Alright. Time to have another go at this.
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 andrefined 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 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
I skyped with a friend in the US a coupke of nights ago….he received my Bladnoch shipment! 2 Bottles of 10 YO sherry Hogshead at 55% and one at 57.something%.
So I went to my “cabinet” and cracked the small bottle of Bladnoch I had kept, hoping to be invited to do a review at some point after a hint a while back (no pressure). Still lots left for a review but I allowed myself a small dram. Heavenly…
I still have the other 2 bottles that I had arranged to be brought over. Once my friend brings these over (one bottle per visit) I should have a pretty good supply, and BLADNOCH will definitely have a place in MY cabinet!
Good list. I would definitely keep the Corry, HP18, GD15, Laga 16, GF??, and A’bunadh. I’d save money and get the Mac15, or even the CS, instead of the 18. As we don’t get Springbank 18, I would still grab the 10 (great dram!). I’d drop Talisker and get Peatmonster, and replace JW Black with Buchanan’s 18 SR to get away from peat. With the money I saved with these changes, I’d pick up Glenmorangie Original, Clynelish 14, and/ or Dalwhinnie 15. Just my 2 cents!
I think this underlines the value of a good whisky tasting club. Most of us, however strong our interest, would not drink (or share) enough to justify more than 4-6 open bottles at a time.
At a whisky tasting club, you can experience a greater variety of whiskies without being left with a mostly full bottle that has to be used within a few months, something that is unlikely to happen if there are 10 of them…
No Laphroaig? Really?
Yes, I know. Bound to miss someone’s faves. I’m a Laphroaig lover too, but didn’t want to bury this list in Islay malts. Gotta be honest…I’d take lag16 or Ardbeg over Laph. (But of course I always keep many bottles of Laphroaig at home, and a few open at any given time).
Can I ask a dumb but honest question?
How does one get to sample such a huge number of whiskies without a liver transplant and declaring bankruptcy?
I mean this question in the best possible way. I’ve noticed this among a few whisky forums. Whiskyfun has over 8000 reviews. Ralfy reviews on average 2 bottles a week (each one itself has been thoroughly “examined” and is usually only half full in the video. He also has been quoted as having several drams an evening (but has also said he goes for stretches alcohol free). You have to assume that he doesn’t pour out the rest of the bottles.
Even on this site, especially over the last few weeks, there are explosions of new reviews (some $$pricey$$) and mentions of “my first, second, third” etc.. drams of the night…
Here I am with a keen interest in reading everything I can. I “discover” a new botte I would love to try at least once a week, and often I have bought them (usually the less pricey ones). Plus I want to try all the different batches of A’Bunadh but they are coming out faster than I can count them. And I want to develop the smelling and tasting skills I’m hearing and reading about.
So 2 things:
1. How does one afford to buy all the whiskies one wants to try? For many on a fixed budget by the time you get around to being able to buy to buy more the limited releases or one-offs are long sold out.
2. How does one try so many malts and continue drinking the “every day” or “rotation” malts without getting sick (or dare I use the word…addicted)? Medical types recommend no more than 40 g of alcohol a day for men no more than 4-5 times a week, max… that’s 100 mL a day of 40% scotch, less for craft whisky (2- 30 mL drams). And half that for women.
It might be my upbringing or my lack of tolerance (physical not moral), or two small kids and occasional work commitments, but I can’t seem to manage more than 1 “regular” dram a week when healthy. Occasionally 2. When the whisky club is over I can maybe do 4, but that’s 4-5 times a year.
Which brings me to #3. Doing the math, that’s maybe the equivalent of 3 bottles TOTAL. Assuming I need to finish the bottles I open, how do I go through a variety of new whiskies?
I’ve now acquired an appreciation for single malts, but I’m quickly getting discouraged that I’ll never be able to get through all the malts I want to try. I’m ok with the fact I’ll never taste a Port Ellen or Rosebank, but I want to be “educated” enough so when I finally do crack the Macallan 25, old Mortlach, or Black Bowmore I’vI DO have hidden away, I’ll be able to properly enjoy them.
