So, you have someone you know is ‘into’ Scotch and you want to buy a nice present. You don’t want to set a foot wrong, and certainly don’t want to see her writing about your present as “the Scotch I save for folks who don’t know Scotch, or drown it in Coke.” Yes, I’ve read that on many a Scotch blog. Rude, I think…but it happens — because A) The styles of Scotch vary wildly in their aroma and taste (why it’s a fascinating obsession, yo!) and B) Scotch drinkers are often quite partisan about their preferred style.
Prep: Single malt vs. blend, and U.S. availability
We’re going to focus mostly on single malt scotches — this refers to a whisky that is made totally from one distillery’s production. They can (and do) mix casks and even years of production for a single malt. But as soon as they mix casks from another distillery and add grain alcohol (mass-produced, typically), then it is a blend. Common blends are well-known, like Johnnie Walker, Chivas, Dewars, Whyte and MacKay. These are the province of the casual drinker, not the Scotch enthusiast. Single malts will have more character, as the peculiarities of water and still are not blended out — hence they appeal to folks looking for adventure. Note: my focus is on brands available in the U.S., as that’s where I live.
There is a bit more to learn, so let’s do this in steps. We’ll gather some intelligence, align that to some facts, and send you shopping with a budget and some suggestions.
Step 1: Reconnaissance
What do you know about this Scotch drinker? Try to pick up a few hints when he’s chatting about his favorite subject. Here are some of the keywords that will help you on your search for an appropriate gift. Try to remember how your target spoke of them. It could be critical.
Coke – If your target is mixing Scotch with Coke, soda or any other soft drink, buy them Johnnie Walker Red and move on to the next giftee.
‘eyelah’ – If you heard your Scotch lover waxing euphoric about ‘eyelah’, that refers to Islay, which is an island off the West coast of Scotland. This is someone into the more challenging whiskies. See smoke, peat below.
Glencairn (glass) – This is a real aficionado. The Glencairn is the snifter for Scotch. This person savors her Scotch and will probably have high standards. (You do not put Johnnie Walker Red in a Glencairn.) This person is unlikely to be happy with the mass-produced single malts you see everywhere (Glenfiddich, The Glenlivet) unless it is an older expression (18-year for example).
Ice – A connoisseur does not ice his Scotch, except for rare occasions. A serial icer? Get him Johnnie Walker Black and call it a day.
Peat – A common fuel source in tree-scarce areas of Scotland, it also flavors the water (as in peat bog, of which Scotland has many). Pay attention to your target’s attitude on peat. A ‘peat monster’ is not going to be appreciated by someone who prefers milder whiskies.
Phenolics – Aromas of tar and diesel. Yes, some folks like this. Big, hairy-knuckled types. Peated and smoky whiskies are their thing. Haters REALLY hate this stuff.
Sherry/Sherried – Some Scotch is aged in used sherry casks to impart ‘red fruit’ flavors. Not likely to offend though some purists might turn up their node at an over-sherried whisky (sherry bomb).
Smoke – Waxing rhapsodic about how her favorite whisky smells like a driftwood bonfire is a clear sign your Scotch lover likes big, gnarly Island whiskies.
Step 2: Basic reference
Now you know what kind of Scotch drinker we have on hand, bone up on a few concepts and a couple facts and you’ll be ready to face the Scotch aisle at your local bottle shop.
The standard for Scotch is 12 years, though the legal minimum is three. Some 10-year Scotches are well-known and liked (Glenmorangie and Laphroaig for example). The 8’s tend to be a bit raw. Many new brands of Scotch are ‘no age statement’ (NAS) as that allows the bottlers to mix what they want, regardless of age. This is a new trend, not always welcomed and often more expensive than the 12-year-old staples. For a gift I’d stick with the 12’s for a clear provenance.
Various regions are known for their predominant flavor profiles and the region is often noted on the bottle. There are a number of exceptions to the typical regional profile, and I’ll note them. These are the main regions — good enough for now.
