The Whisky Shelf: Covering the Bases

My Shelf

Every Single-Malt Scotch is different. In fact, it is their individuality that elevates them from a simple drink to a fine luxury. However, even the most ardent Scotch enthusiast sometimes has to draw a line when it comes to his or her collection. When your liquor cabinet is bursting at the seams, maybe consider winnowing your bottle count down by “covering the bases” of all the major types of malt whisky, and keeping just one bottle in each category. Obviously, nobody agrees exactly on the “categories” of single-malt Scotches, so I’ve just come up with my own system that covers what I see as the major attributes: Peaty, Sherried, Heather-influenced, and so on. Before you start flogging me for leaving your favorite dram off the list – disclaimer: This is MY ideal list of must-have whisky shelf occupants. Yours will be different! Post your ideal shelf inventory in the comments. :)

1. The Peated Malt

You could be forgiven for keeping two bottles from this category in a small collection, since peated malt is such a classic expression of Scotch whisky. In some ways, the flavor of peat (both the earthy quality present in peated water, and the smokiness infused by malt dried over open peat fires) sets Scotch apart from every other type of whiskey. I keep both a Lagavulin 16 year and a Laphroaig 10 year, both from Islay. Of course there are other Islay offerings that are equally as good, and even some excellent peated Highland malts.

2. The Sherried Malt

Scotch whisky has traditionally been aged in barrels previously used to transport Sherry from Spain to the British isles. These barrels were plentiful and inexpensive, so nearly all Scotch whisky developed color and flavor notes from the use of Sherry casks. It wasn’t until distillers began to have difficulty finding inexpensive barrels that some of them turned to ex-Bourbon casks from the United States as an alternative. Today, the sherried expression is still valued by the Scotch enthusiast, and many famous brands built their image on this flavor profile. The classic sherried malt is The Macallan, which both exemplifies the category and stands as a fantastic benchmark of quality in its own right. The Macallan 12-year bottling is widely available and is very good. Another contender in this category is Aberlour, although my bottle of Aberlour belongs in category #6: see below.

3. The Lowlander

Scotch does not always need to knock your socks off with its potency or pungency. Sometimes you may be in a mellow state of mind and would like a gentle, elegant, or subtle Scotch to mull over. Lowlanders, although there are very few distilleries left in this region, are known for their soft water, smooth low-burn mouthfeel, and subtle expressions without the heavy application of either peat or wood. A good lowlander showcases the quality of the malt, the skill of the distiller, the terroir (local influence) of the water, and the nuances that can develop in a well-aged whisky. A prime example is Auchentoshan, which also has the distinction of being one of the very few Single-Malt distilleries left to use triple distillation for a smooth, pure, gentle spirit. (Hazelburn, from the Springbank distillery in Campbeltown, is also triple-distilled).

4. The Wine Expression (Finish)

As interest in single-malt Scotch has grown over the past few decades, distillers have been increasingly eager to experiment with different approaches to infusing flavor into their ‘standard’ whisky products. By aging Scotch in multiple types of barrels for various lengths of time, certain flavor profiles can be coaxed from the maturing spirit, often called a barrel ‘finish’. Glenmorangie, a Highlander, is one of the pioneers of this type of barrel-aging expression. With product lines aged in ruby Port casks or French Sauternes casks, among others, Glenmorangie should be the first stop on a tour of modern Scotch finishes. I particularly like the Nectar d’Or product, which is aged for 10 years in traditional Bourbon casks, and then an additional 2 years in French Sauternes barriques.

5. Talisker

Poet Robert Louis Stevenson, a lover of Talisker, described this whisky from the lonely Isle of Skye as a category unto itself. I agree with him. Talisker is like no other whisky on Earth. It is rocky and mineral, earthy and smokey, salty and briny, and yet bursting with fruit and sweet cereal flavors. When I first tried Talisker, I described it as “kicking me in the teeth,” and I keep coming back for more. I will always have a bottle of Talisker 10 year on my shelf.

