The Well-Rounded Single Malt Bar

Square-watermelonWhat better time than January 1 to break a resolution?

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.

Methodology

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. The above are the only constraints; I am not trying to pick “easy” or accessible bottles for beginners per se.

The Categories

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:

  1. One all-rounder.
  2. One fruity whisky from (mostly) ex-bourbon casks.
  3. One sherried whisky (not a sherry monster per se but a whisky where the sherry influence is most pronounced).
  4. One peated whisky.
  5. One more austere whisky.
  6. And, in addition to these types, I’d suggest one wildcard “change-up” whisky.

The Picks

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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).
  5. 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.
  6. 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!

6 thoughts on “The Well-Rounded Single Malt Bar

  1. Great post! I also have some friends who are trying to get into single malts and they ask me for suggestions all the time. I usually suggest to them clynelish 14 (everybody loves this… HP 12 is a hit or miss), a Nadurra, and a Glendronach (12 or 15). So in this regards, we agree. I think none of my friends that are trying to get into whisky like peated stuff at all (but I can see how having a nice peaty one as part of the arsenal is good to have). For peaty whisky, I suggest Lagavulin 16 usually… I think Ardbeg 10 or Laphroaig 10 are too “disgusting” for most people, and they would be able to tolerate Lagavulin better. But I will refer this very useful post to them.

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  2. Yes, great post. The “austere” whisky that clicked with me was Springbank 10yr. There’s a lot of non-food smells and tastes (Fishing boat? Old barn? Two-stroke exhaust?) that expanded my mind as to what a whisky could constitute. And I’ve recommended people watch Ralfy’s video tour of Springbank on YouTube and they’ve enjoyed it.

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  3. Fantastic list. I think even whisky geeks would do well to have all of the suggested bottles in their cabinets at all times.

    No real argument with Old Pulteney 12 but I agree with Patrick and would put the Springbank 10 in its place. I would never recommend SB to a complete novice (it is as austere as they come and it can be a difficult malt to get your nose/palate around) but I think it deserves a place in a “well-rounded” whisky bar. The only drawback is a more spotty availability across the country and relatively expensive for the age category.

    portwood

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  4. For my first ever whisky (any category, any country) I got the Laphroaig 18 and loved it. While I do like any good whisky from sherried single malts (like the Glendronach 15, Amrut Intermediate) to an American straight rye (like the High West rye), peated Islay single malts (especially Laphroaig) hold a special place in my heart because of the first successful experience. I think something significantly cheaper and less expensive for my first whisky could have resulted in a less enjoyable experience and put me off the entire experience. So, I would suggest to a new enthusiast to go with the nicest stuff they can reasonable afford. I would also suggest they spend a little time with the whisky and learn how to enjoy it first. I’ve tried whisky in bars (including the stuff I like such as the Lagavulin 16) and couldn’t enjoy because of the noise, the ambiance, the glass, and the smell of beer and other booze so trying at home or some other quite place is a must. Of course, the reality of the world is that most people couldn’t afford the nice stuff but shopping around and going for quality rather than quantity can help. Ultimately, if you could afford, would you go for the 10 year old or the 18 year old Laphroaig? Would you go for the 12 year old or the 15 year old Glendronach? Why not suggest what you like rather than what you think is the right stuff for someone?

    On a separate note, I think the whiskies you’ve listed are geared towards a particular guest that already likes and knows how to enjoy single malts. For example, the Glenlivet Nadurra is great but has a huge kick at around 60% abv. Same with the Ardbeg Uigeadail and Aberlour Abunadh. Thus, I would stray away from anything over 50% abv. I agree with most of the stuff on your list but would also add the Talisker 10 year old and the Balvenie 12 year old first fill. I would also get rid of the 5th category for if someone wants and austere whisky you can punch them in the face and pour them a blend :). I would also add a category of something a little higher end such as the Yoichi 15 in the $80-$90 or the Glenmorangie/Glenlivet 18 year olds both of which can be found in the $70-$75 range.

    Cheers!

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  5. Speaking as someone who very much enjoys the austerity of Pulteney, I have to say that a punch in the face and a blend is a poor substitute. (I don’t think Springbank fills the bill, either.) And speaking as someone who understands what MAO means by “people who are not only not whisky geeks but are not looking to become whisky geeks,” I get the intent, and find no fault with the choices.

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    • I find no fault in the choices either, but the last two bottles of OP12 I’ve had were all cardboard and ‘salt and pepper’ potato chips. Granted they were from the same shop, so likely from the same batch and there could have been storage problems. But they were really bad.

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