As the holiday shopping season enters its frenzied final days, there will inevitably pop up on your shopping list friends or relatives for whom you have to get a gift, but no idea what to buy them. Well, look no further than your local liquor store. This is the perfect time of year for a bottle of single-malt Scotch. After all, there are few more enjoyable ways to warm up on a cold winter’s night than with a snifter of whisky by a roaring fire (or a Yule Log on TV if, like me, you live in an apartment without a fireplace). And a good bottle of Scotch says something about both the giver and the recipient. It says, “I have good taste. I enjoy the finer things in life. I’m an adult; this isn’t Jagermeister or FourLoko we’re talking about. I see those same refined characteristics in you, gift recipient. And if for some reason I’m wrong about you, well, invite me over and I’ll be happy to down that bottle for you.”
The selection of Scotches available can be overwhelming. Single-malt or blended? Speyside or Islay? 12-year-old or 21-year-old? To help narrow things down at least a little, I’m going to forego blended whiskies (with one notable exception) and instead do a rundown of some of my favorite single malts. If you’re wondering, single-malts are whiskies that are created using the ingredients and stills of one distillery, while blended Scotches come from several different distilleries. Surprisingly, single-malts were virtually nonexistent in the States until the last few decades; if you bought Scotch, it was blended brands like J & B and Dewar’s. Today, however, Scotch sophisticates are like wine buffs, knowing the distinctions of different distilleries, regions and aging methods. (Speaking of which, if you need to bone up on your Scottish geography as it relates to whisky drinking, go here for a great overview.)
For the uninitiated, after each Scotch I list the region in which it’s distilled, the alcohol content (also known as “alcohol by volume” or “ABV”), and the general price you should expect to pay for a bottle. The age (16 year, 18 year, etc.) refers to the youngest whisky in the bottle, dating from when it was first casked. And yes, it’s spelled “whisky” without the “e,” but only if it’s Scotch. Bourbon and rye are whiskeys.
It seems like there’s more Scotch whiskies than one human being with a normally functioning liver can taste in a lifetime. So while I’m mentioning a dozen Scotches for your gifting and/or drinking pleasure, I’m well aware that there are dozens more worthy entrants, if not hundreds. Please don’t hold it against me if I haven’t mentioned your favorite. Instead, go to the Comments section and tell the readers — and me — all about it.
BALVENIE CARIBBEAN CASK 14 YEAR OLD (Speyside region, 43% alcohol by volume, $50). The Balvenie has been making whisky since the late 1800s, but in recent years they’ve become known for their limited edition bottlings, in which they “finish” aging a whisky (generally for several months) in barrels (also known as casks) that have housed various other wines or spirits, including port, sherry and Madeira. My favorite of the lot is the new Caribbean Cask, which is finished in rum casks. It’s gloriously rich and rounded, full and sweet with toffee and vanilla flavor, and it finishes very, very smooth. A friend of mine, on taking a sip, said, “This is everything I want in life.” (If you want a more traditional smoky, peaty Scotch, try the Balvenie’s limited edition Peated Cask. Yum.)
GLENFIDDICH 15 YEAR OLD (Speyside, 40% ABV, $40). If you’re just getting into single malts, this is a great way to get your feet wet without going overboard on the peat and smoke. Glenfiddich is made in the Speyside region of Scotland, which produces smoother, “easier” whiskies. It’s got an aroma of sweet butterscotch and vanilla harmonizing with dry cereal notes. On the tongue, it’s dry on top with sweet notes underneath, and it’s extremely smooth when it hits your gullet. As far as I’m concerned, if you don’t like the ‘Fiddich, you don’t like Scotch, plain and simple. (For more adventurous drinkers, try the somewhat bolder but no less beautiful 21 Year Old. For ridiculously wealthy people, try finding the greatest whisky I’ve ever tried, the $16,000 50 Year Old.)