6. The Cask Strength

Whisky is aged in barrels at a higher strength than is generally found in bottles. Somewhere around 60% ABV (alcohol-by-volume), depending on its age (It loses around 2% of its alcohol per year of aging in barrels). The minimum bottling strength for Scotch Whisky is 40% ABV, so most bottlers will dilute a cask of whisky down to this strength. Some bottles are released at other strengths, commonly 43% or 46%. A ‘cask strength’ bottling is one that has been bottled without dilution, usually by the distillery itself. They are generally marked with a batch number or year, and ABV (alcohol by volume) of the batch. Drinking cask strength gives you a clear, unadulterated picture of the flavor profile of a whisky, but it can also be a challenge to drink due to the increased ‘burn’ or dryness on your palate, especially if there is a lot of fiery younger malt present in the mixture. I keep a bottle of Aberlour a’bunadh, a cask strength vatting of several ages of Aberlour whisky, on hand at all times for when I’m in the mood for a taste of the pure, wild spirit.

7. The Heathery Malt

Water that flows through the hills of Scotland picks up various flavors on its way. The rocks and soils that it runs over donate minerals, and the plants that it flows under provide esters and other flavor compounds. To taste a Scotch whisky is to taste the land of Scotland. In wine, this influence of the land is referred to as ‘terroir,’ which is French for ‘earth’ or ‘land’. One may taste clover or heather, plants that grow in abundance on the hills of Scotland, or peat from peat bogs, which are created by the compacted decomposed remains of centuries of mosses and other plants. Heather is a distinctive taste, redolent of honey and the specific floral and herbal scents of the heather plant. One of the clearest examples of a Scotch with heather notes is The Balvenie 15 year Single-Barrel, which is also an excellent example of a Scotch which is bottled from a single barrel, rather than a vatting (mixture) of whiskies from several barrels of the same distiller. Maturing whisky ages differently based on many factors, such as the history of the barrel’s contents, the weather, and even the location of the barrel within the warehouse. Because of this, every barrel of The Balvenie Single-Barrel has its own distinct flavor and aroma notes (the barrel number is printed on the bottle). Every bottle of The Balvenie, however, contains some degree of heather character.

8. The Irish Whiskey

No whisky drinker can call himself an enthusiast without at least tasting the other whiskies of the world. Whisky is produced all over the world, but most notably in Ireland, Canada, the United States, and Japan. The most Scotch-like of these is probably Japanese whiskey, which emulates the style of classic single-malt Scotch. However, for individualistic style and flavor, the Irish whiskies should probably be your first foray outside of Scotland. Most Irish whiskies are blended using both malt and grain whiskies. This makes for a cheaper, consistent, more generic, and less expressive whiskey. However, I always like to have a few choices for easy-drinking inexpensive drams in my cabinet, and a massive name like Jameson or Powers is a good bet, each running between $16 and $20 a bottle. Furthermore, there are some high-quality Irish whiskies that are either single-malt or at least conscientiously blended to produce a high-quality spirit. Also available are ‘single pot still’ (analogous in some ways to single-malt) bottlings. Redbreast 12 year and Connemara Peated, for example, are excellent.

To summarize, my ideal whisky cabinet contains representatives from each of the above categories, plus maybe a few bottles of rare expressions, old favorites, gifts, and experimental new tastings. Something like:

What’s in your wallet cabinet?

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18 Comments

18 Responses to The Whisky Shelf: Covering the Bases

  1. JWC says:

    not a single bottle of bourbon? ouch! instead of substituting for one of the ones already on your list, how about adding a bourbon or two – wild turkey 101 and weller 12? great stuff and great value pours. the stuff like the pappy’s are too difficult to get for most people.

  2. JWC says:

    forgot to add that i would not substitute redbreast 12 with a bourbon in the last category – redbreast 12 is fantastic stuff! i say if you can have two in the peated category, you can have at least two (if not more) in the world category (it is a big world afterall!).

  3. Absolutely. The fact is, I haven’t found “my” bourbon yet – I’ve heard good things about the Evan Williams Single Barrel, but my bar doesn’t carry it. And, of course, this list is flexible – everyone’s shelf is (and should be!) different.

