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Know your Scotch Whisky- become a Malt Whisky Connoisseur

NB It’s rare to find a Scot who will talk about “Scotch whisky”. For Scots in Scotland, there is no such thing as Scotch whisky. We have whisky or malt whisky or single malt.

The Speyside Whisky Festival is just around the corner again. We thought we’d dust off this old blog of ours and give you some insider knowledge of what to look for if you’re coming up for if you want to take home a really special bottle of Malt whisky – a really special bottle of Scotch whisky.

We live on the edge of the whisky trail and can’t help but acquire pointers from the experts about how to choose a special Scotch whisky. Andy has paid close attention to Mike Drury of the Whisky Castle in Tomintoul who is a leading light in the whisky world. Mike retired from running the Whisky Castle a few years ago. He now enjoys a totally different relaxed lifestyle on the Isle of Mull. However, the new owners have been just as helpful to our guests (and Andy).

Here Andy shares the benefit of his many visits to whisky country so you too can go home with a unique bottle of whisky. There’s nothing like living in Scotland to develop your appreciation for “the water of life”, as whisky is known in Gallic.

What to look for when choosing a really special scotch whisky to buy

When it comes to choosing fine malt whisky there are 4 things you need to know. In order of importance they are:

  1.  the quality of the cask in which the whisky has been matured
  2. whether the whisky has been chill filtered
  3. the age of the whisky
  4. whether additives have been added

 Too much emphasis is often placed on the age of the whisky and the distillery in it was produced. Every distillery has the potential to produce fine and not so fine malt whisky.

Scotch whisky

What to look for on a whisky label if you’re looking for a really special bottle – but don’t expect it to be “cheap”.


Cask Wood Quality for malt whisky (Scotch whisky)

There are 2 aspects to this:

a)     The number of times the cask has been used previously to mature Scotch Malt whisky

b)     Whether the whisky is the product of single or multiple casks

To be classified as Scotch Malt Whisky it has to have been matured for a minimum of 3 years in the cask. Many distillers though will mature their whisky for a lot longer, usually around 10 years before they’re satisfied with the quality to release it for sale.

During the maturation period there is a complex interaction between the oak wood and the alcohol with the alcohol drawing out many of the oils and other components of the wood to create Scotch Malt Whisky. Up to 60% of theses vital ingredients can be drawn out after the first maturation of scotch malt whisky. During the life of a cask it’s easy to see that the wood can become quickly exhausted with the whisky produced from subsequent maturations being of a lower standard.  If a tired cask is being used to mature whisky in it doesn’t matter how long the spirit is left in it to mature, the resultant whisky will lack quality/flavour. There are things that can be done to help rejuvenate the cask but the original qualities are never fully achieved.

The majority of malt whisky sold is the product of a number of casks ‘married’ together (up to 100), some good first refill/generation and some not so good 3rd or 4th refill/generation.

On the bottle label you should be looking for the whisky being single cask and 1st or 2nd refill/generation.


The spirit is matured in the cask at around 60%ABV. This results in an equilibrium being established between the strength of the spirit and it’s ability to draw out and “carry” the various oils, etc of the wood. Most scotch malt whisky is diluted with water and sold at around 40%ABV.

This dilution in itself results in the whisky becoming cloudy as there is no longer the concentration of alcohol to support the oils i.e. an emulsion is starting to form. There is nothing wrong with the whisky at this point other than it maybe appearing less appealing. To get around this problem much of the malt whisky sold is chill-filtered. Cooling the whisky makes the heavier oils more viscous allowing them to be removed by a5 to 3micro filter. The issue is that these heavier oils, etc are what give a good malt whisky it’s depth of character and flavour

You should be looking on the label for the words “unchillfiltered” or “non chill filtered” and the ABV should be 46% or more. If the whisky is below 46%ABV it’s a sure sign it has been chill filtered.

(One issue here is that some countries do not allow the importation of alcohol for re-sale with an ABV above 40%.)


Scotch whisky

Whisky tasting under the expert guidance of Mike Drury when he was in control at the Whisky Castle



Whisky is stored in wooden casks, usually made of white oak. Presuming the spirit is being matured in a quality cask, there is complex interaction between the wood and the spirit. This interaction is a slow. The harsher flavours of the whisky are softened over time. The age of the malt whisky is an important factor in the quality of the final product though whisky doesn’t necessarily always continue to improve with age.