GLENLIVET 12 YEAR OLD (Speyside, 40% ABV, $35). A Scotch aficionado I know once called Glenlivet “like an angel pissing on your tongue.” I couldn’t tell you firsthand whether he was right, but it IS damn good. It starts off floral, almost sweet with notes of honey, but then the dry, grainy notes kick in. It’s got a slight peppery kick, but it’s very smooth, with a long, dry finish. A few drops of water turn a brilliant whisky into a very good one, intensifying the peppery spice but throwing everything just a wee bit off-balance. All you need for this beauty is a glass (don’t drink single malts straight out of the bottle, kids!).
ISLE OF JURA 16 YEAR OLD (Island, 46% ABV, $40). Isle Of Jura is a relative newcomer to the Scotch game, having been in business for less than half a century. Island whiskies share many of the same characteristics as Highland malts, notably a smoky, peppery flavor. Isle Of Jura makes a light whisky that’s similar to Islay malts, but not as intense. Consumed neat, the 16 Year Old has a lot of smoke and ash, but it doesn’t sit heavy on the palate, and it’s balanced out by a little bit of honey. It’s got a nice, dry finish, and the peppery spice leaves your gums tingling. A bit of water adds both caramel/honey and pepper notes, with a sweeter nose as well. A damn good Scotch that won’t change your life, but you’ll enjoy cozying up with it for an evening.
$50 TO $100
AUCHENTOSHAN THREE WOOD (Lowland 43% ABV, $60). Lowland whisky is known for being light, without too much wood or smoke to weigh down the palate. Some Scotch drinkers might consider that a bad thing. But if it’s done well, it’s okey-dokey with me. And the Auchentoshan distillery has done it very well indeed. As the name indicates, the Three Wood bottling is first aged traditionally in American oak casks, but then it’s finished in Oloroso and Ximinez sherry casks. The sherry notes definitely come through along with the maltiness of the whisky, creating a light, smooth and distinctive blend that’s both sweet and dry at the same time. A lovely and complex Scotch.
BOWMORE TEMPEST 10 YEAR OLD (Islay, 56% ABV, $65). Islay whiskies are known to be smoky, peaty affairs, but this one — produced by the oldest existing Islay distillery — is an exception. Tempest is bottled at cask strength, which means it’s got about 20-40% more alcohol than most other Scotches. But you wouldn’t know from trying it. It’s got a light and vibrant nose, with lots of green apple, some citrus, and very little smoke. Neat or with a couple of drops of water, it’s got a lot of spice, but it’s also sweet and fruity, like a whisky with a Calvados soul. You’ll be surprised at how easily such a strong whisky can go down the hatch. Just don’t expect a traditional Islay malt when you’re quaffing it.
LAGAVULIN 16 YR OLD (Islay, 43% ABV, $75). Now THIS is what I’m talking about. The quintessential Islay malt — and to many, the quintessential Scotch whisky. You want smoke? You want peat? You’ve got it, and then some. This bone-dry gem is not a Scotch for the faint of heart. It’s a powerfully flavorful Scotch, without a lot of pretty honey or vanilla notes to caress the palate. But for my money, it’s the closest you can come to really experiencing the Scottish terroir in a bottle. The more you like Scotch, the more you’ll like Lagavulin. (My other favorite Islay malt is Laphroaig, which adventurous bartenders have taken to using in minuscule amounts in cocktails that call for a bit of smoke.)
$100 AND UP
DALMORE 1981 AMOROSO (Highland, 42% ABV, $550). You may have a tough time finding this one, as fewer than 500 bottles were made. But it’s worth hunting for. Finished in Amoroso sherry casks, you can tell just from the aroma that this is a gorgeous whisky — you can almost taste it with your nose. It’s surprisingly fresh and fruity given its age, and it’s incredibly well balanced, fairly gliding over the tongue. It’s got a moderate burn at the end, with a very clean finish. I was going to add a couple of drops of water, but then I thought, why spoil perfection? (The Dalmore’s 1263 King Alexander III bottling is also well worth trying, at about a third of the price of the 1981 Amoroso.)
