Has the single malt whisky reached a crossroad?
The consumption of single malt whisky has been on the rise for over ten years now. It is the rediscovery of the Occidental consumers for the scotch whisky but mostly the discovery of this very high quality product by the Oriental regions that has increased the overall demand.
Before going further, what is a single malt? It is a whisky produced from malted barely and originating from a single distillery. If there is in a cask even a single spoonful of liquid from another distillery or another cereal, it legally becomes a “blended whisky” and not a single malt whisky. In addition, if the single malt is made in Scotland, it becomes a single malt scotch whisky.
In 2016, 10% of the 828 millions of liters of scotch whisky sold around the world were single malt. The total amount of liters sold increases each year, with the portion of single malt sold also steadily rising. Encouraged by this rising demand of single malt, distilleries have continued increasing in numbers around the world. In SAQ stores, there are many single malt products available from many different countries such as France (Glan Ar Mor, Armorik, Les Bienheureux), Canada (Sivo, Glen Breton, Two Brewers, Shelter Point), United States (Cedar Ridge, Westland) and even Taïwan (Kavalan) and South Africa (Three Ships).
With all of this being said, what is this essential element for every single malt? It is not the marketing, the history of the distillery, the knowledge of the masters of distillation or the aging casks. The industry relies before all on its primary matter: the barley grain.
The rising consumption of single malt for 15 years, but also globally for all types of whiskies for over 200 years, has increased the stress on the producers of grain, which in turn has forced them to produce varieties that are resistant to diseases, in higher quantities (which increases the level of alcohol of the grain). All of this is great and wonderful, but the flavor of the grains seems to have been forgotten in all this.
The globally accepted concept by the industry is that the grain has a very small impact on the final taste of the product. However, to fulfill a steadily rising demand of special products by amateurs, a new movement has seen the light of day in the past few years: the single malt whiskies with a precise identification of the types of grains used and even from exactly which farm they come from.
Let’s be perspicacious. Barring the desire to explore different types of grains and the beliefs that certain owners of distilleries could have, it is important to note that in a market that is constantly on the rise, with prices rising, certain marketing teams have quite certainly identified this strategy around the grains as a way to differentiate themselves from their competition.
The leader in this domain is probably the Scotland distillery Bruichladdich, owned by Rémy Cointreau who also owns the American distillery Westland – a distillery known for its research on the grains. It is also important to note that Mark Reynier, an important factor in the renaissance of Bruichladdich 19 years ago, has also started a distillery named Waterford in Ireland with a similar ideology.
These three distilleries, with the help of labs, are exploring various types of barley and other types of soils in which the cereal is cultivated. Glenmorangie and Kilchoman, but also other distilleries behind closed doors, are also conducting experiences around grain. We will most likely see, in the next few years, many new whiskies with variations around this overarching theme.
You are looking to explore products with various barley grains? Here are three examples of products available in SAQ stores:
The Bruichladdich « Bere Barley » is offered in SAQ stores for $109.75. The Bere Barley is an ancient type of barley. The list of the farms from where the cereals come from is clearly listed on the bottle.
Kilchoman produces a whisky 100% Islay Barley, made of only grains harvested on the distillery’s grounds. The type of grain is not identified, however. The 8thedition at a price point of $152 was just released in SAQ stores.
The Glenmorangie Signet is made of “chocolate malt”. Available in SAQ stores for $297, it is a product with strong flavors of coffee and dark chocolate, making it a truly unique single malt.
What remains to confirm is our ability, as consumers, to differentiate the flavors of various cereals in our glass. Because in reality, even if it goes against the classic Bruichladdich saying of the terroir being extremely important for the end result of the product, the fermentation and distillation processes, alongside the aging period, are the main elements that affect what we taste in our glass. Indeed, the aging period counts for around 60 to 80 % of the taste of the final product, going up to even 90% according to certain sources.
In the constantly rising global market, where the majority of the products are considered “value products”, the experimentation, but also the mistakes, are quite expensive. This is why we will probably never see this movement of exploration of flavors of grains become a trend that will spread to the majority of the distilleries. I invite you to enjoy what is currently available in SAQ stores and the eventual experimentations that may be coming, as we cannot be sure of how long this trend will last.