- Highland: Clean, classic scotches — crisp malt flavor with a touch of citrus is common. Rarely smoky or phenolic, a few have a touch of peat but nothing like the peat monsters of the Islands. If they’re sherried, they’ll say so on the bottle. Those who prefer Highland Scotch are probably not going to like the Islay or other island scotches. Exception to the rule: Ardmore is a smoky, peaty whisky so watch out.
- Island/Islay: Islay is famous for its peaty, smoky, medicinal and phenolic whiskies. Other islands (Skye, Orkney) whiskies tend also to be peaty and a little smoky. Not all of them, but an Island Scotch drinker will appreciate you getting close to the mark. Exception: Bunnahabhain — an excellent dram but no peat, the barest touch of smoke and gently sherried.
- Speyside: Distillers along the River Spey are noted for fruitier, gentler scotches. These are all about aroma and subtlety. There are a few peated Speysiders but you are unlikely to encounter them in the U.S. (BenRiach) or their name is a dead giveaway (Benromach Peat Smoke).
Step 3: How much is it gonna cost?
It’s not always what you pay for…some of the more heavily-advertised and ubiquitous brands are not on this list as you can get a better experience for the same coin, or less.
For a good solid performer which will probably be a ‘daily driver’ for your Scotch lover, you’ll pay around $50. The picks in this range are vast, so I’ll note below the ones that are reliably good, in my experience. The $75 range gets you some interesting picks that the recipient will savor and $90-$100 get some really outstanding selections that your recipient will save for special occasions.
Note: if you know nothing of the subject’s preferences, Johnnie Walker Black Label (a good blend) is a safe bet. Green or Blue Label are better, but pricier and frankly you can get a more interesting single malt for the price of the Green or Blue.
Daily driver ($50): Glenmorangie 10 is a remarkably complex scotch for this price range, and the most popular single malt in Scotland.
Outstanding ($100): Glenmorangie 18 is a souped-up version of the regular expression, and as that, it’s a damn fine whisky. I’m not heavily into Highlanders, but that one hit the mark.
Daily driver ($50): Laphroaig 10. Big, powerful, smoky, this is the Islay that put Islay on the map. If you want to dial it back a hair, Bowmore 12 is a good choice for the Islay style that’s not over-the-top. Talisker 10 is a bit pricier but, as my favorite non-Islay Island whisky, is worth it; there is more character than Bowmore’s 12 — a different focus, more on smoke than on peat.
Interesting and intriguing ($75): Bunnahabhain 12 might turn the head of a Islay lover who is disdainful of sherried whiskies. The sherry is not overpowering; overall this is well balanced. Ardbeg’s Uigeadail is an intriguing pick with a lot of character — not quite as good as the Corryvreckan, but also a lot less dough.
Outstanding ($100): Ardbeg Corryvreckan is remarkably complex and though peaty, not phenolic. Lagavulin 16 is a classic: smoky but oh so refined, like a really good cigar — my Islay fave. (Review to come.)
Daily driver ($50): The Macallan 12 is one of my faves and a standard by which others are measured, due to the excellence of finish; never off notes or an alcohol sting, the Macallan is an extremely well-crafted whisky. Balvenie Double Wood is also a great sherried offering in this price range (I have a bottle, have not written it up yet).
Interesting and intriguing ($75): Aberlour A’Bunadh is a series of small-batch bottlings. Cask-strength and strongly sherried, they can differ (being just a few casks) but they are big, tasty sherry bombs. Balvenie 12-year single barrel is an intriguing pick in this range but I’ve yet to try it.
Outstanding ($100): I like the Glenfarclas 17, but I have not tried the older Macallans — the price is rather nuts ($230 for the Macallan 17-year Fine Oak, vs $94 for the Glenfarclas).
You’ll find reviews of a number of these single malts (and a few blends) on my blog and of course on blogs all over the internet. Other reviews are on the way — who has enough time? And with that, I wish you the best of the season!