Alright. Time to have another go at a post on the site that gets a fair amount of attention.
What you’re reading right now is a re-write of an old ATW feature. What it really boils down to is this, friends…the times they are a changin’. Whisky is becoming more and more expensive. It is also seemingly less readily available in some markets. And depending on your line of thinking, it is also becoming harder and harder to ensure the product you’re buying now is as good as the same product bought a decade ago (if you believe those out there banging the drum in support of the ‘quality slippage’ argument, that is).
When I originally put together the first ‘go’ at a post on this topic (a couple years back) I did so with the intent of aiming at the TRUE beginner working within a VERY humble and spartan budget. The reality is, however, Scotch is not a poor man’s game, and this may have been the wrong tack to embrace. There are, to be sure, a few gems out there that can be scooped for phenomenal deals, but in the end you’re always going to end up paying for quality. I hate to break it to ya, but all those arguments you’ve heard about ‘older doesn’t mean better’ or ‘price doesn’t equal quality’…they were, for the most part, a load of shit. Ninety five times out of a hundred the older, more expensive drams will be better. To be fair, if you inserted the word ‘always’ in there a couple of times (i.e. ‘older doesn’t always mean better’) I would agree with the statements.
What I’m really getting at here is that I think most folks are looking for an idea as to how to build a good Scotch cabinet, not just a cheap decent one. The sad fact of the matter is…this costs money.
Seeing as how you’re lurking around on whisky blogs with the rest of us spirit-snobs, I am going to assume a certain level of knowledge and experience with whisky (yes, yes…shame on me…and yes, I do know what they say about assuming). With that in mind I wanted to tackle putting together a few malts that would constitute a really nice (but still relatively beginner) cabinet. The idea here is that you would have somewhat of a balance of profiles, some great malts to sip yourself…and in the event you had a knowing guest over one eve you’d never be short on something tasteful to pour.
Before we get to it, let’s step back a moment for a little bit of clarification. This little exercise originally began long, long back with a few members of the Collective trying to come up with ten entry-level price point bottles for the aspiring anorak to begin their own scotch whisky cabinet. The flaw in this challenge was a basic one I have come up against many times. Often…for just a few dollars more…you can upgrade from that ‘entry-level’ ticket to something astounding. Trust me…it’s all about quality, not quantity. Depending on where you live, one or two of the drams listed below may set you back a tidy sum (though with careful shopping…no more than $150 or so).
A couple of final notes:
- These are all readily available bottles. Snootery may say that old Brora, Port Ellen or Rosebank would be the bee’s knees on your shelf. Scarcity and cost may say otherwise.
- This is neither a true beginner’s cabinet, nor a dream cabinet. Just something somewhere in the middle to give good balance, good value and good selection.
- This list sorta doubles as a good giftbuyer’s list as well. Honestly. I can’t imagine any Scotch lover wouldn’t be pleased to receive one of these.
- The following list are my suggests. Only mine. Having tried all of these I can positively swear that a) they are great drinks and b) the couple/few dollars more is well worth the investment.
With no further ado…a dozen or so bottles to help flesh out your whisky cabinet…
1 Johnnie Walker Black Label. Hey…sometimes you just need a blended whisky. This is one of the best out there and available nearly everywhere. A very smooth and drinkable blend with a deep and mysterious character. The smoke that moves in and out on this one is tasteful and obscure. Good enough for the snobs, but also enjoyable enough to pour for the noobs so as not to dent your good malts by sharing with someone who doesn’t really care or appreciate ‘em.
2 Macallan 18 year old. This one carries a hefty price tag, but is a very, very balanced and refined dram. One of the few in the Macallan range that boasts the quality to justify the often crazy (cough cough ‘exhorbitant’) price point. Take price out of the equation though? Damn good drink.
3 Lagavulin 16 year old. Is it possible to have a palate for peat and not appreciate this beautiful and beguiling classic malt from Islay? Gad, whatta nose! Every now and again you’ll hear chatter about quality slippage on this one. Not sure what malt those folks are sipping, but it certainly isn’t any of the Lag16 bottles I’ve purchased. One of the best in the Diageo stable.
4 Springbank 18 year old. Just a few miles off the shores of Islay is another island of whisky fame. Campbeltown. Once home to more than 30 distilleries, Campbeltown now houses only three. The pinnacle of these three is undoubtedly Springbank. This distillery produces three different styles of whisky under three different names. Springbank is the moderately peated brand. A real beaut. If you’re brave…grab yourself a bottle of the Longrow 18 as well.
5 GlenDronach 15 year old. From the Speyside region of Scotland. Here you have a brilliant example of affordable AND exceptional sherry-matured whisky. This 15 year old is, to me, the apex of the standard line. Sure to please, with sweet juicy fruit notes and dry figgy sherry as well. If you get the opportunity, do try some of the older single casks this distillery produces.
6 Aberlour a’bunadh (any batch will do). A malt released in small batches from another Speyside distillery of reknown. This whisky is a true bruiser. Bottled at a hefty cask strength of ~60%, this is one to take your time with and savor. A winter warmer if ever there was. Deep…dark…sweet…stunning. Caution…there is batch variance, but I’m sure even the worst are much, much better than the competition.
7 Ardbeg Corryvreckan. Any Ardbeg release really (Ten, Corry, Uigeadail). This one though has such a complex and cascading profile that continues to explode in firework after firework on both the nose and palate. Strong and unique, this is definitely not one for the faint of heart. Brilliant meld of peat, smoke and sweet. A personal favorite.
8 Talisker 10 year old. A young and feisty pepper monster. The 18 year old is miles better, but few and far between on the shelves, so let’s say the 10. This is a very individual drink with a character all its own, and a lovely personality in its own right. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again…no cabinet should be without a Talisker. Affordable as hell too!
9 Highland Park 18 year old. Good bottle to have on the shelf, and while I do enjoy it, it’s not a personal favorite. So, why is it here then? Simple. It is quite good, but more importantly…it is generally known as the ‘greatest all ’rounder in the world’ (thanks, MJ…everyone and their dog likes to quote that one). Not sure I buy in, but y’know what? Contrary to popular belief I’m not always right.
10 Glenfarclas ???. Any Glenfarclas. Generally, the older the better (but not always!). Most often recommended is the 15 year old, but I have had a very mediocre 15 recently that makes me a little gun shy on the referral. Anyway…to the point…this is a topnotch distillery. Check out something from ‘em if you can. 17? 21? 40?
…now…if you want to have some fun from there…play about with some of the Glenmorangie line, Tullibardine range, Auchentoshan (maybe the Valinch?), older BenRiach, Bruichladdich or Laphroaig.
You’ll find reviews of most of these here on ATW. In the event you’d like to know a bit more before spending your hard-earned food stamps, feel free to drop me a line either via email (under the ‘Contact Us’ page) or in the comments section below. If any of you out there do take any of these as recommendations, drop a comment below and let me know what you think.
– Words: Curt
– Photos: Curt