Wednesday, 11 October 2017

If you build it, Part One: Scotch

I visited a friend recently and was quite impressed with his Scotch selection. So much so, in fact, that when he asked what I wanted to sip and sample, I had to let him choose. He chose about six bottles and all but one really impressed me. The selection in my whisky cabinet is far less expansive, but it contains a little something for every taste and the number of bottles is always growing, much to my wife's displeasure. I've also had friends ask me how to start buying whiskies for a whisky cabinet. Which to buy first? How much to spend? Scotch? Irish? Canadian? Bourbon/American? There's a lot of choice out there and it can be overwhelming. So fear not, friends, I'm here to help. I'll break down the categories and include recommendations for Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced and Elite for each.


I recommend keeping some good quality whisky on hand, even if it is not your libation of choice. You know, in the interest of keeping your favourite blogger happy if he visits. But hey, you do you. The first installment in this series focuses on Scotch whisky. If my ramblings bore you, the TL;DR version is at the end. There are a seemingly infinite number of options for each category, so I'll recommend what's readily available where I am and whiskies to please most tastes.  Your mileage may vary. First, let's brush up on some terminology:



Single Malt Whisky: When a scotch is labeled "single malt" it means that it's from a single distillery and that it's malt whisky (i.e. made entirely from malted barley).


Blended Malt Whisky: Means the scotch is a blend of malt whiskies (i.e. made only from malted barley) from different distilleries. A particular blended malt whisky may include single malt scotch whiskies from the Talisker, Caol Ila, Cragganmore and Linkwood distilleries to produce a unique flavour profile.



Blended Scotch Whisky: Means the scotch is a blend of malt whisky and grain whisky. Grain whisky may be made from wheat (most common in Scotland), maize (corn), or, less frequently in Scotland, rye. Grain whisky usually includes some malted barley to kick-start the fermentation process.

Beginner


Treat yo' self...or someone else
If you're a beginner, you're just learning about scotch and just starting to build your collection. Or you know a few scotch lovers who visit somewhat regularly and you want to keep something on hand to offer them. You may not drink it, but you want to be a good host, right? You're like Tom Haverford: you want to be a great entertainer even if scotch is too powerful for your delicate palate.



First, get yourself a decent blended scotch. I recommend Teacher's Highland Cream or The Famous Grouse. Both can be enjoyed neat, on ice, or even in a Rusty Nail. Then, get yourself an entry-level single malt. I recommend something gentle like Glenlivet 12 Year Old or Aberlour 10 Year Old. These whiskies are unlikely to blow anyone's mind, but nobody should turn their nose up at them either. If you're a bit more flush with cash, Bunnahabhain 12 Year Old is sure to please the most discerning enthusiast.


Intermediate


You've gone past the beginner stage and rather than simply keeping some single malt on hand for entertaining, you may be dipping your own toe (or tongue) in the scotch pool. Don't think you've got to run out and spend a fortune just yet. Price and quality aren't always directly correlated. Tread lightly. Here's what to do at this stage:


  • get yourself two or four Glencairn glasses or Copitas. You want to look the part, right? Old Fashioned tumblers are okay, but these are far better. If you're in Canada, I recommend contacting whiskyglass.ca for your drinkware needs.
  • add a blended malt (that's a blend of single malts) such as Monkey Shoulder or Johnnie Walker Green Label 15 Year Old. Blended malt whiskies are very interesting and often overlooked.
  • add a better blended scotch to your cabinet, something such as Compass Box Great King Street Glasgow Blend or Great King Street Artist's Blend is ideal. To be an "advanced intermediate", get your hands on a quality blended grain scotch whisky, like Compass Box Hedonism.
  • add a single malt from another region of Scotland. As you build a collection, you want to represent as many different regions and distilleries of Scotland as possible. Since the single malts I recommended in the Beginner section are Speyside whiskies (well, Bunnahabhain is an unpeated Islay whisky, but that's not important), I'd recommend a Highland (or Island) whisky such as Dalwhinnie 15 Year Old, Oban 14 Year Old, Highland Park 12 Year Old or Old Pulteney 12 Year Old.