GLEN GARIOCH 1991 (54.7%, $100, Highland). Glen Garioch’s line isn’t too well known beyond the hardcore single malt crowd, but they’ve been making some mighty fine Scotches for more than 200 years now. The 1991 bottling has been acclaimed by many as one of their best. The high alcohol content can be a little overwhelming if you’re not careful, but if you go in prepared, you’ll be treated to hazelnut and black tea flavors mixing with a powerful gingery spice, and a nice touch of smoke on the back end. This one is for sophisticated palates — if you’re in the market for an easier Glen Garioch, give their Founders Reserve a try.
GLENMORANGIE SIGNET (46% ABV, Highland, $160). Glenmorangie is the top-selling single malt in Scotland, and if anyone knows about Scotch whisky, it’s the Scots. For everyday drinking, I like their 10 Year Old “Original” whisky, but for special occasions or special gifts (or when I get lucky playing the numbers), my favorite of the lot is the Signet. Made in part from a dark, heavy roasted “chocolate” malt (but no actual chocolate is used — this ain’t Godiva here!), it’s got a big, rich flavor of bitter chocolate, cocoa and a bit of citrus, rounded off with a cinnamon/pepper spice and a long, dry finish. A big, assertive whisky that’s not quite like any other Scotch out there, and the bottle looks gorgeous, too.
HIGHLAND PARK 25 YEAR OLD(Island, 40% ABV, $300). Highland Park has only been in the business of selling its own whisky for about 30 years, but they’ve been making the stuff on the isle of Orkney since 1798. I’m always shocked when a Scotch of this age comes out of the barrel tasting like anything but wood — but I guess that’s why I’m writing about Scotch and not distilling it. Perhaps the secret here is the sherry casks that are used in part to age it. All I know is that this whisky may be a quarter-century old, but it tastes young, with lots of honey, vanilla, a little toffee, a little earthy graininess, and a clean, lingering aftertaste. Try it with some vanilla ice cream and out of nowhere some citrus notes come popping up. And hey, what better way to spend Christmas than with ice cream and whisky?
MACALLAN 18 YEAR OLD ($150, Speyside, 43%). My mother had several blended Scotches in her liquor cabinet, but the only single malt I remember, and the only Scotch I remember her ever drinking, was Macallan 18, so I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for it. With or without the warm and fuzzy memories, however, this is one great whisky. As with the Macallan’s other expressions, the 18-year-old is finished in sherry casks, and you can really taste it — along with the smokiness that Scotch is known for, you’ll get strong notes of sherry, brandy, and even some dried fruit. All the flavors are blended beautifully and harmoniously, and at the finish you’ll taste some oak and pepper, too. It’s the kind of whisky that, as the first sip is still going down, you can’t wait for the second. For the season, the thoughtful folks at the Macallan have packaged the 18-year-old in a lovely gift box that makes your gift-giving that much easier.
OK, I WASN’T GOING TO MENTION ANY BLENDED SCOTCHES, BUT…
I recently went to a Johnnie Walker tasting, where I got my first snifter of their special Blue Label King George V Edition. King George was the monarch who gave Johnnie Walker its royal warrant in 1934, which is why all the bottles you see have the royal seal on them. This bottling is a blend from distilleries that were active during George’s reign (1910-36), including a few that are no longer operational. I’ve never been a huge fan of their Blue Label whisky, but the King George V edition is a whole different animal. It’s a rich, complex, ever-evolving Scotch, with fruity, earthy and smoky notes swirling around each other, blending seamlessly while remaining distinct. The crystal decanter in which the ambrosia is housed is as beautiful as the liquid inside. It costs a pretty penny — about $600 — so if you’re giving it as a gift, you should stick around until it’s opened so you can sneak a dram for yourself.
NOW IT’S YOUR TURN
Let me — and your fellow readers — know about your favorite single malts. It’s not like you can capture every angle of Scotch whisky from a mere twelve brands, after all.
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