Holiday buying guide for the Scotch lover, 2020

If you have someone who is a fan of Scotch (and that’s all you know) this is the guide for you.  You want to offer a nice present that is appreciated, and not pushed to the back of the cabinet or mixed with Coke (unless that’s their thing). You want a smile on that day. You have come to the right place.

Buying Scotch can be intimidating because of the multiple styles, regions (which do not always coincide!) and sometimes strong flavor profiles. Scotch drinkers vary from those appreciating a subtle array of delicate aromas and those who like a pugilistic nose like the air in a WW2 battleship’s boiler room.

Note: I am US-based and this guide refers in the main to whiskies you can buy in the US.

The basics: Single malt vs. blend

By the way, if you’re out of time and just want a quick recommendation, jump to Step4

In my blog, I focus mostly on ‘single malt’ scotches, as these have the most character, and the vast variety enables you to pick out something the recipient may not have tried. The term ‘single malt’ refers to a whisky that is made from a single distillery’s production, and the whisky must have been distilled in a pot still. (That’s a very large version of what you’d imagine, and differentiates from the column—aka continuous—stills used to make industrial quantities of alcohol.) Note: single malts are actually a ‘marry’ (mix) of casks often from several years of production.

Being from a single distillery, as designed by the malt master, single malts will display characteristics of the barley, water, the casks selected, still design, distillation process, even the weather in their flavor. Hence they appeal to folks looking for adventure. They range from sweet confections to repellent smoke bombs.

Blends are a different animal, and focus mainly on consistency and a smooth delivery. (There are exceptions, like Compass Box who make more interesting blends.) A blend is a mix of casks from multiple distilleries—sometimes more than 40!—as well as grain alcohol, typically from a column still. The grain alcohol can be a large majority of the blend. Common blends are well-known, like Johnnie Walker, Chivas, Dewars, Whyte and MacKay. These are typically the province of the casual Scotch drinker. Note: if there is an age statement on the blend, you are likely getting a much higher percentage of malt (pot still) whiskies. (Lots of detail about blends here for the curious.)

Aging

Eh, what’s this about years of production? Scotch by law must be aged at least 3 years in oak casks. Most are aged longer than this, due to the cold, damp climate (3 years is typical for US whiskies due to the warm climate where they are produced.) If it is noted for example as a ’12-year’ then the youngest whiskies are at least 12 years aged in oaken cask.

The age of the whisky is known as the ‘age statement.’ There are single malts with no age statements, they are known, unsurprisingly, as ‘No Age Statement’ (‘NAS’) single malts and range from barely decent to outstanding. All you know is that they have malts aged at least 3 years. Check the reviews before buying. Some are great. Some, not so much.

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: Basic terms to scout out

Scotch distillers load up the labels with mythology. Don't get flimflammed...it's marketing. The 16 men were grosy, grizzled and probably soused distillery workers. Nuff said.
Scotch distillers load up the labels with mythology. Don’t get flimflammed…it’s marketing.

What do you know about your target Scotch drinker? Try to pick up a few hints when they are chatting about their 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. Here are some terms to listen for.

Coke – If your target is mixing Scotch with Coke, soda or any other soft drink, buy them a blend in your price range 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. Its distillers are sometimes bundled under the ‘Island’ region (see Region, below) with distillers from the Orkneys and Skye. Sometimes Islay is called a region of its own.

Glencairn (glass) – Using one of these is a sign of a real aficionado. The Glencairn is the snifter for Scotch. This person savors their Scotch and will probably have high standards. (E.g., 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, Glenmorangie) unless it is an older expression (15 years or older, for example). N.B., a set of the glasses makes a nice gift. Great for hosting their whisky group.

Ice – I used to be militant about not icing good Scotch. But I have friends who are real Scotch lovers and will take my best single malts and drop in ice. So it goes. Still, the hard core eschew ice. Us this as a ‘tell’ for whether you go the extra mile or not (like the Glencairn glass).

