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A Whole New World of Whisky

A Whole New World of Whisky by David Wondrich,
February 26th 2012 11:06 PM

As demand for Scotch drives a rise in prices, the brotherhood of nations
steps up in a huge way. Whew.

More from this author

Published in the March 2012 issue

*Let’s assume, for the sake of argument,* that you’re a great appreciator
of single-malt Scotch whisky. A safe assumption, to be sure, particularly
now, when spring is still a matter of hope and winter’s chill fingers yet
grope and pry. What with its light honey-sweetness; its subtle hints of
apricot and pear, toffee and leather and dark chocolate; its incomparable
warming properties, the whisky the Scots distill from malted barley is a
lovely thing. Pretty much the whole world has come to that opinion, some
parts long ago and others far more recently. Nothing wrong with that. But
some of those latecomers have also recently come into a whole lot of money.
Which means they’re going to be buying more and more bottles of good
Scotch, and, unfortunately, you’re probably going to be buying fewer and
fewer of them. Fine Scotch is a luxury good, and luxury goods follow the

We don’t mean to say that China and India and the other booming economies
of Asia will be drinking up all our Scotch. It’s not that simple. But
Scotland’s distilleries are running at pretty much full capacity now, and
even though they’re building new ones and expanding old ones, Scotch isn’t
vodka; you can’t make it overnight. There’s the small matter of 12 or 18
years’ slumbering in the wood as the whisky slowly and gently oxidizes and
absorbs lignins and tannins and whatnot. In the meanwhile, you can expect
to see younger whiskies and higher prices — indeed, many of the big whisky
houses have started marketing whiskies without age statements, to give them
wiggle room.

Yet the malt lover should not give up hope. The cavalry is riding to the
rescue, from the direction you least expect it. There is no law, you see,
that says malt whisky has to be made in Scotland. It’s not like the copper
pot still is Area 51 technology, and barley grows all over the world —
hell, the Scots will even sell you some of their peat-smoked malt if you
want to make your whisky smoky like so much of theirs. And indeed, the last
20 years have seen a boom in malt-whisky making all around the world.
Today, single malts are being made and marketed everywhere from Australia
and New Zealand to Scandinavia, Germany, France, and all over Europe to
Taiwan, India, and even the U.S.A. and Canada.

We’d review a bunch of these, but production is still, for the most part,
small, and distribution local. Few examples indeed even make it to the big
markets in New York and California, let alone elsewhere in the country.
(Though many are available through mail order.) But that will change.
Consider this article a BOLO, a “Be On the Lookout” alert, because here’s
the thing: What we’ve tasted of these global malts has given us grounds for
optimism. Take the *Mackmyra* from Sweden, for example, which is bright and
clean and fun, or the *Armorik Classic* from Brittany, in France (a Celtic
region, it must be pointed out), which is as dark and leathery and even
brandylike as the Mackmyra is sunny. Both of these are bottled pretty young
and are still a bit nippy, as is the *McCarthy’s* single-malt from Clear
Creek in Portland, Oregon, three years old and as smoky as a mesquite fire.
But these companies are still young, and their whiskies can be expected to
mellow in time. (In the meanwhile, an ice cube works wonders.)

But there’s more to the story than young and experimental whisky.
*Amrut,*from India, is made by a company founded in 1948 that has been
experimenting with malts since the 1980s. All it takes is one taste of its
spectacularly Scotchlike Fusion, a blend of whiskies made from peated
Scottish malt and unpeated Indian malt, to be convinced that there’s
nothing wrong with making imitation Scotch so long as it’s imitation good
Scotch. This is a huge whisky, tarry and leathery and rich, and with a
finish that heads for the horizon. (There’s also an eye-opening pure-peated
Amrut that’s well worth seeking out.)

But if India has mastered the art of faking Scotch, Japan has taken things
one step further. Of course, the Japanese have been making malt whisky for
a very long time. When Japan industrialized, back in the late 19th and
early 20th centuries, it chose to model itself largely on another island
nation known for its cult of politeness and devotion to the tea ceremony,
Great Britain. One of the fruits of that choice was the Yamazaki
distillery, a little piece of Scotland tucked into a bamboo-forested valley
between Kyoto and Osaka. It opened in 1924. More distilleries followed, and
in due time Japan grew a full-fledged whisky industry, complete with malts
and blends, cooperages and warehouses full of old stock and generations of
experience. Unfortunately, many of the best whiskies the country makes are
not yet available here, although we hear persistent rumors that the
world-class malts made by Nikka are on their way (and if you ever come
across a bottle of Gotemba or Karuizawa in duty-free somewhere, buy it).
Fortunately, the country’s largest producer, Suntory (of *Lost in
Translation* fame), has begun aggressively pursuing the American market,
making a selection of its best whiskies available in many good liquor
stores nationwide.

The *Hakushu 12-year-old,* made in a huge distillery high in the Japanese
alps, is the most Scotchlike of its malts. But unlike the brawling Amrut,
it evokes the subtler Speyside malts. Light and floral, it starts out a
little tangy in the mouth and then turns sweet and sunny and mellow. It’s
with the *Yamazaki 12-year-old* that Suntory ups the game. This is a much
darker dram, nutty and rich and fragrant with the smell of old wood in a
way that’s much more like bourbon than Scotch. In part this comes from long
aging in a warm climate, but it also has to do with the native mizunara, an
oak that the Japanese were forced to use for aging during World War II,
when for obvious reasons they couldn’t get American or European oak
barrels. Even a small percentage of mizunara makes for a distinctive
whisky. Then there’s the *Yamazaki 18-year-old,* which has so much going
on, so many layers of flavor — Scotch bourbon, incense, tobacco leaf,
apricot jam, brine, you name it — that it stands in a class of its own.

It’s nice to have options, isn’t it?
What Dave’s Drinking:

*Domaine du Tariquet XO Bas-Armagnac ($78)*

France has two great brandy-making regions, Cognac and Armagnac. But Cognac
inherited all the marketing brains in the family, and, as a result, good
sipping-grade cognac is really expensive. Good armagnac is expensive, too,
but not ridiculously so: The Tariquet XO, a spicy, almost peppery,
leathery, and lean (but not too lean) spirit that lingers in your mouth
like it was waiting for a check, costs only two thirds of what a cognac of
equivalent quality does.

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