From the editor

From the editor

Is it possible to compile an objective hierarchy of malts?

Editor's Word | 16 Feb 2000 | Issue 8 | By Charles MacLean

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In the last issue of Whisky Magazine, we revealed the results of a survey which asked you to tell us your favourite malts. By chance, the results of a similar survey conducted by Highland Distillers were published on their website at the same time.Interestingly, the top 10 malts were identical on both lists although in a different order. They were: Springbank, Lagavulin, Ardbeg, Laphroaig, The Macallan, Highland Park, Glenmorangie, Talisker, Bowmore, The Balvenie. The Highland Distillers compiled its Millennium Classification by asking five leading whisky writers – including Whisky Magazine's Michael Jackson, to rank what they believed to be the top 20 malts in their own market, bearing in mind quality, consistency, availability and reputation.Even before the results were known, Highland's hope was that other Scotch whisky companies might accept the rankings, and that it might provide the basis for a universal classification which banded malts into first, second, third, class etc, not unlike the famous (some might even say infamous) Médoc Classification of 1855. Not surprisingly, especially since Highland malts were listed equal first and second in the Millennium Classification, the other companies were unwilling to play ball. But is it possible to compile an objective heirarchy of malts? Several attempts have been made to classify by flavour, on the basis that 'if you like brand X, you'll like brand Y'. Currently, both Victoria Wines and Tesco supermarket offer such classifications – from Class A described as ‘delicate and light with a heathery character; an ideal aperitif’ through to Class G: ‘a challenging flavour, often described as peaty or smoky’. (Tesco). This is perhaps more realistic than attempts to achieve an overall classification in terms of excellence. At least it gives us, the consumers, a rough idea of what to expect and the differences between one malt and another.The most thorough and scientific attempt to produce a classification by flavour is currently being done by Dr David Wishart at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. Using sophisticated statistical methods to analyse the words used in seven books about malt whisky, he has produced 10 clusters of malts, with characteristics such as ‘full-bodied, dry, pungent, heavily peated, with salty/medicinal notes’ or ‘light, low or no peat, with fruity, floral, malty and nutty notes’.We will let you have a full report, when it is ready. But in the meantime we would be interested in your thoughts about the feasibility and desirability of malt whisky classification.
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