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’ whisky will have either a lot of smoke (defined below) and/or phenolics (defined below). A peaty whisky probably won’t be appreciated by someone who prefers milder whiskies as the smoke and phenolic flavors are strong, even repellent. I note the presence and preponderance of peat in all my reviews. Many whiskies have the inoffensive mineral, stony taste from peat’s influence on the water. But when we speak of peat we usually mean the stronger flavors from peat-fired kilns which dry the malted barley. Most of the peaty whiskies are from Islay and other islands, but you can get peated expressions from any distiller, sometimes as a special run.

Phenolics – Aromas of tar, Band-aids and diesel from peat. Yes, some folks like this stuff. Big, hairy-knuckled types (just kidding, I love peated whiskies and have hairless knuckles). Those uninitiated/unused to peaty whiskies tend to react negatively to phenolics. “Yuck” is often heard.

Region – Some Scotch drinkers are beholden to a specific region, so keep an ear cocked for (in no particular order) Highland, Lowland, Speyside, Islay/ Island, Campbeltown. We cover the regions in the next section.

Sherry/Sherried – In addition to the almost universal ex-Bourbon barrels, many Scotches are aged ex-sherry barrels, used to impart fruity flavors. The use of sherry casks is not likely to offend though some purists might turn up their nose at a heavily-sherried whisky (aka ‘sherry bomb’).

Smoke – If your target waxes rhapsodic about how their favorite whisky smells like a driftwood or seaweed bonfire, that is a clear sign your Scotch lover likes the smokier peated whiskies. I note the smokiness in my reviews.

Wine/Port cask: You will see some special or ‘Distiller’s Edition’ whiskies that note the use of various wine and port casks for all or some of the aging. Casks from the sweeter wines like Sauternes result in sweet, delicate malts. Port makes for a sturdy, drier, very interesting flavor. Such special releases can make for a nice flavor excursion for your giftee as the malt master is usually putting their best casks towards such releases. Hence they can be pricey. Examples are Glenmorangie Astar, Cragganmore Distiller’s Edition.

Step 2: Narrowing the target

Now you know what kind of Scotch drinker we have on hand, you’ve boned up on some keywords, you’re ready to whittle down the vast array of Scotches out there and do some shopping on line or the local bottle shop. The easiest way to hone in on your target is if you know the regional influences.

Regions

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. The the main regions are noted below. If your giftee has a stated preference for a region, you can search for whiskies I’ve reviewed on my Whiskies by Region page for more insight.

  • Campbeltown: More distilleries in this region are shuttered than thriving, but it has become a focus for re-igniting interest in ‘craft’ whiskies. These are distillers who go for smaller batches and a high degree of attention to the particulars. Springbank is a notable whisky from this region.
  • 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 usually say so on the bottle or will have a modest sherry influence. Exception to the rule: Ardmore is a smoky, peaty Highland whisky. Some distillers will release special peated versions (Like Glenglassaugh Torfa), and they’ll note that on the bottle. A classic Highland sure to please: Oban 14.
  • Island/Islay: Islay is famous for its peaty, smoky, medicinal and phenolic whiskies (like Laphroaig). 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 to the rule: Bunnahabhain—an Islay whisky but has the barest touch of smoke and is moderately sherried.
  • Speyside: Distillers along the River Spey are noted for fruitier, often herbal  flavors. These are all about aroma and subtlety. There are a few peated Speysiders but they’ll warn you, like BenRiach Curiositas and Benromach Peat Smoke. The classics are very well known, like The Macallan, but you’ll also get great product from Balvenie, for example.
  • Lowland: The lowland is mostly the provenance of malts used for blends but you will find a few single malt offerings from there as well. Auchentoshan is my lone Lowland review.

Note, in the Whiskies by Region page, you can obviously search for region but I also call out the style (Peated or not) and casking used (Sherry, Port, etc.).

Step 3: How much is it gonna cost?

Johnny Walker Green. Hard to find
Johnnie Walker Black. Reliable, rewarding.

It’s not always what you pay…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. Why? Someone has to pay for the marketing budget, and that someone is you. I do note in my reviews which whiskies are heavily marketed, and in my ‘Bottom line’ section I’ll note whether I think the dram is worth the coin.

