Holiday buying guide for those with a Scotch lover on the list

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.

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Whisky and Words number 9: Aberlour A’bunadh

'The mouth of the chattering burn.' Hey, their words, not mine!
‘The mouth of the chattering burn.’ Hey, their words, not mine!

See later followup on this expression.

When you see Aberlour’s A’Bunadh, it is quite obvious this is not your run-of-the-mill whisky: the deep tawny-red color is highlighted by a clear glass bottle, short with a high shoulder. The spirit is clear, and when backlighted has tones of polished oak, but when in shadow, the whisky looks like an alchemist’s reagent for making dragon blood. Or maybe it is dragon’s blood—it’s strong enough! Bottled typically around 60% (my bottling, #46, is at 60.4%), A’bunadh has enough kick to get anyone’s attention. This is a spirit to be approached with respect.

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Whisky and Words Number Four: Bunnahabhain 12

I first heard about Bunnahabhain while walking around Edinburgh back in 1992. I had been making my way down to high street from Nelson’s column on a Sunday. Not much was open, the skies were leaden, the city quiet. It wasn’t late but the light dim — it was November in Scotland, and that means short days. I was making the most of a day off after having done some business with Heriot-Watt University. Heriot-Watt is notable for being the college where James Bond went to school. I heard that from another Bond fan, I’m not entirely sure this is so, but we’ll let it go for now. What is certain is that they are involved in the country’s business education and especially the whisky business. They even had their own bottling of whisky, and I brought back a sample. I have the bottle still, but the spirit is long gone, so no solid review of that, though I remember not being too taken by it at the time.

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Whisky and Words Number One: The Macallan

Whisky & words, why not mix them up? Some of the greatest writers have drunk whisky. I’m not advocating that for anyone — I never write unless I’m sober, and responsible imbibing is the message here. But I think they can go together. I often have a dram while I’m reading. Both I do at the end of the day to relax. I’ll be writing about whisky to relax, too.

Note: what I won’t be doing is getting overly-wrought in my descriptions. I do not pretend to be a super-taster, capable of discriminating upon which Caribbean island my toffee was browned. And that’s OK as most likely, you aren’t either.

Whisky Review: The Macallan 12

So let’s start with a standard and safe selection, a dram no one will criticize you for buying and everyone will enjoy (no overpowering peat, smoke or oil). The Macallan 12-year-old.

Whenever you see a whisky that’s ‘the’ something, you can bet it has been around a long time. But it does not necessarily mean it is good. ‘The Glenlivet’ 12-year-old, for example, has been around for ages. The Glenlivet is the first single-malt many (such as I ) tried and it has admirers, but to me, the cost/benefit just is not there. The Glenlivet to my palate is uninspiring — just not a lot of ‘there’ there. For a bit more you can get Highland Park 12, which has more character, or Ardbeg, which has character and load more smoke.

But back to the Macallan 12. You have to give those folks at Macallan credit. They use barrels that have been used to age sherry. But not just any barrels — they buy the barrels themselves, from wood they select, then essentially rent them to the sherry producers and get them back after a single run. So Macallan guarantees a steady supply of sherry-aged oak in top condition.

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