Beginner’s duty-free guide to single malt whisky
The next time you walk through a big airport duty-free shop take a glance at the wine and spirits aisle. The chances are it will be chock full of whisky, featuring everything from cheap blends and famous names such as Johnnie Walker and The Famous Grouse, to exotic cask finishes and cripplingly expensive single malts so old they were probably bottled before you were born.
It is an intimidating sight for the uninitiated and probably quite unlike the limited range of whiskies you will find in the typical neighbourhood bar or supermarket. The large number of wealthy male businessmen travelling through international airports, and whisky’s higher profit margins compared to cheaper white spirits, have made Scotland’s most famous liquid export the darling of duty-free, accounting for a third of all liquor sales there.
Moreover, the astonishing increase in interest in single malt whisky in the past decade has greatly expanded the range of whiskies available in duty-free shops and even led to the opening of specialist stores such as the excellent World of Whiskies, which currently trades at London Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, Edinburgh and Glasgow airports.
Other airports that lead the way when it comes to whisky include Paris Charles de Gaulle, where you will find numerous exclusive bottlings, Singapore Changi, which boasts its own in-store tasting bar, and Brussels airport’s recently opened Epicure outlet, which also features Cuban cigars and Champagne.
But first things first, what exactly is a single malt, and more importantly, how is the eager novice or gift giver to choose from the seemingly countless different products on the shelves?
At its most simple level malt whisky is made from just three ingredients• water, malted barley and yeast. Hot water is added to the barley, which has already been mashed into a coarse flour, and yeast is added to begin the fermentation process, where the sugar in the barley is converted into alcohol.
The resulting liquid, which resembles a strong beer, is then distilled twice, boosting the alcohol content to 60-80%. Water is then added to the new make spirit to dilute its strength to about 40% alcohol by volume. It is then filled into oak casks and has to be matured for at least three years before bottling before it can officially be called Scotch whisky.
Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? Yet a number of mysterious, little-understood factors are at work during this production process, which can affect the flavour of the finished whisky. They include the way the malted barley is dried, the shape of the still used, and most importantly the type of oak cask used and the length of maturation. In much the same way as a wine buff can wax lyrical about the ‘terroir’ of a certain vintage, these arcane variables can give whisky anoraks enough material to bore dinner guests for an entire evening.
But why, I hear you ask, are they called ‘single malt’ whiskies? Well, a single malt whisky is one that has been produced from a single distillery unlike a blended whisky, which contains both malt and grain whiskies taken from numerous distilleries. It’s become fashionable to dismiss blended whiskies as being inferior to single malts, but that simply isn’t the case. There are plenty of excellent blended whiskies out there and remember blends still account for about 90% of the whisky drunk worldwide.
But if you are still stuck on tracking down a single malt whisky in duty-free, disregard anything you may have heard about “there being no such thing as bad whisky”. There are plenty of pretty ordinary malt whiskies out there, and extra caution has to be paid to the many travel-retail exclusive whiskies, which you will now find on duty-free shelves. Some are excellent; others are just exercises in repackaging with consumers being asked to pay extra for fancy gift boxes and little else.
Finding a style of malt whisky you like, whether it be a smoky Islay or a smooth, rounded Speyside, is very much a pleasurable exercise of trial and error that shouldn’t be rushed. Take full advantage of the many sampling promotions and in-store tasting bars found in the larger airport shops these days and never be afraid to ask one of the shop assistants. Thanks to the training programmes of the big Scotch whisky producers, the level of product knowledge among sales staff is improving all the time.
If you are rushed for time, however, taxfreetravel.com presents a few excellent (and varied) choices for the beginner or gift giver, none of which will break the bank:
The starter’s malt
The Glenlivet 12 Year Old First Fill
Followers of this famous old brand would probably hate to hear it described as a “starter’s malt”, but there’s no doubt The Glenlivet 12 Year Old First Fill is a great introductory dram for those wanting to know what all the fuss is about. Priced at £25.99 in World Duty Free, this whisky is beautifully smooth and balanced with lots of fruity and floral flavours.
The gift giver’s malt
The Glenrothes Robur Reserve
This recently release travel-retail exclusive is the perfect choice for anybody wanting to buy a gift for a whisky lover. Priced reasonably at €49.99 (£45) and available at major international airports, this whisky takes its name from the Latin term, Quercus Robur, referring to the type of European oak casks used to mature the whisky. Whisky from sherry casks has been used too, so expect plenty of spice, toffee and dried fruits on the palate.
The whisky connoisseur’s malt
Highland Park 21 Year Old
Another travel-retail exclusive, this time from the Orkney malt brandy, that one leading spirits writer recently described as the “best spirit in the world”. Despite being an Island whisky, you will only find gentle peat smoke on the nose, while the flavour is rich and smooth with hints of caramel, milk chocolate and stewed fruit. Find this excellent aged malt at all leading airport duty-free shops priced at about €80 (£72).
The Irishman’s malt
Tyrconnell Single Malt Whiskey
Single malt whisky needn’t necessarily be produced in Scotland, of course, and this excellent example hails from Ireland’s only independent producer, Cooley Distillery. Named after a famous racehorse, Tyrconnell Single Malt Whiskey is full and fruity with a tang of oranges and lemons on the palate. It packs a nice, long finish, and is priced in duty-free at €24.95 (£22.50) for a 1-litre bottle in Dublin airport.
The surprise malt
It was until recently thought that Scotland’s unique micro-climate and centuries of distilling know-how meant that only it could produce decent whisky. Now countries all over the world are dispelling the myth, none more so than whisky-mad Japan.
Yamazaki 18 Year Old, currently available at World Duty Free for £49.99, is a fine example of what this proud country can produce• a full-bodied dram, with spicy, cherry-like tones.
The travel retail and duty free exclusive malt
You'll find a number of single malts that are exclusive to travel retail shoppers in duty free stores. One definitely worth a try is the non-chill filtered The Balvenie GoldenCask 14yo from William Grant and Sons. Matured in oak whisky casks before a final period of maturation in Caribbean rum casks, the 47.5% abv Scotch whisky is presented in the traditional Balvenie gift tube. The Balvenie Golden Cask 14yo retails at around £40 - but if you're really into your single malts, and are feeling flush, look out for The Balvenie Forty, a limited edition 40 year old expression again available exclusively in selected airports. Limited edition indeed. The first batch includes just 150 hand numbered bottles, each retailing at around £2,500.