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.

A note on age, as this has a huge effect on price. The unofficial standard for aging of single malts is 10 to 12 years. There are some at 8 but they tend to be a bit raw. Stepping up from the 12-years, which range $50-$60, to a 15 or 18 year whisky from the same distillery will cost you about twice as much. This is not just due to yearly loss to evaporation (the famous ‘angel’s share’) but because malt masters will save their tastier barrels for the older vintages. Very often, a distiller with a run-of-the mill 12 will have an excellent 15, like The Glenlivet. The 25-year whiskies can be blindingly expensive but have an extra magic. Keep an eye out for the brands you don’t see advertised, as you will bet a better deal for that magic.

Some ‘no age statement’ (NAS) whiskies from craft-oriented distillers are even more expensive than the 15-year malts from mainline distillers, as they have some older casks mixed in. Others are just ‘meh.’ That’s where the reviews come in handy.

Step 4: No time to sleuth, just tell me!

Blends (under $50): You can get some tasty and reliable blends in this range. Johnnie Walker Black (12-year) is a classic for a reason—good light peat and structure, it is a sippin’ blend. But you can get a bit more interesting with Monkey Shoulder, which is a vatted malt (all malt, no grain alcohol).

Daily driver ($50-$70): Glenmorangie 10 (Highland) is a remarkably drinkable Scotch for this price range, and the most popular single malt in Scotland. Glenfarclas and Aberlour both produce classic Speyside drams, with Glenfarclas a bit more sherried than Aberlour. An Island that is non-peated, Highland-ish and very interesting is Bruichladdich’s Classic Laddie. It has a cool modern aesthetic, in case that’s important.

For the Island drinking target, start with Laphroaig 10. Big, powerful, and smoky. 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 Storm is also a worthy dram, from Skye, and as it sounds, pretty robust. Not for the delicate!

Interesting and intriguing ($75-$85) A good Highland pick here is the excellent Oban 14. In Speyside, you cannot go wrong with The Macallan 12 (the real 12-year, not the ‘cask’ series). Balvenie Double Wood is a great (lightly) sherried offering in this price range. For a very delicate nose, try Cragganmore 12 or better yet the Tomintoul 16. Or for something a bit different, one of the Aberlour A’Bunadh series of small-batch bottlings. Cask-strength and strongly sherried, they look like dragon’s blood.

Moving on to the rough and ready Island crowd, Talisker 10 is my favorite non-Islay Island whisky; it is more medicinal than smoky or phenolic (as is Caol Isla 12). But in this range, for the Islay peat lover, you have to go with Bruichladdich Distillery’s Port Charlotte series, their 10-year is out of this world. Campbeltown’s Springbank 10 is the quintessential craft whisky, very complex, detailed and perfectly balanced.

Outstanding ($100): Glenmorangie 18 (Highland) is a souped-up version of the regular expression, and as that, it’s a damn fine whisky. Along the River Spey (Speyside), I tried Balvenie 15 at the source, and it impressed, but if you can find the Balvenie Tun 1509 series, that ‘broke’ one of my whisky friends it was so good. Moving on to the Islands, Ardbeg Corryvreckan is remarkably complex and though peaty, not phenolic. Lagavulin 16 is a classic: smoky but refined, like a really good cigar. If you have a peat lover, and want to blow the doors off, it’s a toss-up between two very powerful yet tasty-as-hell offerings, Laphroaig Lore and Bruichladdich’s Octomore series. I have tried the Octomore 8.1 and the 8.2. Both kick butt.

The Wrap-Up

In the end, you’re picking a whisky, which is something which savored, is consumed. It’s transitory, which makes it a great gift. It doesn’t hang around and clutter someone’s closet 15 years from now. And it can be shared. A great gift for those who appreciate it. Have fun. Your pick doesn’t have to be perfect as most Scotch lovers are looking for something new and interesting now and then.

Author: H.W. MacNaughton

Technologist and communicator. Into technology, jazz, Formula One, sci-fi and any good writing about real stuff.

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