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.
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:
- Laphroaig 10 (peated)
- Lagavulin 16 (peated)
- The Macallan 12 (sherried)
- Auchentoshan Classic (Lowlander)
- Glenmorangie Nectar d’Or (Sauternes expression)
- Talisker 10 (Skye)
- Aberlour a’bunadh (cask strength)
- The Balvenie 15 Single Barrel (heathery)
- Jameson (Irish blend) and Redbreast 12 (pot still)
What’s in your