Scotch on a Budget

I love Scotch. Scotchy Scotch Scotch. But like most people, I can’t afford to drink my favorites every day. Even if I score a good deal on a Lagavulin 16 or a Talisker 10, at approximately $5.52 per glass (see math here) I can’t afford to polish that bottle off in 12 days (or less). If I did, I’d be looking at a $2000 a year habit! In case you’re keeping track, that’s about the same price as a pack-a-day cigarette habit. Ouch. It gets worse, too… spend a few hours perusing the whisky blogs and magazines, and you’ll find that the focus is often on pricier bottles. Just as with wine connoisseurship, higher prices are often (not always!) applied to older, better, more highly-regarded selections. Flip through the ratings in the latest issue of a whisky mag, and you’ll see the most-recommended bottles topping $200 or more, and that’s not including the Collectors or rare releases! Here are some pieces of advice on how to enjoy Scotch without breaking the bank.

Important Note: Many of the suggestions below result in the more-expensive bottles in your cabinet lasting you longer. As long as you keep your best whiskies away from light (sun or otherwise) and tightly corked/capped, they will remain pristine and untarnished for up to a year. Even after a year, they won’t suffer more than a little oxidation (which affects the flavor). Keep in mind, however, that the more “headspace”, or air space in the bottle, the faster oxidation will affect your whisky. I know whisky enthusiasts who savor a bottle until it is only a quarter full, and then invite friends over to share the entire remainder of the bottle. This is also a good way to make friends!

1. Pick a “Daily Dram”

Many whisky lovers realize quickly how expensive a daily glass of their cherished favorites run, and begin looking for cheaper alternatives for the “less special” days. This is the oft-referenced “Daily Dram.” By picking a younger, more-widely distributed, or blended whisky that also shows some of the taste elements of your favorite dram, you can indulge in that daily glass without wallet worry. As an added benefit, your special-occasion bottles will last you longer! (See note above about keeping whisky longer). Some examples:

  • If you love Lagavulin 16 year ($65-$80), try a bottle of Laphroaig 10 year ($35) or Finlaggan Old Reserve ($18).
  • If you crave light, airy Speysiders like The Balvenie 15 year Single-Barrel ($55-$65), try The Glenlivet ($24) or Glenfiddich ($26).
  • If you’re into sweet, oak-influenced Scotches like The Macallan 15 Fine Oak ($70-$80), try an Irish blend like Jameson or Powers ($20)
  • Also try a younger bottling of your favorite whisky, or a cheaper expression (like a different wood finish or vatted malt).

2. Mix it up

While I would never recommend mixing Single-Malt Scotch with anything except perhaps a few drops of water, bottles of a cheaper blend or immature malt will last longer if you develop a taste for them mixed with water or club soda. Try it with an inexpensive Irish whiskey, blended Scotch, or very-young craft distillation. Turning a dram of inexpensive blend into a whisky highball can quench your thirst and eliminate the desire for a second glass.

3. Discover Whisky by the Glass

One of the wonderful things about the world of whisky is the wide variety of excellent flavors and expressions available on the international market. While individual preferences differ, it is pretty rare to come across a “bad” glass of whisky. However, it can be a burden on your bank account to experience whisky by buying bottles (even on recommendation). Instead, use Yelp.com, Google, and the phone book to find a local bar or three that has even a moderate Single-Malt offering (call ahead to avoid a lot of driving around). A dozen different bottles at a minimum. By discovering your favorites and exercising your palate on whisky at $6 a glass, you can save a lot of money on bottles. Another option (although sometimes more difficult to find) are 50ml “mini” bottles of whiskies sometimes stocked by liquor or convenience stores.

4. Split

If you’re lucky enough to have friends that enjoy whisky, consider splitting the cost of pricier bottles with them. A $120-$160 bottle of Macallan 18 year (a beautiful thing) is a lot less prohibitive if split several ways into seal-able glass containers. Just make sure to use a funnel for careful pouring, and do it evenly!

5. Buy in Bulk

While I don’t recommend buying whisky by the case (yes, you can get tired of even your favorite Scotch after a few bottles), you can find larger-volume bottles at a steep discount at big-box club stores like Sam’s Club or Costco. Bring along a calculator and do the math to determine if the savings are really there. Try several stores in your area, since they all may carry different inventories, and check back at different times of the year. Also remember that at Costco, you do not need a membership to enter the warehouse and purchase alcohol!

6. Shop Around

I love a good deal. I especially love a good deal on fine Single-Malt. First, make a list of local (or at least driving-range) liquor stores that carry Scotch. Write down (or type into a mobile device such as a smartphone or tablet PC) a sample list of your favorite whiskies. Include benchmark bottles that are likely to be widely carried (such as The Macallan 12, Laphroaig 10, The Glenlivet 12, Talisker 10, and The Balvenie 12 DoubleWood). Also include some higher-range bottles for comparison (such as The Macallan 18, Springbank 18, and 18-or-older bottles of The Dalmore). By tracking the prices of such benchmark bottles at all your local stores, you can develop a good sense of what’s overpriced and what’s a good deal, you can determine which stores are most likely to offer the highest discounts, and you’re more likely to be able to identify an excellent deal when one comes around! I swear that a good Scotch, purchased at a great price, tastes even better!

Got any suggestions of your own for saving money on Scotch and other whiskies? Share in the comments!

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22 Comments

22 Responses to Scotch on a Budget

  1. Lakisha Walman says:

    [Spam removed]

  2. fier forjat says:

    Really nice post! It’s freaking awesome what you can learn these days just by googlin the internet.

