Starting Your Scotch Whisky Cabinet

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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…


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

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.


Sweet Drams!


– Words:  Curt

– Photos:  Curt

23 thoughts on “Starting Your Scotch Whisky Cabinet

  1. David

    Good post. I think this is something that will be very useful to many readers.

    Reading your suggestions made me realize how far I’ve come in the last 2 years (at least on paper…my mind probably knows so much more than my palate). When I started this journey I had never heard of Aberlour and Bladnoch, and now they are among my favourites!

    I still understand that I have a long way to go. Most of my cabinet is still in the “waiting to open” stage. I see new whiskies that I want to try all the time, but how many open bottles can you have going? Ralfy suggested 5-6 for my rate (5-8 drams a month) but I have at least 12.

    I would add a few suggestions to the Whisky cabinet, most less expensive then a typical A’Bunadh:

    Bladnoch 10 yo sherry cask (distiled under the current ownership)
    Amrut Fusion ( the Portonova is great but pricier)
    Forty Creek Confederation Oak Reserve
    Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban
    Bruichladdich Peat

    If you want to go with the more pricey stuff:

    Amrut Portonova
    Springbank 10 year cask strength claret wood if you can find it
    Balvenie 15 Year old single cask (cask 1976 was great)

    I’d suggest more, but unfortunately I have them but haven’t had a chance to try them. So frustrating.

    To life, to life, l’chaim!


  2. Jeff

    Excellent picks and nice balance in the group, both in style and cost. Great comments as well. I think that, in general, this represents a fairly high-line team, but, as you point out, you can often do so much better by spending a bit more and these are great bang-for-your-buck choices. My buddy, the Scotch Guru, doesn’t quite get all the hoopla over Highland Park 18 either, but I give it almost mystical respect for a malt not in my top 10 (which is kind of weird, come to think of it).

    Checking out some of the price differences, I now understand our slightly different takes on the Macallan 18. Kensington Wine Market sells it for $174.99 while, at LCBO, I’m looking at $259.95; the first thing you would do is drink it; the first thing I would do is insure it.

    I’d agree with David that Amrut Fusion and Forty Creek Confederation Oak Reserve deserve honourable mention, and I’d include Redbreast 12 and Connemarra Cask Strength Peated Single Malt as well.

    Great job – Sláinte!

  3. Ruminsky

    A slant I have never heard anyone address: who is the cabinet for, or rather, what? Is it for you personally, to kick back and enjoy as a sundowner, or is it for sharing with your squaddies when they pop over unannounced?

    I make the distinction because many people have their private stash, and another one – pretty decent – for handing out in company. The “selecter” the company, the more the two lists coincide (at least in my opinion).

    So building your cabinet is one thing, but who it’s meant for may be quite another.

    Your thoughts?

    1. ATW Post author

      Thought the line “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.” covered that.

      1. ATW Post author

        But to expound further…

        I don’t buy anything that I don’t plan to drink personally. (i.e. I don’t buy anything for show or for any others pretensions). While I won’t necessarily immediately pour a dreamy old 70s malt for someone who doesn’t know whisky, I also won’t hesitate to do just that if I pour them a couple others first that they seem to ‘get’.

        In short…it’s all fair game, brother. But you, of all people, should know that about me. This stuff was made to share and make memories with.

    2. Dan

      Interesting question. For the most part, I consider my cabinet open to guests, depending on their preference. I try to keep it as varied and un-conventional as possible, replacing bottles with similar, but not the same, whiskies. For example, I’ve got an Ardmore Traditional Cask to replace the Laphroaig QC when it runs out, a GlenDronach 12 to replace the Balvenie Double Wood, an EWC Chapter 6 (picked up at Kensington Wine Market when I was in Calgary) to replace the Penderyn, a Compass Box Oak Cross to replace the Glenlivet 15 French Oak Reserve, etc., etc. I guess my cabinet is designed, in essence, to facilitate the exploration of the single malt world for both myself and anyone who is interested.

  4. Robert

    Remember this is a “Scotch” list, not just a whisk(e)y list. I was ready to add a bourbon or two and realized they wouldn’t fit this particular cabinet. All good choices and seems pretty much one for both yourself and people you like (anyone I didn’t like would only see the JW, as I won’t drink it myself). The Corry, HP18, GD 15, Mac 18 and Laga 16 are all at the top of my personal list, and the others are very good (well, not the JW) and give a great variety of experiences.

    1. ATW Post author

      Exactly right, Robert. You beat me to the reply.

      If you are looking for the overall experience…a bourbon or two, maybe one Canadian, an Irish or two and a couple choice others.

      Immediately to mind (again, not necessarily my absolute favorites, but in keeping with the theme):

      Maker’s 46
      Sazerac ???
      Forty Creek Barrel Select (or Confed Oak if you can find it)
      Redbreast 12
      Amrut Intermediate Sherry or Portonova
      Kavalan ???

