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

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