Tag Archives: Single Malt

Beginner’s Guide to Selecting a Single Malt Whisky

Single Malt whisky guide

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.

Auchentoshan 12 Year Old

Auchentoshan 12yo bottle

Another relatively unloved single malt in my Whisky Database, I thought I’d put in a good word for the Auchentoshan 12 year old (pronounced OCKen-TOSHan).

Auchentoshan is one of the few Lowland distilleries still operating in Scotland. This style of whisky is typically characterized as “lighter” than most other single malts. Although you shouldn’t rely on geographical location for flavour, as previously observed, this is one case where the traditional triple-distilling method of lowland malts does produce a gentler base spirit. That said, there is more flavour to this malt than you might expect, earning it a spot in the E flavour cluster in this analysis.

As previously presented here, delicate whiskies get lower overall metacritic scores compared to more complex ones. As such, the 8.33 ± 0.30 (based on 16 reviews) for the Auchentoshan 12 yo is a very middle-of-the-road score for its flavour class. Note that this is significantly improved over the earlier Auchentoshan 10 year old and Classic expressions, which were more poorly received (and by all accounts, even lighter in flavour). The current Duty-Free expressions – typically identified by a certain type of wood for finishing – are similarly not well regarded by the critics (although I don’t currently track them in my database).

In the interest of full disclosure, I will admit to having a soft spot for this whisky – it was the first bottle that I actually purchased (although I still kick myself for letting a Scotch Malt Whisky Society bottling of a 21 yr old Glenlivet pass me by a few months earlier). Up until this Auchentoshan, the common Glenlivet/Glenfiddich 12 yr olds or Johnny Walker Black were my entry-level introductions to the world of Scotch whiskey (as they are for many). The Auchentoshan 12 yo was suggested to me at a tasting bar as one to try next, and I was very impressed by its sweet maltiness and dry oakiness (and light touch of caramel throughout).

Not being a fan of cloying fruity/floral sweetness, this was a refreshing change for me – and I bought a bottle on the spot. Like many, my tastes have expanded over the last couple of years, and I can now appreciate most anything (although I am not a fan of the young, medicinal members of cluster J). Personally, I now tend to gravitate toward the well-aged members of the cluster A-C whiskies. But I still enjoy returning to this old favourite on occasion, when looking for something uncomplicated.

Auchentoshan 12yo bottleAnother reason for the soft spot – this is also one of my wife’s favourites. 🙂 She is not a fan of the heavily “winey” or “smokey” single malts in my collection, and prefers this expression over most others. The Hibiki 17 year old and the Dalwhinnie 15 year old are also high on her list – as they are with most novice whisky drinkers.

And that’s the secret to the Auchentoshan 12 year old – it goes over well with almost everyone who tries it. If there were such thing as a “universal donor” among whiskies (i.e., something that all could accept), this is the closest I’ve found to date. For literally only a few dollars more than the ubiquitous (and innocuous) Glenlivet/Glenfiddich 12yr olds, you get a much nicer experience here. Highly recommended if you are just starting out.

Probably the most positive review I’ve seen for this whisky is on the RumHowler blog. Jim Murray also seems to be a relative fan. For a balanced perspective, you may want to check out Ralfy’s video blog.

Incidentally, this bottling  made it onto Esquire’s Seven Best Scotch Brands Under the Radar You Need to Know.

 

 

 

BenRiach 12 Year Old Matured in Sherry Wood

BenRiach 12yo Sherry Wood bottle

Following up on my recent commentary of the GlenDronach 12 yr, I thought I would put in a word for the 12 year old, similarly sherried expression released under the BenRiach name (who also owns GlenDronach).

There is not a lot of information on this expression online, which is surprising given its price – like the GlenDronach, this is a remarkably affordable young “sherry-bomb” at the LCBO (currently ~$67 CAD). The BenRiach 12 yo Matured in Sherry Wood gets a very good composite score in my Whisky Database, at 8.80 ± 0.26 on 9 reviews.

