A few weeks ago I wrote a post that described five single malts that are perfect for the beginning Scotch drinker, the aspiring whisky aficionado. My impending return to Scotland – I leave Wednesday – has me reminiscing over my personal favorite single malts, many of which will soon be available to me in the pubs of Scotland. The list was long and I agonized over the process of culling it down to only five malts. I’ve excluded some amazing drams I’ve had at distilleries because they’re so rare and my sample size is literally one drink – it’s just not enough to make it onto my list of all-time favorites.
So where do I begin? Oh yeah, Ardbeg.
I’ve always had a positive impression of Ardbeg’s whiskies. Their standard 10 Year bottle has a monstrous reputation and it’s a dram the faint of heart should approach with care. However, Ardbeg’s juice, like most of Islay’s single malts, ages in ex-Bourbon barrels and I favor Sherried whiskies. Then I met Ardbeg Uigeadail at the Ardbeg distillery on my last trip to Scotland. Uigeadail spends some of its life aging in Sherry barrels, and the addition of this flavor profile turns the already unique and delicious Ardbeg into a national treasure. The whisky has a color like damp earth and black tea, and the nose is equivalent to descending into a root cellar to find a chocolate shop heated by a smokey peat fire.
This is a big, creamy whisky with a palate that lives up to its nose. Wafts of sweet smoke roil over salted caramel, cocoa powder, dried fruits, cereal, and beef jerky. Inevitably, I have to swallow my sip before the flavors are done revealing themselves, and that just makes me want more. The finish is very long and warming, developing the flavors even further. This bottle usually retails for close to $100, but there are online retailers that sell it for considerably less.
Bruichladdich Black Arts 2
Bruichladdich is a black box, something of a conundrum in the industry. If you’re ordering a dram of Bruichladdich because you want to get a sense for their whisky’s style, your experience can be frustrating. Bringing a distillery back to life requires creativity, and Bruichladdich’s master blender used his ample gifts in that realm along with an incredible stock of aging whisky from all over Scotland to create a bewildering array of styles and bottlings. While this is changing with the introduction of the Laddie Ten, the scattershot nature of Bruichladdich’s offerings means there are some unexpected gems. Case in point: Black Arts 2.
If the satanic black bottle doesn’t scare you away then you’re in for a treat. The fact that it’s 21 years old isn’t really advertised, nor is anything else about this mysterious dram. The malt is red-black in the glass with a rich bouquet of red ripe fruits. The whisky is silky smooth and tastes like a magical combination of wine, strawberry jam, and a touch of oaky maltiness. To be fair, words are failing me as I try to describe Black Arts 2. The visceral sensation was one of intense pleasure. I’m dying to get a bottle of this, but at around $150 I’m hesitating on pulling the trigger.
When Aberlour distillery added stills in 1975, they discovered a recipe from 1898 in the wall behind the distillery’s name plate. Some say it was an actual bottle, others that it was a newspaper. Aberlour’s cask-strength non-chill-filtered A’bunadh, which means “of the origin,” is the modern replication of this old recipe. It’s a romantic story, but the whisky is so good I wouldn’t bat an eye if it was cooked up in Pernod-Ricard’s marketing department. A’bunadh spends all its time in Sherry barrels and is bottled in batches so the actual strength of the whisky varies.
In whisky parlance, A’bunadh is a “Sherry monster.” It bears all the markers of a heavily-Sherried whisky: spices like black pepper, cardamon, ginger, and cinnamon; dried fruits like figs, raisins, and currants; and the “body” elements like oak and polished leather. A’bunadh also gives orange and chocolate notes. What a deliciously sweet whisky and a steal for between $40-50. A’bunadh will always have a space on my whisky shelf.
Talisker is one of those godly distilleries that simply can do no wrong in my eyes. Their 10 Year and Distiller’s Edition are malts the likes of which can’t be found elsewhere. In fact, Talisker’s reputation has been built on the back of the feisty 10 Year, its salty, peppery, smokey tang has been a crowd-pleaser for a long time. But few whiskies have the kind of zealous following that Talisker 10’s older brother, the 18 Year, has. I was an immediate convert, having tried it as part of a tasting at Talisker. I lumbered into the shop half-drunk and smiling like a lunatic and traded $80 for a bottle.
If the 10 Year is William Wallace, then the 18 Year is William Wallace meets James Bond. The heart and soul of the 10 Year is here but tempered and refined into something nearly in a class of its own. Pepper and spices intertwine with peat smoke and honey on the billowing nose. The palate is tangy with oranges, saltwater, browned sugar, and black pepper. The brilliance of this whisky is in the delicate interplay of the flavors. This is a high-demand low-supply whisky; last time I visited Talisker they suggested I sell my bottle (three years now and still haven’t opened it). Potential buyers: I’m sorry, I’m not selling.
Highland Park 12
I included Highland Park 12 in my batch of five whiskies for aspiring Scotch drinkers, and I include it here because HP12 is easy to love and difficult to ever get over. It’s a real ace that fits any mood and there are few whiskies that provide better bang for your buck.
Now that you know what I’m drinking, tell me about your favorite drams. Think I should try a certain something? Let me know in the comments!