  4. JWC says:

    in addition to the ewsb, wt 101 and weller 12, some recommendations (all in the same ballpark price range as the scotch you have on your shelf):

    pappy products: old rip van winkle 10 yo/107; lot b; pappy 15 yo; pappy rye. difficult to get because of the scarcity but worth it.

    buffalo trace antique collection: yeah, the prices may slightly exceed the limit depending on your location but in my opinion, they are worth it. the william larue weller and george t stagg are the gems. eagle rare 17 has been hit or miss lately. if you are into ryes, the sazerac and thomas h handy are very good (i prefer the sazerac).

    elmer t lee and elijiah craig 12 are very good, readily available and won’t kill your wallet.

  5. Good advice, thanks. There are so many excellent spirits out there to sample, and so little time (and money!). I really do wish it were easier to try before buying. I guess I just need to find a better-stocked bar. :)

  6. JWC says:

    i strayed away from scotch and gravitated towards bourbon. as i got serious about my whiskey and realized, with horror, that my favorites may be discontinued or limited releases, i stocked up. i am getting reacquainted with my previous interest, scotch (with the help of folks like you, john h, ralfy, etc.,). my wallet is getting lighter and my wife is about to have me committed.

  7. Brian Drier says:

    hi again! i want to thank you for your comments the last time i posted here. i’m now thinking of organizing a casual tasting in my neighborhood (relatively rural japan: in the heart of sake country, no less!), and i would love to get your input. as it stands, i think that a tasting organized around a regions or “categories” theme–or, quite possibly, a conflation of the two–would be good: i’m at the starting line with scotch, and i suspect that many of my neighbors are generally in a similar place.

    I have tried to list up some possible representative expressions that i can get my hands on at my local liquor store, which has a decent selection at quite reasonable prices (as i mentioned previously), and here are some of the prospects:

    Islay: Laphroaig Quarter Cask. I really don’t se any point in looking any further if I decide to choose just one. The price is right, and I’m in love (and i don’t think they carry cask strength). If i added a second, Bowmore 12 seems populr, but i’ve also sen the 12-year expressions from Caol Ila and Bunnahabhain (as well as pricier selections like the Ardbeg 10 and Lagavulin 16)

    Highlands: considering Clynelish 14 and Glenmorangie’s 10 year expression, although The Dalmore 12 and Glengoyne are also on the radar somewhere.

    Lowlands: I’m thinking Auchentoshan, although Glenkichie also seemed possible.

    Islands: Talisker 10, IF i can get it. If not, Highland Park 12 or 18. If not that, I recall seeing Isle Of Jura Superstition. Perhaps not crucial, though, as I may not have room for a representative from Islands…

    Campbeltown: I’ve heard good things about Springbank 10. Again, if I have to omit a region or two, this sounds like a logical candidate to cut…

    Speyside: With Islay, one of the sure things for inclusion in the tasting. A few ideas here, and I’m open to including 2 expressions given the popularity of Speyside offerings and the range of categories within them. I had thought that The Macallan 12 might be a decent choice, and a representative of the sherry take. I also thought of Glenfarclas 12 or 105: the latter sounds like a nice choice, as it also gives tasters a chance to sample cask strength. I wonder, however: is it a very sherried expression? For that matter, is the 12? If so, I would not be likely to select both Glenfarclas and The Macallan 12. Instead, I would likely turn to either the Balvenie 10 Founder’s Reserve or Cragganmore 12, which I’ve seen described as a good representative of the typical Speyside taste profile.

