Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Single Malt Scotch on a Budget

Single Malt Scotch connoisseur and author of  The Whisky Dungeon blog, Paul Potts, has a great entry: "A Beginner's Cabinet". Paul chooses five varieties that would serve as a worthy and inexpensive entry into the vast world that is the aroma, taste and finish of whiskys, and not just single malt Scotch. And they are good choices that represent a blend of quality and value that he finds pleasing to his senses. His five (with approximate pricing):
Glenfiddich 15 ($35)
The Tyrconnell, an Irish single malt ($35)
Laphroaig Quarter Cask ($50)
Abelour 12 Double Cask Matured ($35)
Jim Beam Black, an American bourbon ($20)

"What to choose for someone who has never imbibed in the tantalizing world of whisky, especially single malt Scotch?"
This is a question posed frequently to those of us who enjoy a good single malt whisky. No, we are not experts, just frequent imbibers who like to explore the complex aromas (perhaps upwards of 20-30) and flavors (five) of single malts, along with many subdivisions of flavor. This is why there are so many opinions as to personal favorites. A good primer on enjoying single malt Scotch can be found at the maltmadness website.

Since a bottle of single malt Scotch stocked at typical liquor stores can range in price from about $20 to $200 (or more), I tend to suggest the lower priced but aromatic and tasty selections for those looking to try a bottle or two.
Two of my favorites are both priced at about $20 and are available here in the Western U.S. at Trader Joe's: Lismore and Finlaggan.

Lismore, from the Speyside region of Scotland, has been compared to a young Cragganmore or Glenfiddich, and reviewed as having "a pleasant nose, full of fruit and honey, with good smoke in the middle."  I find it a bit lighter than that description with a good combination of savory aroma and drinkability (it doesn't burn going down). Yes, the hard core, cigar smoking, single malt male may refer to it as "pussy Scotch". I say, "here, kitty, kitty." 

Lismore can be found at many liquor stores, usually on the bottom shelf, covered in dust. Don't let the low price fool you. In many unofficial tasting parties held here, Lismore has been rated higher than Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, Dalmore, Aberfeldy and Cragganmore. And most of those sell for twice the price of Lismore.

Finlaggan may be harder to find. It seems Trader Joe's has a lock on it out here in California. But if you are looking into the gateway drug of "peaty, smoky, Islay single malts", Finlaggan holds its own against its higher priced brothers, including Laphroaig, Caol Ila, Ardbeg and Laguvalin (the "Murderer's Row" of single malt Scotch). Yes, the experienced palate will note more of a caramel flavor and slightly astringent aroma with Finlaggan; but for an introduction into the peat and smoke world, you can't beat Finlaggan. And when I see my bottle of Lagavulin 16 nearing empty, I'll set it aside for a special occasion and pick up the Finlaggan. Which brings me to:


My Desert Island Single Malts
If I could only have two bottles of single malt Scotch to enjoy, whiling away the day waiting for a rescue vessel, it would be these:
Macallan 10 Fine Oak ($30-35)  and Laguvalin 16 ($60-70).

These two represent, according to my nose, tongue and throat, the left and right wing of the Single Malt Party.
Macallan 10 Fine Oak is a "Full-Bodied, Medium-Sweet, Pronounced Sherry with Fruity, Spicy, Malty Notes and Nutty, Smoky Hints" according to David Wishart at the Whisky Classified website.
Laguvalin 16: "Full-Bodied, Dry, Pungent, Peaty and Medicinal, with Spicy, Feinty Notes".

Macallan 10 Fine Oak is the underappreciated Macallan with mediocre reviews (I'm lookin' at you, Jim Murray). I have the floor manager of a Beverages and More store in Sacramento to thank for introducing me to the Macallan 10. This happened when I just started developing a taste for single malt Scotch, and was buying bottles to sample based on two criteria: How much is it? How pretty is the bottle? 

I was on my way to a family Christmas Eve gathering and stopped in to purchase a bottle of a single malt Scotch. Apparently, I was staring at the shelves beyond the alloted time, because the manager came up and asked if he could be of assistance. I threw myself at his mercy. 

"If you were going to a family party and wanted the adults there to enjoy one single malt, which would it be?" I asked. 

If he was an out-and-out capitalist, he could've pulled out his gold key and unlocked the nearby magical Scotch cabinet and proffered up a bottle of Bowmore 25 ($240) or Highland Park 25 ($280). Instead, he reached onto an open shelf for the Macallan 10 Fine Oak, saying, "I have never heard anybody complain about this one."

Years later, Macallan 10 Fine Oak is still my favorite everyday single malt Scotch. Not that I drink it everyday...but I could.

"The pale golden yellow color of Macallan 10 Fine Oak is pure and clean, the initial aroma reveal supple, buttery, and piney aromas. The palate entry is honey sweet and silky." I didn't say that. Some marketing guy did. But he's right. Or she. Yes, this is one that is equally popular in my household...which is why I tend to run out so quickly. Macallan 10 Fine Oak is just the right balance of enticing aromas (mmmm...butterscotch!), smooth on the tongue and easy on the throat. I said that.

Lagavulin is the consistent hitter in the Murderer's Row of Islay single malts, all of which are noted for their peaty aroma and smoky flavor. Order a Laguvalin 16 in a restaurant, and everyone at your table will want to take a whiff, it's that powerful yet enjoyable. It is the perfect single malt to follow a steak dinner. The beauty of the Laguvalin 16: you'll spend so much time savoring the aroma, one drink will last you an hour or more. 

To me, Ardbeg, Laphroaig and Caol Ila can be wildly inconsistent, sometimes with throat burn, sometimes not. And there is a reason the phrase, "Laphroaig headache" is part of the vernacular. You will pay the price for all that fun. The Laguvalin 16 can be enjoyed by all, even those just sniffing.


  1. Holy Cow! My Scottish mother would administer whisky to us kids as medicine. I can't stand the stuff.

    Nice diversion though.

  2. Hands down the most forthright, plain spoken and honest survey of single mats I've seen to date. If ever we're fortunate enough to meet, I shall owe you a wee dram or two in appreciation.

  3. Is it wrong after reading this to wan't a wee dram for breakfast?