Winter is the time of year when the body longs for a warm fire, a leather club chair, and, if you are a drinker, a glass of Scotch whiskey. Maybe a smoky Islay sleeping cap, or a smokeless Speyside with notes of soft ripe fruit and vanilla. This is a beautiful mating. But which Scotch is worth tasting? Scotch is a crowded, complex category as diverse as wine. In terms of where to start, we have identified 12 different bottles of single malt Scotch that fit well with the season – and illustrate this fact.
Before that, however, we wanted to give some basic rules of appreciation and some tips on how to drink Scotch from some well-known experts.
“Whiskey is for pleasure, and you have to enjoy it the way you want,” says Charles MacLean, the world’s most interesting (and least pretentious) authority on Scotch. The 69-year-old whiskey sage lives in the heart of Edinburgh and is the author of 18 books on the spirit, including Whiskypedia, a pocket-sized primer that should be in every Scottish drinker’s library. “But if you really want to master it, there are two very simple rules: One, use an appropriate Glencairn glassand two, do not add ice. ”
MacLean’s two rules apply because you need a glass that collects the scent of the Scotch and delivers it to your nose in a way that a tumbler would not. And as for the ice cream? The solid stuff is great for enjoyment, but not for appreciation. As it melts, ice cream completes the aroma and flavor. Rather add water. “And do not be ashamed,” Maclean said, pointing out that real Scotch mixers dilute to 20% alcohol when they taste, though he prefers less dilute, to about 40%.
Aside from those tips, McLean simply wants everyone to enjoy Scotch without pretending. “The wonderful thing about malt whiskey is that there is such a diversity of flavors, aromas and flavors, so it’s fun to explore,” he said. “And for the sake of good, do not rely on age or always go to one specific brand.” According to MacLean, a whiskey’s age is one good guide to quality, but should not be the only one, as it sometimes indicates high prices.
To hammer this house, McLean recounted a time when he and a few friends went fishing on the Two River in the winter. He bought a cheap bottle of Scotch from a local grocery store, the only thing he could get, and it was, in his words, “coarse as gut and cheap as chips.” It was a very cold day, and the sun went down at 4 p.m. But someone caught fresh salmon, and they all piled up in the fishing hut and turned on the Tilly lamps and the stove and divided that swell into six tumblers. “Everyone said it’s the best Scotch they’ve ever tasted,” MacLean said. “I mean it was shit, but in the circumstances …” he recalls with a contagious laugh.
His point is clear. With good company and the right conditions, any bottle of Scotch can be transcendent.
Hans Offringa, author of the excellent resource A Field Guide to Whiskey, also has some advice for Scottish drinkers: “Trust your nose.” The nose is where the true character of a whiskey reveals itself with more nuances than taste, mouthfeel and finish.
In turn, when the dark days of winter dawn, Offringa enjoys the smoky styles associated with Islay (pronounced eye-luh), a Scottish island where coal was difficult to obtain, so peat was used as an alternative heat source. Lagavulin is a winter favorite of Offringa. When he performs the sometimes difficult task of converting Bourbon drinkers to single malt, Offringa recommends what he calls “more-like” whiskeys – those that want to take you for a sip again, such as e.g. Glenlivet 12 and Glenfiddich. He also recommends diluting with water up to 40% alcohol for tasting. “It’s about dissecting the whiskey, the different layers, and not letting your preference guide you – to ask, is it complex, is it well balanced?”
Whether you ask those questions or not is of course up to you. Scotch is for pleasure, and you can enjoy yours as you see fit. So here are 12 Single Malt Scotches with a wide range of personalities to explore during the cold winter months, and beyond.
The latest permanent Ardbeg expression – half the age of the classic Ardbeg 10 – Woe Beastie is the latest and most smoky expression ever from the Islay distillery. Ripe in ex-bourbon and Oloroso sherry barrels, the combination of sweet and smoky makes for a hearty whiskey.
While Bruichladdich makes exquisite whiskeys that are heavy on the peat smoke, this unpaved whiskey is a perfect afternoon Scotch. With cereal and sweet baked bread on the nose, and a drop finish. Made from 100% Scottish barley, there is a terroir quality to the Laddie that Bruichladdich feasts on by making each batch subtly different.
Oban 14, an absolute delight of a Scotsman, was the whiskey that got me into Scotch in the first place: floral, vibrant and perfect to drink before a meal without weighing you down. A delicate pear and fig nose, and a long honeysuckle finish.
A favorite of Hans Offringa, Lagavulin has a smoky richness perfect for winter. To me, this is possibly the most beautiful bottle of Scotch on the market, with a nose of dark dried fruit and smoke, and a long smoky finish.
Macallan is the benchmark of Scotch’s “Sherried” style – that is, whiskey aged in sherry barrels. Macallan Scotches are relentless, so there is no smoking amidst the chocolate and dried fruit richness. This double barrel has been seasoned twice – in sherry-flavored American and European oak barrels – which makes it particularly rich and balanced.
Laphroaig is the single malt I order when I’m at a restaurant and want to reward myself. In this expression, the sherry barrel finish tempers the medicinal maritime and peat spiciness of my beloved Laphroaig 10 in a very pleasant way, while also deepening the flavor profile with a layer of rich sweetness.
The perfect bridge from bourbon to Scotch, it’s 14 years old in former bourbon barrels, but finished in a new charred oak barrel like bourbon, giving it a smooth taste that will feel familiar to bourbon drinkers.
Aged 14 years in an oak whiskey barrel and finished in an ex-rum barrel, giving it notes of toffee, fruit and vanilla – perfect for after-meal sips or with rich cheese or dark chocolate.
This limited edition Glenlivet is non-refrigerated filtered for a richer mouthfeel and deeper flavor profile, bottled against a strong 96 tasting (classic Glenlivet 12 is bottled at 80-proof) and comes in a distinctive 1800s replica bottle.
Made in the oldest distillery on Islay, circa 1779. If you like a touch of smoke balanced with floral notes, Bowmore 12 is a perfect soft dram that I found to be easy to drink and less intellectual than many Islay neighbors.
First aged in sherry barrels and finished in Port barrels, it has a strong nose of Port and butter caramel, and goes down with a richness of spicy dried fruit, making it a perfect after-meal Scotch or a combination for make a dessert and cheese.
Talisker 10, native to the Isle of Skye, is smoky and spicy with maritime notes, and is known for a peppery “catch” as you swallow. It is a good gateway to the more heavily feathered styles like Lagavulin and Laphroaig.