New World whisky: the best single malts from around the world

The hallowed single malt whisky category is younger than many of us realise. In fact, 'single' or 'pure malt' whisky was effectively born in the 1960s, with Glenfiddich doing the early ground work. But the single malt landscape has changed rapidly in recent times, with producers from all over the world now gearing up to take on the masters of the single malt realm – Scotland.

To be clear, while scotch whisky has to come from Scotland, single malt whisky can be produced anywhere in the world. Most producers follow the Scottish method, where barley is germinated or 'malted', fermented into a beery mash and then twice-distilled; the resulting spirit is then aged in barrels for a proscribed length of time – normally a minimum of three years.

The kicker – all the whisky in the bottle has to come from the same distillery, hence the 'single' tag.

While the Scots have strict rules and laws that govern the 'single malt whisky' classification, in other parts of the world, including here in Oz, less strict regulations have encouraged producers to get creative and experiment.

As a result, these 'New World' single malt whiskies are beginning to challenge the Scots for innovation, flavour and sophistication.

Japan

Japanese whisky is experiencing a frenzied moment. It's become near impossible to source, and some of the prices are extortionate when you do. But, unbeknown to many, the whisky industry in Japan stretches back to the early 1920s, and quality single malts began to appear outside of Japan a few decades ago. Since then, they've gone on to rival the Scots for sheer complexity and flavour.

Points of difference

Malt distilleries in Japan produce a range of different spirit types at the one facility, because, unlike the Scots, trading casks between distilleries for blending is rare. Mizunara, a native Japanese oak, is used to matured whisky; different yeast strains are regularly employed as well (rare in Scotland), and while the flavour profile of most Japanese single malts is subtle and nuanced, there are plenty of exceptions which are bold and complex.

Two to look for

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Yoichi Single Malt Whisky, and Hakushu Single Malt Whisky (such is Yamazaki's scarcity, it's almost always overpriced in Australia at the moment).

India

Indians love their whisky, and they consume immense quantities of the stuff (though much Indian 'whisky' is actually made from molasses). In 2014, Officer's Choice, an Indian blend, even knocked off Johnnie Walker as the world's most consumed whisky. On the malt side of things, there are two leading lights, Amrut and Paul John, and both have intriguing portfolios well worth exploring.

Points of difference

Climate, understandably, plays a dramatic role in whisky maturation in India. In most parts of the country, whisky will mature two or even three times faster than it would in Scotland. So you'll rarely see an age statement on Indian malt whiskies, but don't let that put you off. Most Amrut and Paul John whiskies are malty and fruity, some are heavily peated, and some have extracted huge amounts of flavour from the casks they're matured in.

Two to look for

Amrut Spectrum Indian Single Malt Whisky, Paul John 'Bold' Indian Single Malt Whisky

Taiwan

The Kavalan Distillery is the only whisky operation in Taiwan (although, bizarrely, the Taiwanese government is supposedly constructing another). You mightn't think that's enough to justify a mention here, but since opening in 2005, they've produced an incredible array of single malts, with the Kavalan Solist Vinho Barrique being crowned the world's best at the World Whiskies Awards in 2015.

Points of difference

Whisky stored in the huge earthquake-resistant warehouses at Kavalan matures quickly. Very quickly. The distillate itself is fruity and refined to counter this extreme maturation. Also of note, the casks used to age Kavalan single malts are of exceptional quality, and previously held wines as diverse as oloroso, manzanilla and fino sherries, as well as port and red wine.

Two to look for

Kavalan Solist Sherry Cask, Kavalan Soloist Manzanilla Cask

United States

While Americans specialise in making whisky largely from a corn or rye base, barley has also long been utilised. But American single malt whisky, in the form we recognise it today, is a more recent phenomenon, and single malts like Westland, Balcones, McCarthy's (no relation – I wish there was though) are really starting to impress.

Points of difference

American single malt producers are intent on pushing the boundaries of the category. Distillers are using different materials like cherrywood and mesquite to smoke grain, different malts and roasting specifications are being played with, as are the size and type of casks being used.

Two to look for

Westland Sherry Wood American Single Malt Whiskey, Balcones '1' Texas Single Malt Whisky

Europe

A huge range of quality single malts are being made all over Europe, with Sweden in particular leading the charge. France, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Germany are also producing fascinating single malts, although unfortunately, they rarely make it to Australian shores.

Points of difference

Like the yanks, some single malt producers are using native peat (as in Sweden) and other materials to smoke barley. Quality European wine casks are also being used to great effect, as are native oak species – Swedish again.

Two to look for

Mackmyra Single Malt Brukswhisky (Sweden), Millstone 12 Year Old Sherry Cask (Zuidam Distillers, Netherlands)

Australia

You should hopefully have tried an Australian single malt whisky by now, because quality drops are being produced right across the country. And although whisky has been made in Australia for over 160 years, often in enormous quantities (particularly in Victoria), the current single malt Renaissance kicked off in the early 1990s with Bill Lark's pioneering efforts.

Points of difference

Many. You'll find a lot of ex-brewers in Australian distilleries, so experimentation with different yeast strains and barley varieties has been extensive. Extremes of climate are key as well – it means faster, more intense maturation. Casks that have previously held remarkable fortified and Australian table wines, and the different sizes they've been coopered to, are also crucial to the unique profile of Australian malt whiskies.

Two to look for

Click here for the five Aussie whiskies you need to find now.

Scroll through the gallery above to see the best non-Scottish single malts.

A professional barman in one of Australia's most revered whisky establishments, Luke McCarthy has also travelled the world to learn more about the spirits he serves. The result is two parts drinks culture and one part global trends, served with a dash of critical assessment. His book, The Australian Spirits Guide, will be released in October.

Follow Luke McCarthy on Twitter

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