Generally you will be looking for a minimum of 10 year old whisky.

Caramel Additive

It’s tempting but don’t ever judge a malt whisky by its colour. A lot of malt whisky has caramel added to make it darker. It also of course alters the flavour. This is the only additive that is allowed to be added to Scotch Malt Whisky

You should also be looking for words like “natural colour” on the bottle

Scotch whisky

Exclusive whisky from Gordon & Macphail


Where to Purchase Scotch whisky

Generally its independent bottlers who deal in high end malt whisky and available through specialist whisky shops.

Independent Bottlers:

……. to name a few.

Specialist Whisky Shops:

Recommended links for Scotch whisky

The Whisky Castle, Tomintoul is an independent whisky store with 500 malt whiskies listed online. They specialise in independently bottled, non-chillfiltered, non-caramalised, single cask, single malt whiskies.

Whisky month  – join Scotland in a month-long celebration of our national drink. Whether you’re a whisky novice or a whisky connoisseur, there’s something for everyone to do, including our Mountains and Malts trip.

The Speyside Whisky Festival – discover the passion behind the world’s finest whiskies

Whisky trail – Follow the world-famous Malt Whisky Trail through Speyside to seven working distilleries, including a fascinating cooperage and a historic distillery.

Looking for something to do while your partner explores a distillery and whisky related stuff – try Three Bags Wool in Aberlour


Review: Mountain biking centre – Laggan Wolftrax

As with all forestry commission mountain biking centre, you may need to be careful with your timing. If there is logging taking place, some of the trails may be out of bounds. Also, if you visit out of season (i.e. during the winter – as I did) the café may not be open. However, not to worry. There is a café close by at Laggan Pottery which comes very highly recommended.

mountain biking centre

Riding on a red trail at Laggan Wolftrax

Mountain biking centre: Trails:

When I visited there was logging taking place so the green and orange trails were out of bounds. Unfortunately this means that this instantly made the centre unfriendly to family biking as only red and black trails were accessible.

The climb up to the red trails requires some fitness, out of season as there is no uplift available then. There used to be uplift available but there’s no mention of it on their website now so you’d need to check with them directly if it is available.


Find the trail map here


There is no bike hire available on site any more. A new bike hire shop is due to open in Laggan soon.

If you are staying at Fraoch Lodge, and you are wanting to hire bikes, you can’t go wrong with the hire bikes at Ride Cairngorms in Boat of Garten. The bikes Nash has available for hire are suitable for all the trails at Laggan, though you may want to bring your own bike is you are keen on riding black runs. Few if any of the bike shops in the area offer full-sus bike hire due to the cost of maintaining &/or replacing the bikes.

Family friendly or not?

At the time I visited, the mountain biking centre at Laggan was not as friendly as we would have hoped. They have discontinued the uplift for the red runs and at that point both the cafe and the easier green/orange runs we closed. If the lower tracks are open, there would at least be some trails for the younger kids to ride, but they are quite short. It wouldn’t give a huge amount for the kids to do and in the summer you’d need to be on the lookout for midges. Glenlivet mountain biking centre was much more child friendly when we went there.


Watch out for events taking place at Laggan as the centre may not be open to the general public while the event is on or alternatively you may want to take part in the event. Don’t forget it’s not far to Fort William from Laggan and you can ride on the World Cup Downhill course there. The World cup in Fort William usually takes place in June.

Laggan hosts the following events:

Full details here

How to find Laggan Wolftrax mountain biking centre

Distance from Fraoch Lodge: 31 miles (44 minutes driving time)

From Fraoch Lodge, turn left out of the drive and head out of Boat of Garten to the A95.

Follow the A95 towards Aviemore but turn right on to the A9 heading south.

Continue on the A9 until the turn off for Kingussie.

Turn right and go through Kingussie and into Newtonmore.

Drive through Newtonmore until you see Newtonmore hostel on the right. Turn right here onto the A86.

Follow the A86 past Ardverikie castle and along Loch Laggan until you see signs for Laggan Wolftrax on your left.


Natural trails in the area

Glenlivet Trail Centre

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