Beginner’s Guide to Selecting a Single Malt Whisky
Following up on my how to host a whisky tasting article, I thought I’d provide some suggestions of popular, commonly-available, and highly-ranked single malt whiskies in each of the identified flavour Super Clusters.
First thing to do is to familiarize yourself with the characteristics of the individual flavour clusters and super clusters – which you will find described at the bottom of my Flavour Map page. I don’t recommend you get caught up on geographical regions in Scotland (although I will provide classical details below) – it’s far more important to characterize single malts by the flavour characteristics identified through the cluster analysis.
I am going to go through the Super Clusters in the order I recommend when hosting a whisky tasting. That is, starting with the most delicate whiskies and working up to the more complex ones. If you are new to whisky, I also recommend you work your way up the “winey” flavoured whiskies before trying the “smokey/peaty” ones. For those of you more visually-inclined, I’ve posted this commentary as a YouTube video:
Super Custer G-H
- Dalwhinnie 15 year old is one of the gentler drams, highly ranked in my metacritic database for this super cluster. It’s a Highland whisky with dominant notes of honey and heather/floral aromas. Very easy to drink, and popular with newcomers to single malt whiskies in my house.
- Glenmorangie 10 year old “original” is perhaps the quintessential delicate whisky that most would be familiar with. Also a Highlander, this is the base spirit that goes into all the more “winey” cask-finished expressions from Glenmorangie (which I personally prefer). But this basic expression does have fans in its own right.
Super Cluster E-F
- Auchentoshan 12 year old gets a somewhat middling score in my database, but you can’t beat the price – a very good budget whisky. From the Lowland region, it has a delicate base spirit, but has picked up some caramel notes from its time in wood. Fairly dry, it also goes over very well with newcomers to single malts.
- Redbreast 12 year old is not actually a single malt, but rather an Irish single pot still distillation of malted and unmalted barley. Regardless, it is a good single malt whisky-like dram. Somewhat bolder in flavours and mouthfeel, it is a very highly ranked (and inexpensive) example of this super cluster. Worth venturing across the Irish sea for.
Super Cluster A-B-C
- BenRiach 12 year old matured in sherry wood is a good introduction to the effects of sherry wood aging on single malts. The base spirit of this Speysider is fairly delicate, so you can really taste the sherry without having overwhelming whisky complexity. A good budget place to start on your heavily “winey” single malt journey.
- GlenDronach 12 year old “original” is a bolder example of this super cluster, with a stronger range of flavours present (sometimes described as more “meaty” or “savoury”). Technically a Highlander, this one is a lot older than it first appears (as you will see explained in my linked commentary above). Definitely greater complexity than the BenRiach.
- Aberlour A’Bunadh is a cask strength Speyside whisky (~60% ABV), produced in specific batches (mine is lot 49, but lot 50 is more commonly available now). You will definitely want to add some water to this one, as the full strength effect can be overwhelming. Helps to show off not just the red fruit flavours from sherry wood aging, but the cholocate/mocha richness as well.
Super Cluster I
- Highland Park 12 year old should probably be in everyone’s whisky cabinet. A good all-rounder from Scotland’s most northerly distillery, on the island of Orkney. A mix of light smokey flavours and sherry, Highland Park is distinctive for its unique lightly peaty characteristics. While the 12 year old won’t win many awards, it illustrates the base characteristics of this distillery well. A poor man’s version of the popular (and much more complex) 18 year old.
- Talisker 10 year old is a great example of this cluster (especially if sherry is not your thing). Talisker is a peated whisky from the Isle of Skye, and again has some distinctive regional characteristics (described by some as a distinctive sea-air “minerality”). Highly ranked in my metacritic database.
- Ardmore Traditional Cask gets a somewhat more middling rating in my database, but is great NAS budget choice in this class. Very smokey without being peaty (if that is possible), and more interesting than the similarly priced entry-level Bowmores, in my view.
- Oban 14 year old is another Highlander like the Dalwhinnie, with similar honey and floral notes. But the Oban is probably more typical of the Highland style, with distinctive smokey notes as well. A bit pricey, which I suspect contributes to its more middling score in my metacritic database. But probably my favourite all-rounder of the four listed here.
Super Cluster J
- Lagavulin 16 year old is currently my favourite Islay whisky in this class, but it isn’t cheap. A rich flavour explosion, I’ve heard it described as the “depth charge” of whiskies – very popular with experienced drinkers for its complexity and long finish. However, you are likely to smell like a walking ashtray for the rest of the evening (and maybe still the next morning) – so you should warn your significant other before opening a bottle.
- Laphroaig Quarter Cask (and 10 year old) are two of your best budget Islay offerings in this class. Intensely smokey and peaty, I don’t find there is much else going on here – but some seem to really like these. The QC is better in my view (and the metacritics), and is oddly cheaper here in Ontario – go figure! Great value if you are a fan of smoke/peat.
Of course, those are just starting points for you. Please explore the full Whisky Database for additional options in each flavour cluster.