Hello, readers! Today is another post in my series of beginner’s guides to the world of whisky. (See my previous article about how to taste whisky). Before you can taste it, though, you’ve got to know how to pick a whisky to try! This post will focus on single-malt scotch, which I think is the best possible place to get your bearings in the wider world of whisky.
Single-malt scotch is whisky distilled and aged in Scotland from only malted barley and water. It must be aged at least three years in oak barrels to be called ‘scotch’, and it cannot have any additives other than water and caramel coloring (which has no flavor but is used to ‘adjust’ the color of whisky). Scotch is either peated (tastes of smoke and earth, which come both from peat in the water used to make and dilute the whisky and also from smoke from peat fires used to heal the stills) or not. Peat can be an acquired taste, and is generally not something that beginners should start with (although I did… oops!).
Scotch is always aged in oak barrels. Sometimes, however, those barrels previously held other contents such as bourbon or other whisky, wine, sherry, madeira, port, rum, calvados, etc. These previous contents still exist within the wood fibers of the barrels, and will affect the flavor of the scotch stored in them. The longer the aging in these barrels is, the more pronounced the impact of the barrel’s previous contents. If a scotch is aged solely in one of these barrels, it is said to have been “matured” or “aged” in that type of barrel (e.g. sherry-aged or ex-bourbon-matured). If the whisky spent only a short period of time (usually at the end of its aging process) in one of these barrels, it is said to have been “finished” (e.g. Sauternes-finished or port-finished). Even six months spent in an ex-wine cask is long enough for scotch to pick up many interesting flavors.
Age is an important factor in the flavor of scotch, but is not always a reliable way to determine its quality or even predict its flavor. A 12 year-old Glenlivet costs around $25 a bottle, while a 12 year-old Lagavulin costs $99 a bottle! (16 year-old Lagavulin is around $65). Price is (usually) a better indicator of quality. See my pricing guidelines on this post to see how I view price-versus-quality of scotch.
Finally, alcohol content can vary between 40% ABV (alcohol by volume), which is the legal minimum for scotch, and upwards of 70% ABV or more. Most ‘standard’ distillery bottlings fall between 40% and 50% ABV. These have been diluted with local water to reach this strength, because the whisky is of a much higher strength direct from the barrel. Some bottles are “cask strength”, and have not been watered down. These can be very difficult to drink straight, and are not recommended for beginners.
Here is a short list of single-malt scotches that I consider good starting points for beginning whisky drinkers. These are all meant for drinking ‘straight’ (without mixing with anything except maybe a little water) and should provide a good introduction to single-malt scotch.
* The Balvenie DoubleWood (12 years old) – matured in a combination of ex-bourbon and ex-sherry barrels, this Speysider is an instant classic and one of the easiest-drinking malts around. It’s an especially good value at $36-$40 a bottle.
* Dalwhinnie (15 years old) – one of the gentler drams, it’s a Highland whisky with notes of honey and heather. Very soft on the palate. Around $55.
* The Macallan (12 years old) – matured exclusively in ex-sherry barrels, this very popular malt is heavy on the plum, raisin, and sweet syrupy notes. A pretty good bargain at $45.
* GlenDronach (12 years old) – I prefer this to The Macallan. It’s the same style (100% ex-sherry barrels), but has a meatier, more savory quality. Decently priced as well at $45.
* Oban (14 years old) – another Highlander like Dalwhinnie, this dram exemplifies the style, with tons of honey and lots of floral, heathery aromas. Sweet like golden raisins and honey. You pay for this quality, though, at $60 a bottle.
* Highland Park (12 years old) – a steal at $40 a bottle, this dram from the isle of Orkney is mildly sherried, which gives sweetness, but also contains flavors from the island’s unique type of peat. The result is a citrusy, smoky, sweet combination that makes a category by itself.
If you want to try the smokier peated style of whiskies, your best bets are:
* Laphroaig (10 years old) – somewhat rough, but this is one of the best values in scotch, at around $33 a bottle. This was my first scotch. It’s very intensely smoky, and contains hints of seaweed and seasalt.
* Caol Ila (12 years old) – a milder cousin to Laphroaig, Caol Ila is peated, but also muted enough to serve as a good introduction to smoky whiskies. Caol Ila is often used in blended whisky because its mildness doesn’t overwhelm other malts.
* Talisker (10 years old) – one of my favorites, Talisker is peated, but also has a unique mineral character that truly tastes like the rocky sea-battered island coastline where it’s made. A pricier malt, but worth it at $50 a bottle.
If you really must try a cask-strength scotch, go for:
* The Glenlivet Nadurra – If it’s possible for something that’s 53% alcohol to be gentle, this is it. Classic Speyside flavors, with plenty of sweetness balanced by green fruit and apple notes. The perfect introduction to cask-strength scotch. You can always dilute it with water if the burn is too great.