In quest of a good malt whisky

The late Douglas Lamb, wine merchant and bon vivant, delighted in serving Cognac balloons of single malt whisky to dinner guests. The power of suggestion being so great, few twigged to Lamb’s little trick. Indeed, they often congratulated Lamb on a fine Cognac selection.

Presumably Lamb served one of the less peaty malts, perhaps The Macallan, from Speyside. But whatever it was, guests appreciated the beauty, purity and complexity of a double-distilled, cask-aged spirit.

They’re characteristics shared by good malt whisky and Cognac, a fine grape brandy. Side by side, though, they’re quite unlike and I’m sure Lamb’s guests adjusted their brains, and taste buds, when the bottle appeared.

In Lamb’s day “single malt” generally meant whisky from one of Scotland’s renowned producing regions – Campbelltown, the Highlands, Speyside, the Lowlands and the islands of Arran, Jura, Mull, Orkney, Skye and Islay.

These areas all produce distinctive malts. And even within the regions flavours vary from maker to maker. Some of the important variables are the water and level of peat influence in it, the type of malted barley, its level of toasting and whether it’s been influenced by peat smoke, the type of barrel used for maturation, the length of maturation and the location of the barrel warehouse – proximity to the sea, for example, can add a tangy note.

If the focus remains mainly on Scotch single malts, today’s enthusiasts cast their tastes more widely. For example, among the 73 malts ranked by the Malt Whisky Society of Australia in August, there were 18 from Australia and one, Yamazaki, from Japan. Surprisingly, there were none from Ireland.

These enthusiasts, though, remain well ahead of the general market as you’ll find if you seek an Australian malt in Canberra. Some have made their way here. Jim Murphy, for example, briefly carried Melbourne’s Bakery Hill, but staff at the Fyshwick Market’s outlet say there’s been no demand since selling their stock of two bottles. Jim Murphy currently offers 23 single malts, including Japan’s Moutai, at Fyshwick and an “additional 10 to 15 at the airport shop”.

Dan Murphy, the Woolworth’s-owned chain currently offers no Australian malts. But Luke Grima, group business manager for spirits and ready-to-drinks, says they’ll be ranging a few soon. Tim Carroll, spirits and ready-to-drinks category manager from rival Coles, says their Vintage Cellars outlets have two on range – Limeburners, from the Great Southern Distillery in Albany, Western Australia, and Bakery Hill, from Melbourne.

Grima reports market growth in the last year for malts at Dan Murphy of 15 per cent, though it remains a niche in relation to the total whisky market. He says the group’s buying is based on consumer demand and market trends and they offer a base of 70 products. But, he writes Grima, “we encourage feedback from store managers and customers and have a process where they can request products. We would then source for them”.

Likewise Coles buying for its Liquorland, 1st Choice and Vintage Cellars stores is centrally managed. The Vintage Cellars stores, says Carroll, are obliged to carry a range of 50 malts, but managers have some discretion to carry more to meet local demand.

The limited malt offerings of most retailers and even of the bigger, high turnover chains, simply reflects demand in the general population. It simply isn’t profitable for these retailers to tie up money in stock that sits there gathering dust.

This, of course, opens the door for niche operators, generally knowledgeable enthusiasts. Look, for example, at what Plonk, Fyshwick markets, has achieved with craft beer over the last few years. Enthusiasts flock there every weekend because the shop offers about 700 different beers, always offer something new and always provides something to taste. It succeeds by concentrating enthusiasts in one outlet. Canberra probably couldn’t support two Plonks.

Resident beer expert, Dan Rayner, says Plonk expects to achieve a similar result with malt whisky when they move to bigger premises in the new section at the market. And they have Australian malts in sight as well as the Scotch classics.

In the meantime, to explore Australian malt, it’s perhaps best to hop online and check out the individual websites for Hollyers Road Distillery (Burnie Tasmania), Nant Distillery (Bothwell, Tasmania), Sullivan’s Cove (Tasmania Distillery, Hobart), Lark Distillery (Hobart), Bakery Hill Distillery (Melbourne), Timboon Railway Shed (Timboon, Victoria) and Smiths (part of Yalumba, Angaston, South Australia). They should be able to point you to stockists, or to sell direct.

For other malts, your local store might be able to order in as there are many importers, especially of Scotch malts.

It’s also worth checking – a comparatively new direct seller, sourcing some whiskies direct and others from established importers. A press release from the owners, Brad Wright and Andy Anderson, says they’re currently importing 100 cases a month and heading off shortly to find more. It also says they offer whiskies from Australia, Japan, Canada, New Zealand, India and Ireland.

The website, however, offers only 58 malts and the five from Australia come from just two distillers – which points to a business in the making, rather than one that’s arrived, and perhaps a step or two behind its press release. It does, however, offer interesting details of each whisky.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2010