      1. Robert

        I spent $68 for a bottle of Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch 2012, since EVERYONE has been raving about it. Meh. I don’t get it. Not much better to me than regular Woodford Reserve, but in a much prettier bottle. I prefer my $29 bottle of Wild Turkey Russell’s Reserve 10 yo over any other bourbon I’ve had. Then again, Wild Turkey has a special place in my heart. The Redbreast is also good, for an Irish. I’ve never even seen a bottle of Sazerac, Amrut, or Kavalan, as we are limited in selection.

        We also only get the Springbank 10, but it is quite good and could slide in for the 18, I’d guess. I get to go to the liquor store as I just gave someone an unopened bottle of HP 18 for his family Thanksgiving dinner (at his house) and I need some bottles for the holidays. Early Christmas for me!

  5. Curtis Hopkins

    Just wondering if you have tried any of the Deerstalker presentations? This one seems to be under the radar for you and Ralfy.

    Best Regards,

  6. Jeff

    Not sure where to ask this, so the “bang for your buck” theme here seemed appropriate: What whisk(e)y purchases, regardless of the price level, have readers been the most satisfied with in the past year or so? For me, it’s been Redbreast 12, Lagavulin: 12 yrs. Cask Strength (2010), Ardbeg Uigeadail and Glenfarclas 105 Cask Strength: 10 yrs.


    1. David

      I would have to say Peat Monster, and Bladnoch 10 year old sherry cask (55%) for scotch, and Amrut Intermediate Sherry ( or just about any Amrut).

      1. Jeff

        Thanks, David! I like Peat Monster and Amrut Fusion a lot, and I’ll keep an eye out for the others.


        1. David

          If you live in North America, good luck with the Bladnoch….

          Some states allow you to import from online shops in the UK. You can now order an 11 Year Old. That’s what I’m saving up my nickels (no more pennies) for

          1. Jeff

            Yeah, I’m in Ontario, so I deal with the monopoly of the LCBO (supposedly the WORLD’s single largest retailer, but which DOESN’T bargain for volume discounts because passing along too much of a cost savings to the customer might encourage alcoholism – the mind boggles). The LCBO has been bringing in far more smaller-distillery independent bottlings lately, but you really have to do your homework on Maniacs and Whiskybase, or you get stuck with something rating in the low-to-mid 80’s for $100 or more.


          2. Maestro

            Having been subjected to the LCBO’s whims as you have, Jeff, I’ll agree that the Glenfarclas 10yo ‘105’ was one of the best I’ve had in the last little while (but it’ll be part of 2013’s best of).

            My 2012 faves–of whiskies I’d tried for the first time—were the Bowmore Tempest III, the 1993 Ben Nevis 17yo (Signatory UCC) they had, and the Auchentoshan Valinch. Sadly, all three are long departed (though I have reserve bottles of #1 and #3).

  7. David

    ahh, Ontario…

    I had to get a friend to source me a bottle of the Lag 12 in London Ontario because there wasn’t any in Toronto (none province-wide now) at the time. Still waiting to try it. Ardbeg Uigeadail is $70 more expensive here than in Calgary. And Amrut IS and Portonova are not even sold here, though Ashok has said more Amrut variety is coming to Ontario.

    Next to hopping on a plane (which I do once a year, not primarily for the whisky), my best advice is ship to the US (if you know someone there) from Master of Malt or Whisky Exchange, and when you or they cross over they or you can bring (legally) a bottle (plus up to 8 sample bottles) at a time.

    Actually, it’s the only legal way. Taking liquor between provinces is a crime, except for some wine between some provinces.

    I currently have 2 10 year old 55% Bladnochs waiting their turns, and that is how I got my Springbank Rundlets and Kilderkins (before I saw it in Calgary) and my cask strength Bladnoch. I ordered a few samples for my friend in thanks. Next time I’ll order twin bottles of something that we can drink together over Skype. My biggest challenge here is finding friends who have time to drink with me, so my progress is SLOW…

    Good luck Malt hunting!

    1. Maestro


      They fixed that old ‘Prohibition-Era’ law last summer with Bill C-311. You can bring up to 3L of Scotch across Canadian provinces, and I intend to bring at least half that on my trip to Quebec this year (they have a few things we in Ontario don’t, as well as Glenfarclas products at ~$12 cheaper.

      I’m not sure how legal it was when I did it last year, though.


  8. Greg

    Ok , excuse my ignorance , I am Australian .. Just starting my own Cabinet , and have been sniffing around Whisky for a few yrs now .. Can u explain why there are no Non UK breeds of Whisky on yr list , I am in Tasmania Australia , and was introduced to Aussie Whisky recently , and apparently some Japanese Whiskies are also top of the tree .. See Lark Distillery , or Sullivans Cove for a couple of great Aussie tastes

    1. ATW Post author

      Hi, Greg. Thanks for the comments. The title of the post refers to ‘Scotch Cabinet’. In order to be Scotch it must come from Scotland. That’s it. No UK prejudice implied.

      You’re dead to rights though, there are some great world whiskies out there. I’m particularly partial to Amrut, Kavalan and several of the Japanese I’ve tried (Nikka, Karuizawa, Miyagikyo, etc).

      I’ve tried a couple Sullivans Cove, but it was a few years back and they were definitely not my thing. I will be retrying soon though, as I’ve heard good things about recent releases.

      Cheers, Greg.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s