Caution intermediate, caution
So the intermediate hasn't conquered the world yet, but like Ragnar Lothbrok in Season I of Vikings, at this stage, you've defeated Earl Haraldson (i.e. gone beyond the beginner stage) and have staked your claim to (potential) greatness. But be careful, you aren't invincible. And don't cast out Lagertha, that's a foolish thing to do. She isn't just a pretty face, but a bad-ass warrior in her own right. But I digress...she has absolutely nothing to do with whisky.




Advanced



By now you probably have a decent selection. It's time to choose some more polarizing whiskies. Perhaps a scotch with a vintage rather than an age statement, such as Balblair 2005 (or Balblair 1990 if you're flush with cash), or a scotch without an age statement* (see end note) such as Ardbeg Uigeadail would add some spirited discussion to your whisky sessions (see what I did there?). I also recommend you keep at least one Islay whisky on hand at all times. My preference is Lagavulin 16 Year Old but Laphroaig 10 Year Old or Ardbeg 10 Year Old will fit the bill as well. You also need to know about distilleries that fly under the radar, but produce great malts, like Clynelish 14 Year Old, Deanston 18 Year Old, or Isle of Arran 18 Year Old. Don't ignore Cambpeltown either. Get something from Springbank. They do pretty much everything the right way, so you can't really go wrong with them (Springbank also produces whiskies under the Longrow and Hazelburn names, btw). If you're looking to the Lowlands, Auchentoshan 21 Year Old is a safe bet or, if you're a high-roller, maybe a Rosebank 20 Year Old. You should probably consider a big, sherried whisky or two as well. I'd recommend Glendronach 15 Year Old or The Macallan 12 Year Old Sherry Oak. The advanced should keep a nicer blended scotch on hand, for those who prefer it; Dewar's 18 Year OldChivas Regal 18 Year Old, or Compass Box This Is Not A Luxury Whisky if you really want to impress.




Independent bottlers are kind of a big deal
If you want to be advanced, you'll want to track down some independent bottlings as well. This allows you to act like you're a big deal. Watch and learn: "Oh, you like Caol Ila? Well I wasn't really a fan, but when I got this Gordon & Macphail bottling of their Cask Strength 2004 Vintage, I gained a much deeper appreciation for their distillate. It's so much better than their official bottlings." Now, that sentence doesn't have to be snobby, but it can be quite Burgundy-esque if you so choose. Actually, to be advanced, you should have several cask strength (or close to cask strength) whiskies on hand. Aberlour A'Bunnadh is wonderful. Benromach 10 Year Old 100 Proof is another great one. So is Lagavulin 12 Year Old Cask Strength. At this stage, you should probably be familiar with the various scotch whisky flavour maps such as the ones found here, here and here. These maps may help you find the types of scotches more suited to your palate, or even find a scotch which shares a flavour profile with something you may not be able to find. It also helps build your whisky vocabulary in order to impress (or bore) your friends.



Elite 


I'm not here yet. Heck, I'm not even truly advanced yet. But if you've got more money than whisky knowledge, allow me to help. It should be understood that to be Elite, price is irrelevant. In fact, to be truly Elite, your personal preferences are irrelevant. Scotch in this category can be an investment, or just something you keep on hand to offer (and impress) people. But you should maintain a Tony Stark level of cool detachment from the fact that your Scotch collection, at this price point, is worth more than most people's homes.



