Branching out

As a newcomer to scotch whisky you’ve recently selected your first bottle & have hopefully enjoyed a few drams. This is where things get interesting. While you may not be at the point of assembling the perfect scotch whisky cabinet, you’re probably wanting to try something new.

Question is: where to start? Difficult to answer, but if you ask any serious malthead, they’ll tell you that the answer lies in the journey. There is a huge variety of options available to you, and you’ll find it challenging to develop an understanding of your personal preferences if you don’t establish consistent reference points. The goal is to establish a small handful of whiskies as the cornerstones of your whisky collection – bottles that you understand well and will happily return to again and again.

Let’s get started.

There are MANY subtle varieties of scotch whisky, but for the purpose of keeping things simple, I tend to think of whisky in three broad categories:

Sherry: whisky that has been aged in casks which were once used to age sherry. Bold, rich, and sweet flavours. Ex: Aberlour 10, Glendronach 12, and Macallan 12.

Peated / smoky: these are whiskies that have acquired a smoky & peaty flavours (perhaps best described as “earthy”) during production & aging. These are hefty, warming drams that pull no punches – definitely not for the lighthearted! Good examples are: Laphroaig Quarter Cask, Ardbeg 10, and Compass Box Peat Monster.

Clean / Complex: admittedly, this is a huge range. Sherry, peat, and smoke are strong, unmistakable flavours that can easily obscure the more delicate flavours that can be achieved in a whisky. This is why (in my opinion) this “other” bucket can be much more difficult to evaluate, particularly when just getting started. Having said this, there are many excellent choices here and those with patience will be well rewarded. Glenmorangie Original, Highland Park 12, and Balvenie 15 Single Cask are all examples of complex, clean tasting whiskies

The key is to find one or two key bottles in each profile that you know enjoy which will serve as the cornerstones for your collection. My personal criteria for these bottles is below:

  • Is it good? self-explanatory, no?
  • Is it affordable? I like to use these bottles for everyday pours, and as a comparison to run against something new. If I want to do these two things with any sort of regularity, these bottles need to be affordable!
  • Is it readily available? Do I have to make a 1 hr round trip to pick one up, or can I grab one at the corner store? Can I be reasonably certain that this is going to be in stock at any given time? Is this something I could recommend to a friend and trust they can easily find it?

The personal cornerstone bottles that I have established are:

Sherry: Aberlour 10
Peated / Smoky: Laphroaig Quarter Cask
Clean / Complex: Highland Park 12, Glenmorangie Original

No matter what your criteria may be (and they’re all valid – it’s your call!) by referring back to your cornerstone bottles you should be able to form a solid personal opinion on whatever new whisky you may come by. Understanding the attributes that you like or dislike in whisky is a crucial skill that allows you to make personally satisfying decisions on your next bottle. Furthermore, it allows you to draw parallels between your own “internal language” and the terms of description favoured by whisky reviewers.

For example: on this site, Curt uses language like “big / heavy /beefy” when describing some heavily peated Islay malts. As you learn how “Curt-speak” is aligned with your own terms of reference, you’ll find that you can get quite a bit of helpful information out of the reviews.

As you establish your cornerstone bottles and start to use what you’ve learned to research new whiskies, you’ll soon be looking to branch out further yet and become dragged ever deeper into your personal evaluation process. For this reason, my next posting will be focused around ideas for making the most of your opportunities – sampling new things in a thoughtful, meaningful way.

Until then…what are your cornerstone malts, and what is it that draws you to them?

4 thoughts on “Branching out

  1. anon

    Glenfiddich 12yo has been my cornerstone… easy to get into, smooth nose and palate…. something I’ve always had on my shelf to share with newcomers and something I’ve found I’ve judged everything against. Definitely not the best whisky, but a solid cornerstone!

  2. Brian

    Thanks for this article, it has been helpful. My wife and I took a trip to Scotland for a walking holiday a few years ago, and we also happened to develop a Scotch habit. We’re still new, though, and always looking for expansion tips.

    Right now our cornerstone lines up with yours: Highland Park (wife’s favorite), Laphroiag (my favorite), and Glenmorangie (which we both find a little sub-par to the previous two).

    I see we’re missing a sherry style, so perhaps we’ll try the Abelour for our Anniversary.


  3. Edwin

    Ardbeg 10, Glendronach Cask Strenght Batch 1 (now that’s a pretty imppressive and affordable benchmark!) and Highland Park 12 are my cornerstones.
    Must say I’ve been away from Scotch due to health reasons, so I have to make up some years…. Although our own taste and appreciation evolves over the years Glendronach used to be my favorite distillery, and, yes, still is.
    Great article!


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