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Single malts reborn
Across the hills and moors of Scotland, whiskies once left for dead have come roaring back to life.
January 21, 2005: 4:38 PM EST
By Gordon T. Anderson, CNN/Money staff writer
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NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - As underappreciated holidays go, Burns Night (Jan. 25) is one of the best.

Few Americans know it, but I'm told it's much beloved in the pubs of Glasgow. Activities are basic: You drink some whisky, eat some haggis, and recite the lines of Robbie Burns, Scotland's national poet.

If you don't like dishes made from sheep's lung, you can skip the haggis. Truth be told, the poetry's optional, too. Just pour yourself a wee dram and drink. Then repeat the process.

It's a festive occasion, so it's worth breaking out the good stuff: a fine single malt. After all, there's a lot to celebrate these days for lovers of fancy Scotch and the companies that make it.

Married or single?

Most Scotch whisky is sold as a blend, from refined varieties like Chivas Regal to rotgut stuff. Regardless of quality, this kind of Scotch aims at a smooth, somewhat neutral profile. They achieve it through careful mixing of many different whiskies.

Single-malt whiskies, on the other hand, are distinctive. They are the individualistic products of one specific distillery, rather than mixtures. No two are alike. In fact, like fine wines, the differences between them can be extreme.

Sales of ordinary Scotch have been flat or declining for years, but the high end of the whisky business is booming.

The single-malt category has grown at an average annual rate of nearly 10 percent since the early 1990s, according to the market research firm Datamonitor. Last year, single-malt revenues expanded by 13.5 percent.

In fact, the popularity of single malts is rising so quickly around the world that liquor companies large and small are rushing to meet demand.

They're releasing new versions of classic brands, such as whisky drawn from different kinds of casks or older bottlings (e.g., offering a 15-year old Scotch in addition to a 12-year old). They're also expanding distribution of smaller brands that formerly were available only in Scotland.

Best of all, they're reopening distilleries that went out of business years ago. From Edinburgh to the Hebrides, the whisky industry is being reborn.

Singing in the rain

The rain-soaked island of Islay may be the spiritual heart of Scotch whisky. It's littered with famous distilleries, thanks to natural virtues like crisp water and vast peat bogs (peat is responsible for the smoky, astringent flavors of Scotch).

A few hundred years ago, while punitive English tariffs wreaked havoc on mainland distillers, Islay emerged as a bootlegging capital.

Smuggling may have given Islay its start, but lately, the island has become known for resurrection not insurrection. It is home to a number of reviving whisky makers.

Bruichladdich (pronounced brook-laddie), whose origins date to 1881, was bought in the late 1990s by a London bottling firm called Murray McDavid. The distillery had stopped producing; all that was left were casks of unbottled whisky.

The new owners' strategy was twofold: Revive the clean, balanced malt known as Bruichladdich, and give it a slightly more assertive taste. Next, roll out bigger, bolder styles.

They achieved their first goal in 2001, with the first distribution in over a decade of new bottles of Bruichladdich, which have been acclaimed by critics.

The second goal will take a bit longer, but be patient. For sitting in casks right now is Bruichladdich's new Octomore, a potent whisky the company claims will be the peatiest single malt in the world when it comes out in 2011.

Across the island sits Ardbeg. Founded in 1815, the distillery was closed in 1981 by its then-parent, giant Allied Domecq. In 1997, Glenmorangie, a family-owned distiller, bought Ardbeg.

As with Bruichladdich, the buyer's ambitions were restoration and innovation.

The mainstay Ardbeg brand, an intensely smoky 10-year old, is a robust malt that appeals to drinkers who like an aggressive, biting whisky.

Apparently, there are quite a few of them. In 1998, the company sold about 1,500 cases, mainly in Great Britain. Now, Ardbeg is distributed in 15 countries and expects to sell about 35,000 cases worldwide.

On the heels of that success, the distillers are rolling out other special bottlings. There's a Very Young Ardbeg, as well as the 25-year-old Lord of the Isles.

Another interesting new malt is the Ardbeg Uigeadail (pronounced Oog-a-dal). It's smoky, and a bit sweeter than the original.

It would be a nice drink on Burns Night.

The Good Life is a weekly column that chronicles products, people and trends in luxury consumer goods, travel, and fine food and drink. Write to: goodlife@money.com.  Top of page


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