As some of you may have read in the past, I appreciate the occasional dram of Whisky.
Specifically, I like scotch whisky, although I do enjoy some bourbons as well. I thought it might be fun to put together a brief guide on whisky from a Max point of view, which I plan on updating as I make new discoveries.
Let's make sure we get some of our terminology straight first…
Whisky vs. Whiskey
That extra ‘e' happens to mean something. The spelling of whisk(e)y is different based on which region the spirit is distilled in. In general, “whisky” is the official spelling everywhere in the world, with 2 big exceptions, Ireland and America, where it's spelled “whiskey”.
The most recognized regional whiskies are from:
Scotland – By far the most popular type of whisky worldwide. Known as “Scotch” it must be made in Scotland, and comes either in the Single-Malt (100% malted barley) variety or Blended (single-malt and grain) variety.
Ireland – Irish whiskey is also made from malted barley, and comes exclusively from Ireland.
America – This whiskey type, also commonly known as Bourbon is primarily made in Kentucky and Tennessee, although many other states have joined the party, including Texas! The distinguishing feature is that it's made from corn as opposed to barley.
Other Regions – There are many other regions in the world that produce whisky, including but not limited to: Canada, Japan, India, England, Australia and Taiwan, to name a few.
I'm personally partial to Scotch, and some Bourbons, although I have an appreciation for Japanese whiskies as well.
How I Discovered Whisky
Although I knew of whisky growing up, my awareness was limited to blended Scotch such as Chivas or Johnny Walker since that's what my parents would occasionally drink. I had tried it a few times, and never acquired a taste for it.
It wasn't until I was on a work trip about 10 years ago that I was first introduced to proper whisky. I was staying at a historic hotel in a small town in Maryland, and it had a small basement with a huge fireplace that was converted into a bar. Just the kind of cozy, warm place to discover whisky for the first time.
The bartender learned that I had never really had Single-malt Scotch whisky before (the non-blended variety), and proceeded to make a convert out of me. Up until then, I felt that all whiskies were created equal and tasted the same. Boy was I wrong!
He poured me a few tastings of his favorite bottles, and I was shocked by the clear differences in flavor. One particular bottle stood out, it had the smell of campfire, and a similar taste. It was unlike anything I had drank up until that time (more on that bottle later). I was hooked from that point forward!
Why Whisky is my drink of Choice
Here are a few reasons why Whisky is now my favorite drink of choice.
Incredible variety – Much like wine, the world of whisky is full of unique varieties and flavor profiles. There is always something new to discover and experience. Have a look at the chart below.
Special experience – Every bottle of Scotch I've purchased feels like a special experience. There is an anticipation that comes from learning about the next bottle, tracking it down, and then having that first sip. Although I like wine very much, for some reason, I don't get the same anticipation.
Quality over quantity – I enjoy beer as well, but I'll be honest, I just can't stomach the volume of beer anymore. I like the fact that I can sip on a dram of Scotch slowly and happily, without feeling bloated afterwards.
Superior value – Believe it or not, I consider Scotch to be a cost effective drink over other alternatives. A single bottle of Scotch typically lasts me 3-6 months. A bottle of wine perhaps a weekend, but usually a day.
Let me demonstrate with some financial wizardry, since this blog is still equal parts personal finance and fun:
There are roughly 25 ounces in a 750ml bottle of wine or scotch.
1 Drink of Scotch = 1 Ounce / Decent bottle of Scotch = $80
1 Drink of Wine = 6 Ounces / Decent bottle of Wine = $40
Value of 1 Scotch Experience = $80/25 Ounces = $3.20 per drink
Value of 1 Wine Experience = $40/6 Ounces = $6.70 per drink
Longevity of Scotch Bottle = 25 Drinks Total
Longevity of Wine Bottle = 4 Drinks Total
Scotch delivers over 2X the experience value of wine, and 6X the experience longevity!
Like wine, I don't believe there's a strong correlation between price and how “good” a Scotch is. I've had plenty of high end bottles that didn't impress me as much as middle of the range alternatives. In the end, what's most important is what appeals to your palate. The recommendations below are just a few of my personal favorites organized by price range.
