Why Malta Has Fallen Back In Love With Whisky

Marie-Claire Grima - 21st December 2018

Whisky has always had a dedicated following in Malta, but nowadays, devotees are taking an almost scholarly approach to the enjoyment of this ancient spirit.

Whisky is a drink with definite staying power – after all, it has been around for nearly a thousand years. The amber liquid oozes glamour, power and masculinity – think Don Draper in the first few seasons of Mad Men – but it also calls to mind warmth, comfort, and Christmas, the celebration of dear family members and friends. In Latin, it used to be known as acqua vitae – the water of life – and the new generation of whisky fans have indeed imbued it with new life through their passion and enthusiasm for the drink, and appreciation of its various aspects.

“A whisky has become more of a statement of who you are as a person, as opposed to the generic drink it once was,” says Andrew Abela, Wine Boutique Manager at Franks. “Appreciation for high-quality limited-edition whisky has definitely been on the increase lately in Malta. I remember how the market was five years ago, when people were beginning to discover the diverse range of single malts and learning how a single malt is different to a blend. For most people, including myself, it was like discovering America – a continent that already existed but we made it our own, eager to learn and explore its seemingly new frontiers. The opening of new whisky bars of course helped, as did the countless whisky tasting sessions that we hosted, along with other suppliers on the island. Today people seem to have gotten accustomed to specific whisky styles, for example peated or smoky versus fruity and elegant.”

Photo - Andrew Abela/Franks

Andrew Abela

Mr Abela says the market for whisky is quite diverse, and depends on various factors, including the drinker’s age, gender, and even the time of year. “When winter approaches, most people tend to look for peated whiskies which offer a warm and smoky flavour, reminiscent of a fire burning on a cold rainy day. On the other hand, as spring approaches, people tend to look for lighter, more elegant whiskies. I think most people look for a whisky that takes them back to their childhood, when their grandfather would secretly give them a tipple. They also look for limited-edition whiskies that offer the palate a particular taste even if it isn’t to their liking.”

The mark of a master distiller is the ability to create a fully-balanced whisky, that ticks all the boxes in equal measure, Mr Abela says. “The best whiskies I have tried were always elegant, in the sense that they would first tempt you with their seductive smell, like perfume. Once you taste it and swirl it in your mouth, you begin to understand the difference in its layers, and how one component cascades gently into the other. It’s like a story that unfolds but each part takes the right amount of time to develop.”

However, he believes that the most important aspect is the length of time it takes for the taste of the whisky to dissipate. “I’ve tasted some whiskies which take up to five minutes to develop and change. For me, that is a sign of a whisky that has been given a lot of thought; it doesn’t necessarily need to be a single malt or an old whisky.”

When tasting a fine whisky, Mr Abela advises drinkers to approach it with no pre-conceptions, to sit with it and analyse the spirit. “Take your time and engage with it. Let it speak to you and don’t put any ice in the tumbler or smoke any cigars – your palate has to be as clean as possible.” He says that an aged whisky is something that the producer would have poured a lot of resources into to get just right, and advises the drinker to approach it as a unique, artisanal product, with many years of effort behind it. “After all, an iPhone is a product that takes less than a few months to produce, while a whisky will have taken 15, 18 or an even greater number of years to produce. Every barrel is going to be different and by extension, so is every bottle.”

Photo - Andrew Abela/Franks

Photo - Andrew Abela/Franks

Personally speaking, Mr Abela’s favourite brand of whisky is Springbank, a family-owned distillery in the west of Scotland. “As a distillery it is perhaps the most old-fashioned whisky in terms of the way it is produced and since it is still family-owned, it has a certain uniqueness about it. My favourite expression is the humble 12-year-old, which is bottled at 52 per cent ABV, which gives you a real kick! Since the barrels are aged in a coastal town, they retain a slightly salty flavour; however, the barrels the whisky is aged in are ex-sherry barrels, giving it a sweet aftertaste.” Of course, he admits he won’t turn down a more mainstream whisky like Jamesons, or Johnnie Walker Black.

