I've spent the past year drinking a lot of whiskey, as I decided to become, if not an expert on the subject, at least someone who could plausibly offer recommendations to others. Much of my work has appeared here in the Press, although I've done plenty of it on my own time as well.
As I moved along from drinking bourbon and other American whiskeys to Scotch and single malts, I became fascinated by the differences offered in flavor and texture among Scotches, depending on where they are made, how they are aged and whether the malted barley is roasted over a peat fire before distillation. (Most people think of peat when they think of Scotch, but a significant number of Scotches are not peat-smoked.)
Recently, this got me thinking about what I would recommend to someone who's just starting to drink Scotch. Here, I've put together a "starter" selection for someone interested in a Scotch collection but who doesn't know where to begin. For around $200 in total, you can get a bottle (750 ml) of all of these Scotches, each expressing a different approach to its craft.
The Glenmorangie is the least expensive on the list, and the one least altered after distillation -- it has the shortest aging time, isn't peat-smoked and is aged in used American whiskey barrels, the most traditional and common method of aging a Scotch. Make no mistake, though, for under $40 you can get a delicate, fruity Scotch with a tasty, roasted finish. It's a great introduction to the Glenmorangie line and offers a comparison point on one end of the spectrum as to how Scotch can taste.
The Macallan isn't all that dissimilar to the Glenmorangie -- although the Glenmorangie is fruitier -- but the Macallan is notable because it's one of the only Scotches to age entirely in sherry casks. Other distilleries will finish a Scotch in sherry barrels for a short period, but Macallan allows its flagship single malt to spend its entire maturation in a sherry cask. The result is a rich, smooth Scotch with a buttery, creamy nose and texture, one you should be able to find for around $60. Compare it with the Glenmorangie to see what kind of difference sherry casks make compared to used bourbon casks.
Laphroaig 10 or Quarter Cask
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Laphroaig has made a name for itself as a go-to Scotch when someone wants an overwhelmingly peaty dram. As such, it's a necessary part of a beginner's Scotch collection, as it can affordably (under $50) give you an idea of the potency and smokiness possible with a peat roasting. If anyone tells you, "They all taste the same to me," ask him to compare this to the Glenmorangie or Macallan.
The Laphroaig 10 is the most common of Laphroaig's offerings; if it's a little too overwhelming for you as a spirit, try the Quarter Cask, which is finished in smaller barrels that give it a softer mouthfeel and smoother finish than the ten-year. (It is similarly priced.)
Not all peated Scotches are the same. While Islay is the region that is most famous for producing peated Scotch, the smaller islands nearby also tend to carry a similar flavor profile.Talisker has the distinction of being the only distillery on the Isle of Skye. It has a unique flavor and feel, less overly smoky and heavy than the Laphroaig entries, with a nose and flavor that evoke the salty sea air. I find its flavor profile unique among the island Scotches, and for around $60, it's a great bottle to put in your cabinet next to the Laphroaig, to compare and contrast the two very different styles of peated Scotch.