Single malt Scotch whisky producers revitalize an old spirit with new twists

There were less than 100 single malts on the market in the 1980s when Bill Lumsden got his start in distilling. Compared to blended Scotch whiskies, which were enjoyed around the world, these small-batch, pot-distilled spirits – with names that many found difficult to pronounce – were rare and offered a range of different tastes and characteristics.

The world of single malt Scotch was intimidating. For many outsiders, the exclusive – and often expensive – spirit still is.

Now working as the director of distilling, whisky creation and whisky stocks for the Glenmorangie and Ardbeg distilleries, Lumsden, who holds a PhD in biochemistry, says he’s having fun coming up with new innovations and expressions that aren’t designed to appeal solely to traditional, dyed-in-the-wool whisky drinkers.

Last year, he produced a limited-edition whisky called A Tale of Cake, which offered aromas and flavours inspired by childhood memories of his grandmother’s pineapple upside-down cake. This year, Glenmorangie launched a richer and sweeter single malt whisky simply called X, meant to be mixed into cocktails or enjoyed neat as the occasion warrants.

“We’re trying to reach out to people who might in the past actually have been too scared to drink single malt Scotch,” Lumsden says.

Perhaps they thought a single malt’s taste would be too strong, or lacked the insight into the spirit to fully appreciate its nuances, he explains.

“There are a lot of knowledge bullies out there saying: ‘Oh, no, no – that’s not how you drink malt whiskey,’” Lumsden says. “We’re taking this view that if you really want to know all about the barrel type, and the distillation, and the size of the spirit cut and the barley variety, etc., we can tell you that. But if you don’t, then don’t worry. Just enjoy the fact that it has a simply delicious flavour.”

Single-malt producers throughout Scotland are looking to trade their tweed-and-tartan image for a more inviting and unpretentious approach. With its traditional fan base aging, there’s a desire to introduce a wider audience to the world of single malt and other Scotch whisky.

The goal is to shake off archaic perceptions that single malts are a strongly flavoured and complex drink governed by rules of how to appreciate its uniqueness – without losing its identity and rich heritage in the process. After all, older, knowledgeable consumers still account for the bulk of sales.

Distilleries are embracing different oak barrels that previously held Port, Madeira, American rye whiskey, PX sherry, sauternes, or various types of red wines to create different flavour profiles in their spirits as they age.

They are also looking to different areas for sourcing oak – such as Italy and Hungary – besides the traditional regions in France, Spain and the United States – as well as expanding options for seasoning the wood and toasting or charring the inside of the barrels to offer a greater range of flavours.

By creating new products designed to introduce their offerings to those who don’t usually drink Scotch – and establish a base of younger drinkers – distilleries are not only competing against less stuffy (and potentially less pricey) bourbon, Irish whisky or Canadian whiskies. They are squaring off against beer, hard seltzer, or even popular mixed drinks.

Louise Dennett, global head of brand and innovation at The Glenmorangie Company, sees an opportunity to showcase the hospitality and sense of occasion that comes with enjoying a single malt whisky.

While distillers such as Glenmorangie are more than happy to “go down the rabbit hole” about how their whiskies are made, “we’re not going to lead with that,” Dennett says.

“Sharing a glass of Glenmorangie together is an emotional experience. We’re just inviting people into that and not intellectualizing it, but also not dumbing it down.”

This week’s recommendations include some recent innovations from traditional Scottish distilleries that were crafted to help newcomers navigate the single-malt category.

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