    Anyway, I would love to be able to buy 6 bottles, but it might end up being only 4. If I have 6 or so, I had the following sequence in mind: Auchentoshan; Clynelish 14 (or Glemorangie 10); Cragganmore 12 (or Balvenie 10?); Glenfarclas 105 (or 12… or The Macallan 12); Talisker 10; Laphroaig QC…

    Any thoughts on this? I figure that if guys (and possibly gals) are willing to pony up 60 bucks or so, a not extortionary amount for a night out that has the added attraction of being safe for being held at home and having no threat of added expenses(2nd and 3rd destinations in a pub crawl, as typically happens), we could have a nice little gathering. I could also buy Glencairn glasses for all participants as part of the package–and get some bites like dark chocolate; cheese; fruit; and bread. Folks could also add pot luck food to the mix… Another thought was, at the end of the night, to give remaining portions of each bottle to people to take home, with results being decided either on the basis of a random lottery OR blind tasting! Is that too competitive? I thought it would add a fun wrinkle to the night…

    Hope to hear from you about these ideas. I’m especially inclined, I think, to give all a taste of “typical” offerings from various regions/categories so that it can be a stepping stone to our own advancement in the hobby of scotch whisky: the more we learn about the whiskies, the more we learn about ourselves (our likes and dislikes, etc.)!

  8. Brian,
    It sounds like you’ve already got this pretty well thought-out! What you’ve written sounds like a good plan, and I’m sure it would be a very fun night for all involved. :)
    Here are some additional comments:
    * For Lowlands, I prefer Auchentoshan to Glenkinchie. The Classic is a good, inexpensive example of the lighter side of Scotch. It’s also triple-distilled, which is uncommon.
    * I suggest keeping Springbank (the 10 is good) in the mix: It’s a very interesting malt, unlike any others on your list. It’s mildly peated, but in a more meaty/oily way, and less “campfire” than Islay malts. It’s also a good example of “craft” distillation: no caramel coloring added, and no chill filtering.
    * I suggest sticking with your Laphroaig QC for Islay. You know you like it, and it’s certainly an iconic Islay malt. Note that Bunnahabhain is unpeated, so it’s very different. It’s a lot more like a Speysider in nature.
    * Glenfarclas is indeed sherried. I’ve never had any, but it’s likely to be better than Macallan, if the prices are the same. I’ve recently had GlenDronach 12, which is very Macallan-like (sherried), but (I think) better. The Balvenie DoubleWood is also a good alternative, in the same category (partially sherried). Note that not all Speysiders are sherried! The Balvenie 15 Single Barrel, for example, and Glenfiddich 12 or any Glenlivet or are unsherried, and tend to be light and fruity.
    * For the Highlands, which doesn’t have a consistent ‘style’ per-se, Glenmorangie Original (10 year) is excellent. Oban 14 is, as well. Both are sweet and honeyed. Remember that Speyside is, technically, inside the Highlands.
    * The Islands also don’t have a consistent style. Highland Park is medium peated, but also sherried. Talisker is heavily peated, but not as much as Islay malts. Jura is sweet and dense, and only lightly peated. Talisker 10, if you can get it, is an excellent Scotch.

    Your ordering sounds good. Simply keep the lighter styles (Auchentoshan, Oban, and other unsherried malts) at the beginning, and peated malts (ending with Laphroaig or Ardbeg) at the end. I suggest allowing guests to taste both with and without the addition of a tiny bit of water, so they can tell the difference it makes. Glencairn glasses are good, although not necessary (they might make good favors, although pricey).
    You could also consider ordering a number of small (2 or 3 oz) sealable glass bottles, and using a small funnel to package up leftovers for guests to take home and sample on their own. That is, if there are any leftovers! Have fun!

  9. Brian Drier says:

    Thanks, as always for the thoughtful reply and encouragement. We’ll see how things unfold–including the number of bottles and the number of participants–but it seems like a great way to ge to know scotch–and my neighbors–better! And, of course, the great thing about a tasting is that everyone can get a few new experiences under their belt without having to invest in a bunch of bottles!

    I suspect that, at a minimum, 4 regions would be okay: lowlands (auchentoshan); speyside (perhaps offering 2 takes in the form of glenfarclas 105 for sherried and cask strength & cragganmore 12–or the more “pedestrian” glenlivet 12–for a slightly more representative (unsherried) expression); campbeltown (springbank 10); and islay (laphroaig QC). if i could add 1, it could be talisker 10 or a highland rep. i suppose that it’s not CRUCIAL to give a clearly delineated theme as long as i can provide an introduction to a few different “categories”, preferably choosing some expressions which will be relatively easily distinguished from each other in a blind tasting. that would provide the best benefit in terms of advancing our “education”, i suppose…?

    i’ll let you know how it goes. again, thanks so much for your advice!

