It has been almost four years since I posted the first version of this list. It was spurred by questions from friends who are not whisky geeks, and are in no danger of becoming whisky geeks, but who wanted some suggestions for a small but balanced selection of whiskies they could stock in their bars. A lot has changed in the whisky world since then. Whisky prices have shot up, many once-standard expressions have gone away, and others have changed. And, of course, newer whiskies have shown up on the market that might be worthy contenders for a list like this one. As such, it seems useful to go back and revisit those selections and see if they still hold up.
The methodology and selection criteria for the list have not changed. To quote myself from January 2015:
- 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.
The major difference this time is that I’m adding a third tier in each category for a splurge bottle—though I am sticking to a $200 limit for splurges as well (in fact, I cannot recommend any widely available whisky at higher prices; it’s not that there are no good ones, it’s that there are none that justify the price-tag).
The 2018 Picks
- In January 2015 I had Highland Park 12 as the all-rounder. Even though the price has gone up a little bit and Highland Park have become rather silly in the interim, I see no reason to change this pick. And nor do I see any reason to change the pick of Clynelish 14 as the more expensive alternative, even if the price difference between the two is now smaller than it once was. For a splurge give the Talisker 18 a go.
- The Glenlivet Nadurra was the ex-bourbon fruity whisky the last time around. Alas, I cannot keep it on the list. The Nadurra range has expanded to include an Oloroso version and a peated cask finish but the price has gone up too (and availability has gone down). A pity. But I have good news, my pick in this category for this list is far cheaper than the Nadurra was in 2015. I am going with the new version of the Loch Lomond 12, which I picked up for just over $30 a couple of weeks ago and which turned out to be a very pleasant, fruity surprise—I’ll have a review next month. As the more expensive alternative I will suggest the Glenmorangie 18, which I have somehow failed to review so far on the blog. It’s true that there’s some sherry influence in it but the pleasures are largely those of ex-bourbon maturation. For a splurge see if you can find a Kavalan Solist Bourbon Cask.
- In the sherried whisky slot I previously had the Glendronach 12. I’m reluctant to keep it on this list because I have not tasted recent versions and I have no idea if it is as good as it was in the past. The price has also gone up a little bit. The problem, of course, is that is even harder to find good sherried whisky at acceptable prices these days than it was in 2015. Now if this list was aimed at the UK or EU markets I’d recommend the new Ben Nevis 10 and be done with it, but that hasn’t yet come to the US. And none of the younger candidates from Glenfarclas or Aberlour quite do it for me. I quite liked my recent taste of the Glengoyne 12 but it’s not very richly sherried and is no cheaper than the Glendronach 12; and I haven’t had the Balvenie Doublewood in years either. As such I will stick with the Glendronach 12. For a more expensive alternative I will suggest the Glenfarclas 17. If you can find a bottle of the Springbank 12 CS for the same price, get that instead. For a splurge give the Amrut Intermediate Sherry a go.
- The Laphroaig 10 was my pick for the peated whisky last time and I see no reason to change it now. The quality hasn’t dipped and the price has not increased—it is far cheaper than the Caol Ila 12 and also cheaper than the Ardbeg 10. And for the more expensive alternative I will suggest going with whichever batch of the Laphroaig 10 CS you can find. It is perhaps the most fairly priced cask strength whisky from a name Scottish distillery and you may enjoy the comparison with the regular 10 yo. The Lagavulin 16 remains as good as it was but it’s more expensive still. For a splurge give the Lagavulin Distiller’s Edition a go.
- I had the Old Pulteney 12 as the austere whisky in 2015 but will be replacing it here. I tried it again in Scotland this summer and was not very impressed. In its place I will suggest the Springbank 10. For a more expensive change-up consider the Amrut Cask Strength. For a splurge give the Longrow 18 a go.
- I had another Amrut, the Fusion, as the wildcard last time. This time I will recommend Nikka Whisky from the Barrel, which is finally in the US and at a pretty good price. Given the state of the Japanese whisky market this seems like a miracle (I am assuming, of course, that the quality has not dipped). And for a more expensive alternative, stick with the non-Scottish theme and give the Redbreast 15 a go. For a splurge give the Glenmorangie Signet a go.
So there you have it. Not a complete overhaul of the 2015 list but not identical either. And in a shocker you can bring the 6 main recommendations in for just about $300 now as well.
To recap/sum up:
The Affordable Six (as close to $50 as possible): Highland Park 12, Loch Lomond 12, Glendronach 12, Laphroaig 10, Springbank 10, Nikka Whisky from the Barrel.
The More Expensive Six (<$100): Clynelish 14, Glenmorangie 18, Glenfarclas 17, Laphroaig 10 CS, Amrut CS, Redbreast 15.
The Spendy Six (<$200): Talisker 18, Kavalan Solist Bourbon Cask, Amrut Intermediate Sherry, Lagavulin Distiller’s Edition, Longrow 18, Glenmorangie Signet.
I expect some of my readers will have strong opinions about these selections as well. Let’s have ’em! I’m particularly interested to hear about reasonably priced sherried whiskies that I am failing to think of and about better value for money in the $100-$200 band.