I recently received a bottle of this BenRiach expression for Father’s Day, and was surprised to find how different it is from the GlenDronach. As discussed in that commentary, the GlenDronach 12 yr is actually from much older stock than the label indicates (i.e., my early 2014 bottle contains whisky that is a minimum of >17-18 yrs old). But the base spirit from GlenDronach is clearly quite different from BenRiach – I find the BenRiach to be a much gentler dram, with a more more delicate underlying base.

BenRiach 12yo Sherry Wood bottleTo my mind, this would make the BenRiach 12 yo Matured in Sherry Wood a much better choice for newcomers to single malts (especially newcomers to sherried malts). Despite the classic sherry sweetness up front, this expression is definitely on the drier side going out – compared to most sherried malts I’ve tried. And this is something I find inexperienced whisky drinkers typically prefer, as many are put off by excessive or sustained sweetness (and overwhelming flavour and complexity).

If I were to sum up the difference, I think the GlenDronach is a great choice for experienced sherried malt drinkers who are looking for distinctiveness. That said, the BenRiach 12 yo Matured in Sherry Wood is still something that I think everyone may enjoy, given its good balance of flavours and easy drinking nature.

For a good concise review of this expression, please check out Dramming.com. The boys at QuebecWhisky have reviewed what they call a “Sherry Cask” version of the BenRiach 12 yr, but it sounds from the description that the flavour profile is much the same (as is the photo).

 

 

GlenDronach 12 Year Old “Original”

GelnDronach 12yo bottle

The GlenDronach 12 year old is a popular entry-level example of the “sherry bomb” style of single malt whisky. It earns an above-average rating in my Whisky Database for the ABC super cluster: it currently receives an 8.68 ± 0.25 on 14 reviews (the overall average for this ABC group is ~8.55).

I have picked it to highlight in this commentary for a number of reasons. For one, although it receives a fairly consistent average-to-slightly-above score from most reviewers, there is at least one reviewer who rates this as a top pick. It is also an exceptional value in the ABC group, especially in Ontario (only $66 CAD at the LCBO). And it has a surprising amount of flavour for a supposedly young “12-year old” expression.

This last point is the most interesting to me. The GlenDronach 12 yr was first released in 2009, after the distillery had been sold to BenRiach. But the GlenDronach distillery had been shut down between 1996 and early 2002. So under the rules of single malt labeling, they had to rely exclusively on the pre-1996 stock to make these bottlings. At time of launch (in 2009), that meant the minimum age of the whisky in those bottles was at least 12-13 years old, depending on the exact end date of production in 1996 (but most was likely much older, for reasons I’ll explain below).

By 2010, the source barrels for that year’s “12 yo” bottlings would have to have been at least 13-14 years old. This trend continues up to the 2013 bottlings, where the minimum age going into those “12 yo” bottles could not have been younger than 16-17 years old. It is only at some point in 2014 that they would have been able to start using some of the new make 12-year old whisky in the vattings (and I’m going to guess not much – again scroll down for an explanation).

Given how production actually works (see my understanding single malts page for more info), it is highly unlikely that they would have blown-out all their late 1995/1996 stock in the first production runs of the GlenDronach 12yr. It is more likely that the blend of whiskies used in the vattings for those early bottles was heavily biased toward older barrels even at the start, in order to maintain some consistency in vatting over subsequent production runs. I say this because at the time of launch of this expression in 2009, they already knew that they wouldn’t be able to use any new make before some time in 2014. And given that the new make was not likely to be same as the old (due to differences in production methods), they presumably are still using a lot of that aging old stock in the current bottlings (to maintain consistency).GelnDronach 12yo bottle

For more info, this back-story is described in an excellent blog post on Words of Whisky. But do scroll down through the comments, as the included chart in the article is off by one year in its calculations (i.e., whisky made in 2002 would only be 1-year old in 2003, etc.).