Johnny Walker Double Black – This is actually a blended scotch, and a good way to work up to single malts, since it will be smoother in general.
Aberlour 12 – This single-malt scotch is a solid choice in this price range, it's from the Speyside region of Scotland and a good introduction to the whiskies from that particular area. If you can spring for the 18, I would definitely give that one a try.
Balcones Rumble – This is actually a Bourbon, made right here in Texas. Like most bourbons it's slightly on the sweeter side, but it's become one of my favorite bourbons.
Lagavulin 16 – This is my absolute favorite scotch, and the one I mentioned earlier, however I must warn it's an acquired taste for some. I wouldn't jump to this one if you're just getting started with discovering whisky. I tend to prefer very peaty (smoky) scotches, and I always have a bottle of this one in the cabinet.
Macallan 12 – You really can't go wrong with this single malt scotch. Macallan puts out some fantastic bottles, especially when you get to some of the older bottlings. This particular one is always a solid choice at this price point. If you can justify the 18 yr, or 21 yr for that matter, go for it!
Glenrothes 1998 – An excellent example of this particular scotch distillery. It's smooth with a great flavor, and worth checking out. I've tried many of their expressions, and this is one of my favorites.
Johnny Walker Blue Label – This is a high end blended scotch that's never let me down. It has a hint of smoke on the finish, and goes down very smoothly.
Balvenie 21 Yr Portwood – This distillery is known for excellent single-malts, and this particular one is their flagship bottle. I was a bit sad the day I finished this one, if you're looking to splurge, I would highly recommend it.
Suntory Hibiki 17 years – This has been my favorite Japanese whisky so far. A very impressive example of how far along this region has come with single-malts.
Latest Experiences & Recommendations
I'll be adding my latest recommendations in this section for those interested going forward. I typically buy a handful of bottles a year, so this will be where I highlight my most recent favorites.
Monkey Shoulder – This is a blended whisky from three famous Speyside distilleries, it's very approachable and smooth. It's easy to drink, with great flavor. If you're watching your budget, you can't go wrong with this one at ~$30 USD.
Auchentoshan Three Wood – This was my first bottle from this particular distillery and I was very impressed. It came as a recommendation from a Scotsman, so I knew it would be good. It's relatively smooth for a single malt with just a hint of smokiness. At ~$70 USD per bottle, it's still fairly reasonable as scotches go.
Nikka Coffey Malt – This is actually a Japanese whisky. It also happens to be the first distillery in Japan to make whisky, so it has a rich and very interesting history. This particular expression is a new release for them, not to be confused with the Nikka Coffey Grain, which is also good. A bottle can be had for ~$60 USD, and it's excellent.
Dalmore King Alexander III – There's no doubt that this particular bottle is a splurge. Dalmore puts out some great whiskies, so I recommend you try some of their more reasonable expressions before jumping to this one. This particular bottle is aged in a number of different casks giving it a deep ruby color, and an extremely smooth flavor. So easy to drink, you might have to watch yourself! A bottle can be had for ~$235 USD, and it's exceptional.
It was fun to discover these new experiences recently, and I really enjoyed these particular bottles. If you're into scotch I highly recommend you try some of these out.
The Definitive Whisky Guide
As much as I'd like to fancy myself a whisky expert, I'm nothing more than an advanced amateur who really enjoys the entire whisky experience. If you're really interested in learning more about how complex and wonderful the world of whisky really is, you should pick up your own copy of the World Atlas of Whisky.
It's the best book I've been able to get my hands on so far that really captures the complete essence of the wonderful world of whisky. In fact the handy flavor chart I showed earlier was first introduced by the author of this book. The flavor chart in the book was a great resource that I've used to determine which bottle to try next, especially since I could narrow it down based on my flavor preferences.
It's a great gift for anyone interested in Whisky.
I hope you enjoyed learning a bit about my favorite drink, I've only scratched the surface with this modest guide. I've finally scheduled my first trip to Scotland (and Ireland) this Summer, so I'll be increasing my Whisky knowledge considerably this year! Should be an awesome trip.
** Updated for 2019
Readers, what's your favorite drink of choice? Have you tried a single-malt scotch before? Any recommendations I should try for my next exploration? – Max