled from malted barley in pot-stills, single malt is produced in one single distillery, hence its name. Glenfarclas, Balvenie, Glenlivet, Highland Park, Glenmorangie, Macallan, Ardbeg, Laphroaig are all similar to ‘grands crus’ in wine.

I like to think that Scotland’s romantic scenery and enticing fragrances are encapsulated in a glass of single malt. Age is not as important as maturation, the success of it entirely depending upon the quality of the cask in which the new make develops its aromatic profile, taking flavours from the wood. What a fascinating alchemy!

Whisky aficionados are captivated by this new rush for gold, a liquid gold which is no longer the exclusivity of Scotland. Distilleries are mushrooming all over the world, not least in Australia.

I went directly to Tasmania after Whisky Live but alas, my stay was too short — I only had enough time to visit two distilleries. Fortunately, I could sample many more than two whiskies.

Taste of Tasmania

Hellyers Road Distillery has a unique still house and produces excellent peated and unpeated single malt. Nant Distilling Company and Sullivans Cove, also in Tasmania, have been awarded international accolades. Hobart’s Sullivans Cove has even been forced to limit export sales of some versions because the popularity of Tasmanian whisky is such that they face a shortage! All good news for an impressive distillery that exports to 11 countries.

I spent a day at Nant Distillery in the Highlands (Bothwell), sampling many casks of ‘sleeping whisky’, which is aged in small casks and shows balance and harmony even at a young age.

Limited releases of young single malts is one of the new trends in ‘whiskymania’ — an unmistakable sign of popularity. It is obvious that Australia has hit the whisky road and I can’t wait to come back.

The ultimate pairing

I introduced Canberra and Sydney Whisky Live attendants to one of the most thrilling matching experiments in 2013: oysters with a peated single malt.

We were spoiled with the best Sydney Rock oysters from Wapengo oyster farm. They matched deliciously with Talisker Storm, a briny and peppery single malt with a delicate smokiness from the Isle of Skye, off the west coast of Scotland. A few drops on the oyster and the duo takes you right onto the shore. European oysters are iodine and saltier; they can take a more pungent whisky such as Laphroaig 10 Year Old, a medicinal malt from the island of Islay. That combination will surprise you with an aromatic burst of iodine and smoke. Oysters and whisky — a definite bucket list item.

Ten whiskies to chase

Ardbeg Uigeadail

(Scotland – Islay)
An intense smoky character. The nose is deep and sweet, releasing immediate sherry notes. Dates, raisins, dark chocolate, all wrapped in smoke with a precise sooty note. A meaty character. The finish is long and powerful. A tender peaty beastie.

Ardbeg

Bruichladdich Islay Barley 2006

(Scotland – Islay)
Distilled from local barley grown on Dunlossit farm, this version has retained the fruity character of Bruichladdich but shows an even creamier texture with lovely floral notes of gorse and meadowsweet flowers. A cheery, swift and rich whisky with a big, warm heart.

Bruichladdich

Glenmorangie Nectar d’Or

(Scotland – Highlands)
This single malt has finished its maturation in sauternes casks, which have conveyed a marzipan note and a satin soft texture. Bright gold colour, a mesmerising fruity nose. Citrussy with coconut and dried apricot flavours. A liquid pudding — satisfying and refined.

Glenmorangie

Highland Park 40 Year Old

(Scotland – Orkneys)
A nutty and earthy character. Fungal, rooty with perfectly integrated oak shining through. An incredible complexity. Undoubtedly a god’s nectar. The only weak point is price but if you can afford it, don’t hesitate.

Highland Park

Glenrothes 1988

(Scotland – Speyside)
The nose is intense and fragrant with subtle licorice notes and a complex bouquet of dried fruit and spices. The palate is silky, releasing a rich medley of candied citrus and exotic spices. A sensuous, elegant, accomplished whisky.

The Glenrothes

The Balvenie Portwood 21 Year Old

(Scotland – Speyside)
One of the ‘grands crus’ of Speyside, this single malt has finished its maturation in port casks, picking up delicate notes of rose, chocolate and cherry. A distinguished, smooth and enticing after-dinner dram.

The Balvenie

Nikka 12 Year Old

(Japan – Taketsuru)
A brilliant illustration of the excellence of Japanese whisky. This blended malt (several single malts mixed) is floral and fruity with notes of apples and plums and an oily mouth-coating texture. Creamy, perfectly balanced and definitely moreish.

Nikka Whisky

Redbreast 21 Year Old

(Ireland – County Cork)
Blackcurrant and passionfruit all the way through. The palate, like the nose, bears the signature of traditional Irish pot-still whiskies. A full basket of blackcurrants and passionfruit with a stunning lingering finish. An old Irish achieving perfection.

Single Pot Still

Nant – American Oak Bourbon Wood

(Australia – Tasmania)
Young but already round and creamy. Refreshing with a satin soft texture, the single malt has taken lots of creamy vanilla flavours from the bourbon cask. Appetising sweet cereal notes with a surprisingly long finish for a young whisky. Crisp spicy notes tease the palate. Excellent.

Nant

Sullivans Cove – American Oak Bourbon Cask

(Australia – Tasmania)
A delicate, floral and elegant whisky which has the charm of a watercolour painting. A citrussy touch, ripe fruit poached in a vanilla syrup with a gentle finish drying on soft spices. Relaxing and pleasantly balanced.

Sullivans Cove