Brilliant. Thanks for what is arguably the best line of questioning I’ve had here yet. It has my head whirling with how many replies I can give. If you’ll humor me with a touch of patience, I will put together a proper blog post on this. I think it may be something that many could stand to benefit from. Answering here means only a few who read all comments beneath a piece will see my replies. Hang tight, Skeptic. Your question is not a dumb one as you suggested, but a rather poignant and timely one. I am indeed blitzing the site of late. I’ll explain soon.
I thought Skeptic’s questions were indeed very interesting and I tried to look for the post you talked about without success. If you wrote one, would you indicate where it is posted please ?
Follow this link: http://www.allthingswhisky.com/?p=1706
Thanks a bunch.
Finally, after months of planning, rescheduling, pleading and almost threatening, it all came into place. My US friend had brought me the Bladnoch 11 year old early in May after I had ordered 3 (2 for me, one for him) a while back. And tonight we skyped and cracked our respective bottles (actually, he opened my second bottle, he can’t find where he put his…) online.
Well worth waiting for. A little lighter and less rich than the 10 I had previously owned (now long gone) but still delicious. Hard to compare two single cask expressions a year apart. Except to say the quality remains high.
My friend now has 3 twelves, 2 elevens and 2 tens he’s holding for me. I need to give him reasons to visit more often…
Bladnoch…definitely one for the cabinet
Nice! Will have a review of a Bladnoch 20 up within the next day or two (today, if timing cooperates).
Bladnoch 20? Before Armstrong? I wonder what an Armstrong 20 year old would be like and how they’d compare.
Have you tried anything from the new ownership?
Sadly, no. None available locally that I’ve yet seen. Hopefully soon.
don’t hold your breath…. Raymond lamented not having an agent in NA.
unless one of the stores in Calgary is willing to get the Alberta board to get it in….
Maybe I should bring a sample or two when I come out in December?
Hello! Love your site! I’m still climbing the whisky learning curve, but I’m loving the ride!
Now that I’ve begun acquiring a few of my own bottles (Ardbeg 10, Glenfiddich 15, JW Green, Balvenie Double Wood, Glenlivet Nadurra, Compass Box Oak Cross), I’m finding that I have quite a few open bottles that I’m not drinking particularly fast. In terms of keeping/storing opened bottles, I know light and high temp are to be avoided. As for airspace, do you recommend using inert gas, or do you find that some airspace is fine?
Hi, Rob. Thanks for the kind words. Much appreciated.
I’ve been dealing with open spirits for between 15 and 20 years now (bartending, bar management, personal stocks, etc) and I truly believe that as long as you have at least half or two thirds of a bottle remaining you’re probably good for a couple of years. I tend to speed up a bit when it reaches the last quarter or so. Never been into the gas solution at all. Call it an ignorant concern on my part that there’s a possibility they will adversely affect the dram. I do, however, occasionally decant the last bits of bottles I really like (or still need to review) into smaller glass sample bottles. As for my more general solution…call some friends over and have a heels party. 😉
I find the inert gas is fine. I actually use it almost every time i open a bottle, because i supply the bulk of the material for the meetings of my club (anyone want to join?) and then have a lot of half full bottles that i don’t have time to drink very often. So I can and do easily have a bottle open for a couple of years. I also decant into carefully labelled smaller sample bottles when possible.
But I like to let the whisky open up for a while after pouring.
Some spirits don’t tolerate the long storage as well. My Aberlour 18 became bitter after about a year, but improved with blending with a couple of other “heels”.
My preferred option would be to drink it more quickly. But I just don’t have the time or opportunity (being on call a lot and having young kids tends to do that), and even if I did, SKeptic pointed out there are safety limits….
By the way, oxidation is not that bad all the time. It can change your whisky in a good way too, softens it, brings out other flavours…and sometimes just flatens it. 🙂
I quite agree. This is what i noticed with a couple of Springbank cask strengthens (12 year old and claret wood). After a year they were better.
But my experience with Dalwhinnie and Aberlour 18 was less positive. Maybe it’s the dilution, or maybe higher EtOH protects the spirit.
