This is a genre of post that I had promised myself I would never write. Not because there’s anything wrong with it but because it’s a topic that’s been done to death on every whisky forum or blog there is. But, as it happens, ever since I started this blog friends and acquaintances, and friends of friends and acquaintances, have been asking me for tips on bottles to buy and keep at home for guests etc. These are mostly people who are not only not whisky geeks but are not looking to become whisky geeks. They enjoy whisky when they drink it and would like to stock a range of good bottles without the expense of taste-testing their way through a lot or risking the “advice” of whisky store employees looking to move their stock. So rather than repeat this conversation with everyone who starts it it seems easier to throw this set of recommendations up on the blog and point them to it.
There is little of interest here for people who don’t fit the description above. If you are one of those people who does not need such a list but have disagreements with or alternatives to my picks by all means note them in the comments—but do add some description of what you would pick instead and some reasons. More information is good.
- I am going to cover what I think are the major categories of single malt whisky and I am only going to pick one bottle in each.
- I am going to go not by region—which I think is almost entirely irrelevant in the contemporary Scotch world—but by loosely defined style.
- Within each category, all else remaining equal, I will choose the cheapest bottle. I will suggest a more expensive bottle for those with larger budgets or for further exploration.
- I am only going to list bottles that are readily and continuously available in the United States. This rules out single casks, limited editions and independent bottlers.
- The above are the only constraints; I am not trying to pick “easy” or accessible bottles for beginners per se.
These are the broad categories or types of single malt whisky that I would suggest you have in your bar to suit different moods or preferences of different guests:
- One all-rounder.
- One fruity whisky from (mostly) ex-bourbon casks.
- One sherried whisky (not a sherry monster per se but a whisky where the sherry influence is most pronounced).
- One peated whisky.
- One more austere whisky.
- And, in addition to these types, I’d suggest one wildcard “change-up” whisky.
- All-rounder: This is the easiest. Yes, I’m going with the Highland Park 12 which is sherried but with a good proportion of refill sherry casks in the vatting lets brighter fruit through as well; and there’s a light hit of peat smoke as well . More expensive alternative (with less sherry and smoke but more salt): the Clynelish 14.
- Fruity (mostly) ex-bourbon cask whisky: There are a number of cheaper contenders here but I am going to go with the Glenlivet 16, Nadurra, which at cask strength makes up some of the price premium. This is released in batches but is generally consistent in profile. More expensive alternative: the Arran 14.
- Sherried whisky: With the demise of the old Macallan 12 this is now the toughest category in my view. The Glenfarclas 105 and Aberlour A’bunadh are expensive and also very subject to batch variation; the Macallan CS is extinct. I am tempted to pick a bottle from a distillery that most whisky geeks are scornful about, the Dalmore 12, but instead I’m going to go with the Glendronach 12 “Original”. More expensive alternative: the Glendronach 15, “Revival”, the Highland Park 18 or the Bunnahabhain 18.
- Peated whisky: There are a lot of options here but I think only three are are contenders for the purposes of this exercise. Those are the Ardbeg 10, the Laphroaig 10 and the Caol Ila 12. Of those I would go for the Laphroaig 10 as it’s my favourite and packs a big peaty wallop; but there’s no reason you couldn’t cycle between the three. More expensive alternative: the Lagavulin 16 or the Ardbeg Uigeadail (unlike the previous three mentioned these also have some amount of sherry casks in their composition).
- More austere whisky: I guess the category is not very clear. What I am referring to here is malts that are not heavily sherried or peated and which are not very fruity per se. My pick is the Old Pulteney 12. More expensive alternative: the Hakushu 12.
- A wildcard: I am going to suggest the Amrut Fusion, the Indian single malt made with a mix of Indian barley and peated Scottish barley. A very good whisky and a very good conversation piece. More expensive alternative: whichever Octomore you can find and afford—a striking bottle and a ludicrously peated malt at a ludicrous strength (I guess this is bending my “no limited editions” rule but given their high prices it is unlikely that you won’t see an Octomore in a well-stocked store near you).
So, those are my picks for a reasonably well-rounded malt whisky bar. With some luck you should be able to bring all the top picks in for less than $300 combined—not cheap, yes, but Scotch whisky is getting more expensive each year. Go ahead, take a chance, it’s only your money!
And here’s to a happy, new year!