"I don't CARE how much it costs"
At this level, you really want to branch out and get some whiskies which may be pricier or harder to find (in some places). From Islay, I'd recommend Laphroaig 32 Year Old, Ardbeg 17 Year Old, Bowmore 25 Year Old and a thing (or eight) from the Bruichladdich Octomore series. I'd also recommend you keep a case of something like Highland Park 25 Year Old in your mansion or tower. It's always a crowd-pleaser. To be elite, you should also have several bottles of something iconic in your collection, regardless of how you feel about it. I'm referring to malts like Macallan 25 Year Old Sherry Oak or Glenmorangie Signet.  To impress your whisky-loving friends (or to inspire jealousy), you should also have a few bottles of something discontinued on hand, like the limited edition Old Pulteney 35, the very limited Port Ellen Feis Ile or anything from the much-vaunted (yet sadly mothballed, but soon-to-return) Brora distillery (bonus points if it's 30+ years old).



Her majesty thanks you, Mr. Stark
The Elite also have whiskies they never plan on drinking. Malts like The Dalmore Selene 58 Year Old  or Macallan Lalique 65 Year Old are showpieces rather than daily drinkers. Just remember, you're elite, it's no big deal. Bonus points if this whisky was a gift from the Queen or the President of the United States as a token of appreciation for saving the world from an alien invasion.



Build Your Scotch Cabinet: the TL;DR version


Here's an example of what to buy, in order

  1. The Famous Grouse Blended Scotch 
  2. Glenlivet 12 Year Old Single Malt 
  3. Johnnie Walker Green Label 15 Year Old Blended Malt 
  4. Compass Box Great King Street Artist's Blend
  5. Dalwhinnie 15 Year Old Single Malt
  6. Lagavulin 16 Year Old Single Malt 
  7. Glendronach 15 Year Old Single Malt
  8. Ardbeg Uigeadail Single Malt 
  9. Balblair 1990 Single Malt 
  10. Clynelish 14 Year Old Single Malt
  11. Aberlour A'Bunnadh Single Malt
  12. Springbank 15 Year Old Single Malt
  13. Bunnahabhain 18 Year Old Single Malt
  14. Benromach 10 Year Old 100 Proof Single Malt
  15. Rosebank 20 Year Old Single Malt
  16. Bruichladdich Octomore 7.1
  17. Old Pulteney 35 Year Old Single Malt
  18. Highland Park 25 Year Old Single Malt
  19. Port Ellen Feis Ile
  20. The Macallan Lalique 65 Year Old Single Malt

Conclusion


So there you have it, folks. My advice on how to begin (or expand) a whisky collection or cabinet. I would also avoid overthinking it too much by reading 1 000 reviews about every scotch you purchase. There are so many opinions on the internet that you may succumb to paralysis by analysis. No scotch will please everyone and no scotch will be universally hated. Building a collection is all about trial and error. Buy a little at a time, taste it, make notes and come back to it. Whisky's flavour evolves with time and exposure to air. Your perception of flavour will also evolve with time and experience. Enjoy the journey!





May you taste the sweetest pleasures that fortune ere bestowed,
and may all your friends remember all the favors you are owed.



Slainte !







*My objections to the marketing song and dance, and the deceitful creative labelling of No Age Statement (NAS) scotch remain unchanged, but I'm of the opinion that NAS whisky is here to stay. No sense in getting too worked up over what is essentially a luxury product. Yes, the marketing is less than transparent, but some of the whisky is quite good. Age still matters though. Don't let anyone fool you. Older is different, not necessarily better, but age does matter. Proceed with caution when it comes to NAS. I generally feel safe buying anything from Aberlour, Ardbeg and Laphroaig. The Macallan, not so much. But that's just me. Your mileage may vary.

2 comments:

  1. Another interesting post. I enjoy your blog and it’s light hearted tone. I would say that your recommendations are a bit puzzling - too many blends!!!

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    1. Thanks for reading and for your comment. Blends represent 15% of my recommendations (3 out of 20) because I believe in balance. Sort of. To be fair, Johnnie Walker Green is a blended malt AND it carries a 15 Year Old age statement. But my recommendations are just that; one man's opinions on how one might build a scotch collection. There is no wrong way. Slainte !

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