The Savvy Guide to Scotch

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In the crazy world of single malt Scotch, I have often heard that older, expensive whiskies are more complex, smoother and simply better. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

The idea that the longer a whisky ages the better it will become is a myth. In fact few casks should be aged longer than 18 years. Why? When whisky is distilled, it’s clear as water. The alcohol develops much of its flavor, and all of its beautiful amber color, from aging in oak casks. But a delicate balance must be struck between the spirit’s natural flavor and the flavor coming from the barrel. If left too long, the whisky starts to lose its vibrancy and the heavy flavors of the oak begin to dominate, leaving you with a new-found taste for old wood.

The matter of cost is a different beast all together. It is no secret that many drinkers believe (sadly) that the higher the price tag the higher the quality of the spirit. (Just check out the vodka aisle in any liquor store.) One way that spirits companies justify ever-higher prices is by aging whiskies ever longer. There are a few exceptional whiskies that are very old or expensive, but as a general rule never spend more than $150 and stick to whiskies that are between 15 and 21 years old. In this range you’ll get full maturity, smoothness and a healthy amount of wood.

And the next time your buddy calls you a cheapskate for not ordering a wallet-busting-malt, you’ll finally have a good response, which will put him in his place.

ETHAN KELLEY’S FAVORITE DRAMS:

Bowmore 15-Year-Old ($68):

Full-bodied with bold peat aromas, the Bowmore 15-Year-Old is nicknamed the “Darkest” for a reason. The rich spirit tastes of dried fruits, molasses, mesquite and waves of barbecue pit smoke. It has a decidedly dry finish.

Glenfarclas 21-Year-Old ($100):

Figs, dates and hints of sweet jam dominate this tasty whisky. There are also hints of soft smoke, caramel, coffee beans and citrus. It finishes with notes of oak and spice.

The Glenlivet French Oak 15-Year-Old ($50):

The Glenlivet French Oak is light, elegant and full of fruit notes with bright citrus and tropical flavors and honey sweetness. It has a soft lingering finish.

Highland Park 18-Year-Old ($100):

This robust and very complex malt has a bit of gentle peat smoke, orange zest and caramel and finishes with a hint of the briny sea.

Ethan Kelley is the Spirits Sommelier at New York City’s Brandy Library, which stocks more than 350 Scotches.

Spirits Sommelier

Series & Type: Products

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  3 Comments.

Discussion

  • Justin posted 8 years ago

    What do you think of Johnny Walker Blue Label???

  • Euan posted 8 years ago

    So the Duncan Taylor "Lonach" 42 year old Strathisla Cask strength non chill filtered, non coloured single malt , scoring 92 in the Malt Advocate, winning a number of awards and retailing around $150 is a myth as far as the author is concerned?
    Rest assured those drinkers who consume 30 and 40 year old whiskies know exactly the subtlety of the spirit. It takes years of practice and we all know that practice makes perfect.
    The mantra of Duncan Taylor!

  • Michael posted 8 years ago

    What supports the notion that few casks should be aged more than 18 years? To steer us all away from anything over this age seems to be arbitrary at best. The casks that are aged for 30 years are not selected at random. They are tested frequently by their makers and only the most appropriate are aged for 30 years. Without even tasting them, but simply nosing a 18 or 21 year old single malt versus a 30 year produces profound differences, and a subtleness of flavor that doesn't even compare to their younger cousins. That said, I do think the author has a good point that 18-21 years is definitely the sweet spot on the price to value curve, and you'll get an excellent flavor for $80-$150.


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