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Of all the rituals of fall, my favorite has nothing to do with the smell of leaves or couch-potato football duty. Rather, it is that treasured moment when I reconfigure my refreshment priorities for the new season. The logpile of white wine that fills an entire shelf of my refrigerator (in case the whole neighborhood walks in off the streets one balmy night) gets dismantled and returned to the racks. The scotch, meanwhile, finds its way to the fore: a half-dozen different single malts. Once there’s a nip in the air, I prefer a nip in my glass — and almost always, these days, a single malt. Single malts — which come from a single distillery, as opposed to blends, which come from many — were one of the rare successes for the whisky industry in the final decade of the last century. Not too long ago, it was rare to find a liquor store or a bar that offered anything more exotic than the trio of Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, and Macallan. Now there are dozens of scotch options from the many distilleries that dot Scotland, as wineries do the Napa Valley. And no upscale restaurant is ready to open its doors without an extensive list of single malts. The single-malt options are usually so varied that they can work equally well as an aperitif or postmeal digestif — and, in some cases, boast enough subtlety and complexity to substitute for wine, at least with some heartier repasts. Traditionalists argue that there’s only one way to indulge: with the scotch served in tulip-shaped glasses and caressed by a few droplets of water (no more than the hint of vermouth you would use in a good martini) to liberate the aromas. The water diffusing through the various hues of brown, much like the trail of milk through coffee, is a truly lovely sight. There are five principal regions of whisky Scotland. The Lowland whiskies tend to be sweeter, and their principal virtue is that they are less expensive. The Highland whiskies encompass the Speysides (from along the River Spey) and are aromatic. The Island varieties (from the inner islands along the northern and western coasts) tend to be spicier still. The most famous island whiskies, though, are the Islay (pronounced eye-la) variety, which come from a tiny outpost off the south of Scotland. The Islays are said to be “peaty” (from the peat that’s used to fire up the distillation) and, indeed, awash in aromas of the sea and the ocean air. Laphroig is probably the most powerful (or at least most peaty) of these; its warehouse is frequently buffeted by waves, the ocean adding its flavoring to the scotch. Finally, there are the Campbeltown whiskies from the Kintyre Peninsula, the southern spike of Scotland. Where distilleries once abounded, there are today just a pair. The better of these, Springbank, strikes the perfect balance between the mainland and the island styles. While the distillery doesn’t use peat fires to malt barley, peat suffuses the air and water and leaves a clear trace in its scotch. My own liquor cabinet is a mini-tour of Scotland. There’s a Glenfarclas, light with grassy flavors, from Speyside and a 12-year-old Highland Park, with its hint of caramel and tobacco, from the northern islands. Then a couple more Highland varieties: a 12-year-old Glenmorangie, finished in madeira wood for a perfect light aperitif; and a weighty, almost thick 18-year-old Macallan, aged in sherry casks and ideal for postprandial sipping with a cigar. My favorite Islay, Lagavulin, is a peat treat — briny and iodine-y, yet not as strong as the Laphroig. (Laphroig is the only single malt I regard as an acquired taste, but I really enjoyed acquiring it.) If forced to choose the perfect whisky, I would opt for the 21-year-old Springbank. It is medium-bodied with a hint of peat, yet bright and fresh as a fertile Scottish hillside. The Springbank is a suitable choice before, during, or after dinner. Only the high price consigns it to special occasion status rather than everyday fare. Of the 30-year-old Springbank, I can only dream. Single Malt Selections � Glenfarclas 12-year-old $45 � Glenmorangie 12-year-old (various wood-aged bottlings) $55 � Highland Park 12-year-old $42 � Lagavulin 16-year-old $49 � Laphroig 15-year-old $70 � Macallan 18-year-old $85 � Springbank 21-year-old $115 � Springbank 30-year-old $350

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