We’re living in the golden age of spirits. Never before have there been more bottles of booze vying for a parking space on your bar cart. We lean on the pros to help you build a bottle list from scratch.
There's such a wonderfully huge and diverse variety of scotch available today that it can almost paralyze someone interested in exploring for the first time. Where, how and on what bottles should you be investing your money? We enlisted a little help from two bar owners who know about building a scotch collection.
Tommy Tardie is the owner and operator of New York City's Fine & Rare and The Flatiron Room, both of which have exceptional, and exceptionally large, whisky stashes. Mike Raymond is the co-owner of The Cottonmouth Club and Reserve 101 in Houston. It's at the latter where Raymond applies an “everything is bigger in Texas” philosophy to a whisky lineup in the hundreds.
Neither man focuses on building out a list just for the sake of it, though. Across all of their bars, Tardie and Raymond concentrate more on quality selections. This is their short list of the essential scotch bottles for your home bar.
To kick things off, Tardie looks to the sherry lover's dream dram of The Glendronach 12-year-old. "It's no secret The Glendronach 18 is one of my favorite bottles of single malt, but as the bottle price continues to rise in popularity, it may be cost-prohibitive for those just starting out," says Tardie. "For this reason, I recommend the Glendronach 12."
The 12-year-old is indeed a great value, with a booming flavor you won't soon forget. "A heavily sherried malt with the same DNA as its older brother, the 18, it's matured in a combination of Pedro Ximénez and oloroso sherry casks," says Tardie.
For a different take on the way that sherry influences scotch, Raymond turns to the island of Islay for Bowmore's 15-year-old The Darkest expression. Islay whiskies are known first and foremost for peat, but this whisky offers a master class in the way sherry and peat can work in tandem.
“This is the scotch drinker's scotch,” says Raymond. That's why it's viewed as a reasonably priced go-to for scotch lovers, yet it's still approachable enough to be an introductory bottle as well.
“Light hints of peat shine through the sherry-cask influence,” Raymond says of the flavor profile. Look for rich sherry notes, dark chocolate and dried red fruits all intermingling with that peat.
With his next selection, Tardie looks to a newer side of a classic brand. "This is a relatively new release from Glenfiddich and one that's always a big hit at any dinner party I'm hosting," he says. "It's aged for 14 years in ex-bourbon barrels—nothing new there—but it's then finished in new heavily charred oak barrels."
In other words, the final step of maturation is akin to how a bourbon is aged, bringing in flavors more commonly found in the American whiskey world. "This is great for the typical bourbon drinker who's looking for the strong vanilla and caramel notes they're familiar with in their bourbons," says Tardie.
Sometimes a single bottle of whisky can open up the world to a whole category. That's the case with Compass Box Hedonism and scotch grain whisky. “In 2000, most people paid little attention to grain whiskies,” says Raymond. “Then John Glaser debuted this whisky that launched the brand.”
A scotch grain whisky is made with additional grains beyond malted barley, typically corn. Grain whisky is column-distilled as opposed to pot-distilled and is traditionally used as a component of scotch blends. When highlighted on its own, grain whiskies showcase a unique tasting experience, typically displaying creamy vanilla notes with easy-sipping palates. Hedonism is a blended grain, incorporating multiple grain whiskies, and continues to shine as a leading example of the category and therefore a must-have.
Last but not least, Tardie swings for the fences with a peaty showstopper. "If you're doing any entertaining, you need a bottle like this in your bar," he says. "Crack the bottle, pour a glass and watch your friends look around for a fire extinguisher.”
"This is a big, bold peated scotch that's not for the faint of heart," he says. "I personally love it. Not always, but on a cold night, nothing warms me better than a nice glass of Ardbeg. The Uigeadail takes on some of the flavor from the sherry casks that it has been aged in. It delivers almost a salty-sweet combo that leaves a finish that lasts for what seems like hours."