  10. Ryan says:

    Hi Scotch Noob, I’m still trying to figure out how to set up my whisky shelf. Each time I come up with a new formula, some mood or situation arises that breaks the mold. The thing is I am very hesitant about opening too many bottles, because I am worried about having my good, expensive bottles lose some of their flavor if they’re open too long. And, the more bottles you have open, the longer they will be open. Do you have any thoughts on how long bottles last when they’re open? Talisker 10 is an example of a whisky I love, but that I feel loses some of its “pop” after a month or two. What do you think?

    Thanks, and merry Christmas!

    • Hi Ryan,

      Very good questions. From what I’ve heard/read, an open bottle of whisky which is 3/4 or more full can be expected to maintain its flavor as long as a year. However, the lower the level in the bottle, the faster it will oxidize and turn “bland”. A bottle that only has a few inches of liquid left in it will oxidize in as little as a month. There are two things you can do about this: 1) Use a spray-air wine saver product like “Private Preserve” (Amazon link in your pricier bottles, or 2) Invite some friends over to polish off bottles that dip below 1/3 or so. I generally keep about 10 bottles open at once, and I try to finish off the oldest ones and lowest ones first. Oh, you can also buy some smaller glass bottles (250 ml for example) at http://www.specialtybottle.com to keep the air off any whisky that you want to keep around for longer.

      • Ryan says:

        Thanks, the little bottles are a pretty good idea. I may have to invest in a few of those. Do you bother with any of these measures, or do you find that your whisky tastes fine? For an example, how long does a bottle of Talisker 10 generally last for you, and do you notice any drop off? Sorry to bug you further, I’m just trying to get some ideas of what other people think who I know pay attention to their whisky.

        • @Ryan, I do use the Private Preserve spray-air on any bottles above $50, unless I plan to finish them quickly. I don’t worry about bottles that are 3/4 or more full, and I quickly finish off anything under 1/3 full. I generally keep open bottles for 3-6 months. I have a bottle of Talisker that’s been under 1/4 full for around 6 months, and it does indeed taste a little flat. I should have finished it before the 3 month mark, when it dropped below 1/3 full. The amount of airspace is really the important part, not so much the length of time. A mostly-full open bottle can probably last as long as a year. Even ‘flat’ bottles aren’t so bad for casual sipping, or blending together with other leftovers for home experimenting. :)

          • Ryan says:

            Thanks for the info! Very useful. You’re right, it’s certainly still drinkable when it gets flat, it’s just a shame for something that’s really good. Very good point about watching the air space coupled with time.

            Thanks, and merry Christmas!

  11. Matt says:

    Matt here again…As a primal scotch drinker allow me to suggest Four Roses Single Barrel…Also, I am a big fan of Bulleit. However, you already panned that brand. For bourbon, it gets no better than Four Roses single barrel…Also…*gulp*…for your wallet! $30…Can’t beat it.

  12. Matt says:

    Here in OHIO, I can still find Rosebank…If you can find a bottle, buy it!!! Although the distillery is long gone, Rosebank IS the quintessential Lowland malt!!! I couldn’t be more serious about this.

  13. Michael Rozelle says:

    The proprietor of my favorite liquor store recently acquired his own single barrels of Evan Williams, Buffalo Trace and Elijah Craig 12. All are exceptional, all under $30. This is apparently something that is really popular in bourbon country these days. I’ve always really liked BT, and this single barrel expression he selected is really special. I had never had Evan Williams and I was not disappointed by this one.
    Regarding your scotch selections, I couldn’t agree more strongly with the a’bunadh and Redbreast – two of the worlds great whiskys. I would add Ardbeg Uigeadail to the mix, something I will always strive to keep on my shelf alongside the Laphroig QC.

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