Now that I’ve hopefully erased some of your prejudices about Scotch whisky with my introductory post, it’s time forge ahead and offer you some nuts and bolts practical suggestions about which whiskies you should try in order to kickstart your newfound malty obsession. Below are 5 recommendations that should serve as great starting points for the whisky novice (and damn enjoyable drams for the seasoned whisky pro to boot).
1) Johnnie Walker Black Label 12 Year
If you’ve ever set foot in a bar, liquor store, or the home of a person with any kind liquor cabinet, odds are you’re at least familiar with the name Johnnie Walker. While the ubiquitous Red Label may be the edition of this Scotch blended whisky you’re perhaps more familiar with, my recommendation is to skip past it and go straight for the Black. Selecting a blended whisky as an entry point to single malts may at first glance seem counterintuitive, but well put together and malt-forward blends like this one can serve as a fantastic gateway to some of the basic flavours that encompass all of Scotch whisky. You’ll find citrus fruits, warm baking spices like nutmeg and cinnamon, some herbal notes and toffee, and just the thinnest wisp of smoke all wrapped up in this neat little package. I’ll get more into a practical breakdown of what constitutes a blended whisky versus a single malt in a later post, but just know for now that there are some great, relatively inexpensive and easy to find blends out there, and this is one of them.
Where to go from here: Try to avoid bargain basement blends like the above mentioned Johnnie Walker Red, Famous Grouse, J&B Rare etc. There are certainly some diamonds in the rough, but too often the rough wins out and can be a bit of an off-putting experience for the novice whisky enthusiast. Dewar’s 12 Year, Cutty Sark Prohibition Edition & Johnnie Walker Green 15 Year are all quality blends, and worthy follow-ups to Johnnie Black.
2) Glenfiddich 12 Year
Here we have the first honest-to-goodness single malt whisky on our list. Much like the similarly famous (and sadly discontinued in several markets) Glenlivet 12, Glenfiddich 12 is a name that rings bells all over the globe. Any decent bar in the world is likely to stock this, and it’s universally recognized as an absolute classic for good reason. No, you won’t find a great deal of challenging complexity in a glass of 12 year old Glenfiddich, but what you will find is quality, consistency, and a range of gentle and refreshing aromas and flavours that serve as the ideal way to ease the rookie whisky drinker into the pool. Look to find vanilla, pears, apples, citrus, honey and gentle spices within.
Where to go from here: Definitely do give the Glenlivet 12 Year a go as well if it’s still available near where you live, as it’s a similarly affable whisky with a similarly well deserved reputation for consistency. Beyond that, Glenmorangie 10 Year, Balvenie 12 Year & Arran 14 Year are all mild-mannered, fruity and creamy malts with some added complexity to dive into.
3) Aberlour 12 Year Double Cask
The name Aberlour will be far less familiar to the casual whisky drinker than Glenfiddich, but among those in the know, Aberlour is generally recognized as a distillery with a similar degree of consistency and quality. The “Double Cask” in this case refers to a secondary maturation in Sherry wine casks that this whisky has undergone before bottling. The Sherry once held in these casks imparts a deep richness, often a more pronounced sweetness, and usually a darker colour on the finished whisky. Aberlour 12 is a great entry point for a subset of malt whiskies that push this sherried character into the foreground, giving way to substantial notes of chocolate, leather, raisins, Christmas fruitcake and oranges. I’m particularly partial to these rich, heavily sherried whiskies, especially in the colder winter months. They’re not necessarily for everyone, but for me when done as well as they are here, they’re Christmas in a glass.
Where to go from here: If you find yourself drawn in by the big, spicy, sweet and earthy character of this Aberlour 12, some great next steps that ratchet these notes up even further would be GlenDronach 12 Year, BenRiach 12 Year Sherry Wood, & Glenfarclas 15 Year.
4) Old Pulteney 12 Year
Now we’re moving off (literally and figuratively) towards a more coastal, seaside corner of the whisky map. Old Pulteney 12 is a great introduction to single malts that are made so close to the sea, you can actually taste and smell touches of the salt air in the glass. Often matured in warehouses stored at or below sea level, the sea air is thought by some to slowly make it’s way into the barrel over time (if, when, why, and how salinity makes its way into coastal whiskies is a subject of much debate, and I certainly won’t be getting into it at any great length here). Old Pulteney is once again not a name a new whisky drinker is likely to be familiar with, but within whisky circles a great deal of attention and acclaim has been heaped on this distillery as of late. Situated in the town of Wick in the northeastern corner of Scotland, the 12 year old expression from Old Pulteney distillery has nosing and tasting notes that include a pleasing mix of brine, bananas, honey, nuts, citrus, and very faint whiffs of smoke.
Where to go from here: If this mix of sweet and savory appeals to you, you’re likely to enjoy many of the whiskies made on the islands surrounding Scotland, including Highland Park 12 Year from Orkney, Bunnahbhain 12 Year from Islay & Talisker 10 Year from the Isle of Skye. Some of these (Talisker 10 in particular) may have a more pronounced peaty or smokey character than others, so prepare yourself for a bit of a bonfire on the beach before diving in.
5) Lagavulin 16 Year
We’re now smack dab in the middle of peat country. Whiskies distilled on the island of Islay are recognized the world over for being some of the most intensely flavoured, smoke-forward single malts in the world. Lagavulin 16 (likely familiar to some of you as the preferred drink of Ron Swanson from the TV series Parks and Recreation) is certainly no exception. Why am I including this on a list of Scotch whiskies for beginners? Two reasons really: a) as much as big, smoky, peaty whiskies can be an initial turnoff for some, for others, this is where their love affair with Scotch whisky will truly begin b) you’ll have to at least give peated whisky a chance at some point, and I feel this expression from Lagavulin is one of the most balanced expressions of a heavily-peated Islay single malt there is. I won’t delve into a litany of technical details regarding peated malt just yet, but for now let me explain the process as smoke-drying the malted barley used in whisky making with fires fueled by a kind of decaying plant matter called peat. Lagavulin 16 boasts huge notes of Lapsang Souchong tea, smoke, dried fruits, oranges, tobacco, black licorice, and salt. It’s not necessarily for the faint of heart, but be bold and give it a try; you may just be richly rewarded for your efforts.
Where to go from here: If the big bold, smoky flavour of this whisky has already grabbed your attention and tugged at your heart strings, some additional and similarly great entry-level Islay single malts include Caol Ila 12 Year, Ardbeg 10 Year & Laphroaig Quarter Cask.