Anyway, this helps explains why the GlenDronach 12 yr tastes remarkably robust for its apparent low age statement. So if you like that sort of thing, then you might find this to be an exceptional value. Note that some people online have complained about a “bitterness” in the palate/finish (which likely relates to differing abilities to detect sulfur compounds, as discussed here).

I plan to post a commentary soon on how the BenRiach 12 yr old Matured in Sherry Wood compares (hint: that is a gentler dram, better suited to beginners interested in trying something in the sherried class). UPDATE: commentary posted.

But for those of you who are already fans of the well-aged style of single malt, I recommend you check out these two very positive reviews for more info on this particular whisky: The Scotch Noob and Ralfy.

 

Mortlach Rare Old

Mortlach Rare Old whisy bottle

This recent No Age Statement (NAS) bottling by Mortlach (pronounced MORT-lek or MORT-lack) generates a lot of strong feelings out there in the blogosphere.

Mortlach is one the classic malt distilleries owned by Diageo. Independent bottlings of Mortlach have long been highly prized by whisky enthusiasts, due in part to the perceived quality and distinctive flavour profile of this distillery’s offerings (often described as “meatiness”). And also for their rarity – the vast majority of Mortlach’s output is poured (pun intended) right into the Diageo’s ever-hungry blended whisky juggernaut.

There was much enthusiasm therefore when Diageo announced in early 2014 that they were to release several new expressions under Mortlach’s own name. That enthusiasm quickly soured when enthusiasts saw the price lists and the lack of age statements. Fancy-looking bottles and names like “rare old” for the entry-level expression also work against you with the cognoscenti. 😉

The Mortlach Rare Old gets a very middling Meta-Critic score in my Whisky Database, at 8.54 ± 0.41 on 9 reviews. There is some range in opinions on this dram – which is something I like to explore further in these dedicated commentaries.

Having sampled the Rare Old (and enjoyed it), I picked up a bottle. My experience in sharing this one with guests during tasting sessions has been instructive – as it closely matches what I’ve seen in online commentaries.

Simpy put, while some people like it, others are repulsed by what they described as an extremely bitter afternote in the finish. Repulsed is putting it mildly – one person described it as “vomit” in her mouth, and looked like she was about to contribute just such a sample to the table. Others were left scratching their heads, not detecting any sort of issue with the finish, or just finding a mild bitterness to it (as I do).

What I think is going on here gets back to the source of that signature “meatiness” of Mortlach’s flavour. Meatiness is sometimes also described as the sensation of a struck match at the back of one’s throat. That is a clear tip-off is to what is going on here – sulfur compounds.

Sulphur is very potent biological trigger signal – typically indicating something very, very bad. But our ability to detect it is highly variable, and dependent on our genetic make-up. There is a very large body of evidence on the link between the ability to taste sulphur (especially in thiourea compounds) and people’s dietary choices. The sulfur-detecting effect can be so pronounced that it is also commonly used in schools to demonstrate the principles of Mendelian polymorphisms (e.g., do you remember getting to taste a piece of paper soaked in PTC? How did you find it?)

Mortlach Rare Old whisy bottleHere is a good scholarly article that discusses in some detail why some people can detect these sorts of things in their food and drink and others can’t: Genetics of Taste and Smell: Poisons and Pleasures (Reed & Knaapila, Prog Mol Biol Transl Sci. 2010; 94: 213–240).

I guess I’m “lucky” in this regard (or not, since it is generally good to avoid sulphur compounds). Personally, I find the Mortlach Rare Old to be reminiscent of some of the better Canadian rye whisky blends out there. I can definitely detect those classic rye flavours (e.g., baking spices, especially cinnamon and nutmeg) and characteristic rye sweetness (which I would describe as marshmallow-like, but that’s just me). And while I am not a fan of the bitterness in the finish, I don’t find it to be anything too aversive.

For a balanced perspective on this whisky, you can check out Andre and Patrick’s reviews at QuebecWhisky.com, or check out the main list of reviewers used in this meta-analysis for other ideas.

If you’ve tried this expression, I’m curious to hear what you think of it. Feel free to leave a comment below!

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