  3. Haroldro says:

    I always check out duty free airport and cruise shops while travelling. Major cities are good, yet best deal I ever got was in Grand Turk in the Caribbean. Got an extra 20 bucks off the already low prices by buying two bottles at the same time.
    Also, New Hampshire, USA has excellent everyday prices, due to lack of State tax. Stock and availability in each outlet store can be viewed in advance online.

  4. EMP says:

    Randomly found this website looking for whisky reviews. Good suggestions, but damn, a bottle of laphroig is like $65 in Canada! I need something cheaper!

  5. @EMP, Good luck! Keep in mind that prices are pretty variable – a local grocery store here has horrible prices – $50 US for Laphroaig, $105 for Lagavulin 16, etc… try looking for independent wine stores or big-box chains like Costco, Total Wine, Beverages & More, etc. Somebody’s bound to have decent prices. You should also check out the Whisky Whisky Whisky forum, and see if anyone else in your area knows where the deals are. Cheers!

  6. @EMP Also, Glenlivet 12 should be the cheapest Single Malt available – that’s usually a good baseline. If it’s not under $30 where you’re shopping, then their prices are probably too high. I can reliably find it for $21-$25 here.

  7. James K says:

    Although it is not comprehensive, I use wine-searcher.com to look for deals and values. It doesn’t include Costco, Trader Joes (which has the Balvenie Doublewood for the lowest price I could find), and others, but I think it’s pretty useful overall. I’ve found some pretty great deals through the site.

  8. Graham says:

    I find your website to be a great read and very helpful for a young single malt conisuer such as myself. Although, I fail to see many similarities between sweet singles and Irish blends; I especially find Jameson to be rather briny. I might suggest 12 yr Abalor as a less expensive alternative. Also, I don’t know if it’s because I live in New York, but if you’re buying a bottle of Glenlivet 12 year old for for under 30, it’s off the back of a truck…the cheapest I’ve seen is 38$.

    • Graham, thanks for your comments! Jameson does have savory quality (which I’m guessing comes from its proportion of pot-still whiskey, since Redbreast has this savory flavor in abundance) which I interpret as “oily” and “meaty”, while others may definitely find brine. As for the price – all of the prices that I list on my website come from Northern California – generally from the best prices that I can find after extensive shopping-around. See my Finding a Better Whisky Shop article for specifics. While I might post that a Balvenie DoubleWood is around $32-$35 at my favorite whisky shop – I can still find it for upwards of $50 or even $60 if I go to the more expensive specialty shops in San Francisco, or to high-end grocery stores which generally have high prices on these items. I sympathize with other parts of the world, however (especially Canada), as prices on imported whisky can be astronomical. Have you tried looking upstate or maybe in other parts of New England? I have a friend in Massachusetts who sometimes finds deals to rival my own, and the New Hampshire state liquor store posts its prices online. Cheers and good luck!

  9. Mantisking says:

    Referencing your point #3, I’ve been able to find several different whiskies in 50mL size. It’s really helped to expand my tastings. Here’s a small list of what I’ve found; Bushmills, Bushmills Black Bush, Chivas Regal 12, Compass Box Eleuthera, Cragganmore 12, Gentleman Jack, Glenmorangie 12yr. Quinta Ruban, Glenlivet 12, Glenlivet 15, Glenlivet 18, Highland Park 18, Jameson, Macallan 12 and Woodford Reserve.

    • Nice finds there! I’ve only seen a few of those (notably the Eleuthera, HP 18, and some of the 12s). Availability of 50ml samples depends, I think, entirely on the retailer and their distributors. Some retailers recognized the marketing potential of samples, and make an effort to obtain them from distributors and display them. Most, unfortunately, don’t.

      • Mantisking says:

        That was from several different stores. I’ve been scouring all the local shops in an effort to find as many different 50 mL bottles as I can.

  10. bob says:

    Amazingly Albertson’s Scotch priced at $8.00 for a fifth isn’t all that terrible, provided you have one of their supermarkets nearby.
    It’s a blended variety not dissimilar to a less sweet version of J&B. Great for a Scotch and Soda or other times you need a ‘well Scotch’ for entertaining or guzzling immoderately.
    I’ve had worse that cost considerably more.

    • John says:

      I agree! Albertson’s Scotch is amazing. There’s an interesting story there somewhere I bet

      • Frank says:

        I heartily agree with you guys. Any idea who might be the distillery for Albertson’s scotch?
        Our Albertson’s (in New Mexico) offers a discount for the purchase of 6 or more bottles of any liquor and/or wine.
        Currently, they’re offering a 25% discount.
        I just bought 1.75 liter bottle of Albertson’s scotch for a little more than $13. They also had 12 year old Glenlivet 750ml on sale for $30, and Gold Sauza tequila for $7.50/750ml. Needless to say, my grocery bill was a bit inflated this week.

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  12. Joel says:

    I want to second wine-searcher.com as a way to find great deals. I just used them to score some Corryvreckan from a San Francisco wine shop for $60, a good $30 less than I could find it for locally. Even with cross-country shipping added it was a great deal.

    • Joel says:

      BTW – I understand that this post is titled “scotch on a budget”, but you can always enjoy a decent bourbon (for me Elijah Craig 12 or Four Roses Small Batch) some nights for about half the cost of most single malts.

  13. Justin says:

    I’m surprised someone hasn’t suggested Arbelour. It’s around $35 and is delicious.

  14. Jay says:

    Unless, you live in Ontario and have to buy Scotch from the LCBO. The Balvenie 12 yr Doublewood is 89.95, so you can imagine how we feel. And the selection is terrible. We can’t import Scotch from outside Ontario.

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