Franks has been at the forefront of cultivating a more sophisticated appreciation of whisky in Malta. “Our first major event was the master class with Jim Murray – author of the annually updated Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible – who is considered to be the world’s leading whisky guru. I still remember meeting him for the first time – his strong character was rather intimidating at first, however we got along so well that we became personal friends. We have also launched two simultaneous whisky schools with Camilleri Paris Mode and The Chophouse. The latter is in its fifth year and still going strong!”

However, there are two whisky initiatives that Mr Abela has overseen which he is proudest of. The first is the Kilchoman Two Isles single malt – a Scottish single malt aged in Maltese wine barrels, giving it a marvellously particular timbre. “It was a brainchild of mine which developed when I was working with the Kilchoman distillery. Whilst filling up barrels, the idea struck me of ageing a whisky in a Maltese wine barrel to give it a flavour of our fantastic wines. I contacted a local producer of fine wines and as the saying goes, the rest is history,” Mr Abela smiles.

The second is the extraordinarily popular Malta Whisky Fair, an annual event held in the Phoenicia Hotel’s majestic ballroom, which just celebrated its third edition. “This was an event that was on my mind for quite a while and I must say it would not be possible without the help and support of all the suppliers that take part,” Mr Abela says. “Although it is fully organised by Franks Gentlemen’s Essentials, each supplier contributes in his or her particular way to make it a massive success.”

Another Maltese company which has brought whisky appreciation to the forefront is Farsons. Farsons General Manager Pierre Stafrace says that in Malta, there have been small groups of whisky-lovers and collectors on the island, as well as long-established ‘whisky clubs’ between friends. “However, over the last few years, we have seen a significant increase in the number of people wanting to find out more about whisky and wanting to experiment with different whiskies from all over the world,” he says.

Photo - Farsons

Pierre Stafrace

Farsons has organised a number of whisky tastings at its Farsonsdirect outlet and other venues. “We’ve had tastings of different expressions of the same whisky brand; for example, five bottles of The Glenlivet, of various ages, which show that a fine whisky has the same hint of character underlying the different varieties in the range. We also organise The Whiskey Trail, which presents whiskies from different parts of Scotland, and from different countries, highlighting the various expressions which this wonderful, golden liquid can take, influenced by the region in which it is made.”

Mr Stafrace observes that, currently, single malt whiskies are very fashionable. “Whisky-lovers are seeking them from all over the world – from Sweden to Japan.” Consequently, blended whiskies may have fallen somewhat out of favour, which Mr Stafrace believes is unfair. “A fine blended whisky is the result of a long and difficult process of blending different whiskies to achieve a single, consistent character, and can also be complex and full of character.”

To fully enjoy a fine whisky, Mr Stafrace emphasises the importance of following the proper procedure of tasting, which includes first looking at the colour, and then looking at the ‘legs’ left by the liquid when you swirl the glass. “The thickness of these legs gives you an impression of how full-bodied and textured the spirit will be. Then, nose the whisky – in other words, hold the glass at a comfortable distance from your nose and breathe in the aroma. Then take a sip and and ‘chew’ on it, identifying different flavours. Then swallow (or spit, depends on the tasting) and note how the flavour stays on your tongue, how long is its finish. After tasting the whisky neat, you may want to add a few drops of water, which can bring out new flavours and aromas.”

To Mr Stafrace, an exceptional whisky all boils down to what he calls character – “which is not just about flavour and aromas, but about a special liquid which fills your palate with satisfaction and has you craving another sip as soon as you swallow the first.” He says that the appeal of whisky can vary immensely between people, and that a whisky that tastes amazing to one person will draw a neutral or even negative response from another. “Because of the personal nature of taste, I wouldn’t even hazard a guess as to which is the best whisky in the world. At the end of the day, although there are certain set technical standards, it is still a question of personal preference. It is all about education – and enjoyment. A great whisky is best when shared with friends!”

This article originally appeared in Business Agenda

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Why Malta Has Fallen Back In Love With Whisky