Before Scotch, there was cognac. Until the 1870s, French brandy was the undisputed leader of conspicuous drinking. That’s when phylloxera, the world’s most famous aphid, laid waste to vineyards in the Cognac region, causing shortages and hyperinflation. Scottish distillers happily stepped up to plug the gap.
A century and a half later, most Scottish distillers are producing at full capacity, and emerging markets like Brazil and China are putting pressure on supplies. It’s little surprise that other countries—from Sweden to India—have seen an opportunity to do to Scots what the Scots once did to the French: eat their fancy lunch. Here’s a primer on the new single malts livening up an old industry.
Distillers like Suntory have been in operation since 1923, but Nikka’s Yoichi 20-year-old winning the “world’s best single malt” at the 2008 World Whiskies Awards is remembered as the day the terroir shook in Scotland. It was a moment comparable to the 1976 “Judgment of Paris,” when a California Chardonnay bested its French counterparts in a blind tasting. Nikka’s stunning Miyagikyo 15-year-old, a light yet smoky masterpiece with a long finish is now available in Canada.
Japanese whisky had the advantage of at least being on consumers’ radars. This was hardly the case when the 2009 Fusion malt from Bangalore-based Amrut Distilleries was named third best in the world by Jim Murray’s renowned Whisky Bible. Previously, most Indian whisky was dismissed entirely due to the frequent use of molasses as a base, which in other countries would be called rum. Amrut, whose Fusion malt is now available here on a limited basis, came out of nowhere with an expertly crafted balance of rich barley and bold fruit. Talk about bottle shock.
This frozen bloc of Nordic countries is drawing attention for its exciting culinary scene, but its forays into distillation are a key part of the plan for world domination. There are currently single malts being distilled in Denmark, Finland and Sweden, the latter of which produces Mackmyra, a pale, playful single malt that demonstrates tremendous promise, despite an unfortunate hint of soap. People are extraordinarily enthusiastic about Sweden’s Box Distillery, which has an unprecedented amount of buzz.
Other noteworthy products now available in Canada include the recently arrived rich, fruitcakefl avoured Penderyn Sherrywood from Wales; Oregon’s Rogue Single Malt and the distinctive Kavalan Concertmaster, an elegantly bottled, chocolate-and-sea-salt malt from Taiwan. There has never been a better time to embark on a drinking adventure.