By my latest count, I’ve visited approximately 30 distilleries in Scotland, and I’ve got another 15 or so slated for my upcoming trip that begins in just three weeks. During those visits and the copious amount of time I’ve spent checking in on Scotland’s pubs, I’ve had the opportunity to taste untold hundreds of different whiskies. Some have been rare masterpieces, rich and dark and old as a grandparent; others have been nice, easy-drinking drams but somewhat uninspiring; and other whiskies have matched every descriptor I could devise between the two extremes.
That’s a lot of whisky data. I’ve mostly used it to determine what whiskies I like and stock in my closet (hence the photo on this post), but I realize that many people – including readers of Traveling Savage – don’t share the same zeal for single malt Scotch that I do nor, perhaps, have even given it an honest shake. Scotch is one of those visceral pleasures that actually increases as knowledge of the craft increases. It’s the main reason I go to so many distilleries: The more I learn about whisky, the more I like it.
I want to share that enjoyment with you. The best place to start your journey toward appreciating single malt Scotch is reading this post and trying these hand-picked drams perfect for the whisky aspirant. I’ve combed my memory banks for archetypal whiskies that broadly represent the various styles of single malt Scotch. They aren’t necessarily “the best” whiskies on the market, but I would happily have a dram of any of these whiskies if you were to offer me one. In fact, I’ve considered affordability and accessibility in the United States for this list, and you should be able to find these at a good liquor store without bringing ruin to your bank account.
Made in the heart of Speyside, Aberlour 12 is a deliciously sweet single malt exuding rich Sherry notes that exemplify the region. The nose and palate are in perfect synchronicity with honey, chocolate, cinnamon, and fleeting floral notes. Bits of oak and black pepper punctuate and accentuate the candy profile. There’s enough complexity vying with the smooth sweetness to make this one an excellent first dram. I haven’t decided if this is a dessert or breakfast whisky yet as I don’t have any right now. Since I can usually find this excellent bottle for less than $40, I may rectify that with a case purchase.
Peat smoke is the name of the game on the island of Islay, and Bowmore’s whiskies tend to fall between smokebombs like Laphroaig and Ardbeg and smokeless whiskies like Bruichladdich and Bunnahabhain. Bowmore 12, the core expression, is a light gold malt with a delicate and complex nose yielding orange, a hint of chocolate, peaty earth, a whiff of dissipating smoke, and black tea leaf. The taste is malty sweetness, earthiness, something nutty like nutmeg. This is a nice whisky to ease into Islay’s smokey drams and to determine if you like that flavor element. You can usually find this bottle for $40-50.
Picking a representative highland malt is difficult because the region is enormous and the distilleries aren’t truly related in any meaningful way. So I went with my ace in the hole here, the whisky that has converted more women to single malts than any other: Dalwhinnie 15. Dalwhinnie packs a lot into its straw gold appearance. The nose has pears, loads of heather, a tinge of smoke, malt, and honeyed golden raisins. The palate brings these aromas forward and adds a lot of spice notes like pepper and nutmeg. There’s an earthy yet airy floweriness that plays with the honey sweetness. This one’s a treasure and presents the flowery, earthy, slightly smokey flavors characteristic of highland malts. It’s usually available for $50-60.
Options are limited when it comes to lowland whiskies, but a few really good distilleries remain. Glenkinchie hides just outside Edinburgh and their 12 Year is a good example of the floral, grassy, citric style of lowland malts. This one is light, maybe a little creamy, and sweet with honey, vanilla, malt, and flowery flavors. Some whiskies are loud and brash; this one is subtle and shy and will never offend you. Many assume lighter whiskies like Glenkinchie are easier to get started on, but the flavors are actually harder because they’re quieter. You can find this bottle for $40-50.
Highland Park 12
Highland Park perches way up north on the Orkney Islands. They produce stunning and unique whiskies, and I’m happy to be returning there this May. The 12 Year is their core expression and, in my opinion, is better than a vast majority of older whiskies from other distilleries. It’s warm amber in color and the nose is a wild mix of Orkney’s unique heathery peat, lemon, and ginger on top of sweet vanilla. The flavor brings out a smokiness akin to smoldering vegetation with rich custard, brown sugar, caramel, and spicy ginger. It’s a silky whisky with a long finish that continually brings out new flavors. For aspiring whisky drinkers, Highland Park 12 may seem quite powerful especially after a dram like Glenkinchie 12, but then, that’s the point of this exercise, to show you the range of single malt flavors and help you identify where lies your preference. This is a steal for between $40-50.
A Few Instructions
Order a dram of these whiskies at a bar before you buy a bottle (unless money is burning a hole in your pocket). Take the dram neat and ask for a little pitcher of water on the side. Go somewhere quiet with the whisky. Pay attention to your senses. Nose it. Take a sip, just enough to moisten your mouth. Wait. Single malt is a slow drink. Think about what you’re smelling and tasting. Add a couple drops of water. Repeat the process. Enjoy the process. Get another, different dram. Think about the differences between the two malts. Smile.
You’re on your way.