I’d actually go so far as to say some oxidation ALWAYS helps. Crack ’em open…let ’em breathe a bit. Especially before being used for a formal tasting. There’s a big difference between that sort of oxidation and the effects of a couple of years trapped in a bottle slowly dying.
Reviewing on opening is a bad idea, and usually just means you’ve shortchanged the whisky and will have to do it all over again anyway. About the only thing I’ve tried that was better off the cork than later on was Dalmore 12, and I traded that one away.
Air almost always helps, but I haven’t had much luck just opening the bottle and letting it breathe like red wine – I’ve found taking 2-3 drams out and letting the air in bottle work usually helps all the major changes along in 3-4 weeks, but Uigeadail kept changing, and improving, over course of nine months, and the best drams were the last ones.
I think it’s possible that ABV and malt content have a positive effect on staying power, cask strengths and single malts doing better against going stale than blends. Older whiskies might also stale slower than younger ones because the usually more sedate older ones have less power to lose overall so the staleness is harder to spot, but also because flavours may be more deeply instilled in older whisky. Gas works well, and supposedly has no effect on wine, which is more chemically active than whisky.
Just wanted to say thanks for all the great information on this site! Having only recently got into SMSW in the last month after a friend brought a bottle or Aberlour 10 to a dinner party, I’ve gone a bit Scotch mad! My sisters just recently returned from a trip to the UK (quite a journey for us Aussies) and I had them bring me back a bottle of Aberlour A’bunadh (#45) on my friends advice and they picked me up a bottle of Glenlivet from Duty Free. With some friendly help at my local large liquor store (one that actually carries a good range of SMSW at decent prices), I picked up a bottle of the Aberlour 10 and the Glenmorangie Original. I would definitely agree that the Glenmorangie is a great beginner’s dram. From there I moved to a Highland Park 12 and Bruichladdich Laddie 10, both of which I enjoyed. Really enjoyed the smoky notes of the HP12 and made a bold decision to jump to an Islayer. After reading copious reviews (especially from this site) I decided that I could either go for a Talikser 10, see if I liked that and then jump up to full Islayer, or just take the plunge…
I took the plunge. Lagavulin 16! Maybe a bold step for someone who only tried their first real single malt a couple of weeks ago, but I’m glad I did. I absolutely loved the Lagavulin!!! Seems like I’m a natural peathead. Over the last couple of weeks I have significantly expanded my collection (my boss was paying me out some extra holiday pay so scotch seemed like a good thing to spend it on!). So again, after reading many a review I proceeded to purchase a few more bottles. Dalwhinnie 15 (something smooth), Glendronach 15 (something very sherry), Ardbeg 10 (more peat), Laphroaig QC (even more peat), a 200ml gift pack of Talisker 10, Coal Ila 12 & Clynelish 14, a 50ml sample of Laphroaig 18 and most recently Big Peat (more peat again), which I am sipping from a Glencairn as I write this.
Out of everything I’ve tried so far, the Islayer’s are my clear favourites. While I really like the Glenmorangie, Glendronach & A’bunadh, there’s is something about the Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg that really appeal to me. Love those big, peaty flavours. Enjoying my first taste of Big Peat as well.
The ones that didn’t appeal to me as much were the Aberlour 10 (after trying the A’bunadh and Glendronach it just seemed a bit weaker in comparison), Bruichladdich 10 (decent, but nothing that stood out to me, possibly due to my newness to scotch). I like the smokiness of the HP10, but not as big a fan of the honey on the palate. Talikser 10 is nice but I prefer the punch of the Islayers. Not sure about the Caol Ila yet though.
Anyway, sorry for the long and enthusiatic post, but just wanted to say thanks for all the information you have here. It has really helped me on the beginning of my journey into Scotch!
Finally, If I could ask, would you have any recommendations of further big, peaty scotch’s to try? Can’t seem to get enough peat. I’ve been thinking about the Laphroaig 10 (might be a step backwards to the QC though), paying the extra and getting the 18 (which I really enjoyed the sample of), some more Ardbeg’s; Uigeadail or Corryvreckan??? or even some more blended peaty scotch’s like the Peat Monster. Suppose I might have to try and get through the lot eventually, but a bit stuck as for what to get next!
Campbeltown is not an island.