I’ve never been much of a smoker or a drinker, but after a good friend gifted me with a $200 bottle of 18-year-old — The Macallan — scotch whisky, I began to rethink my posture in life when it came to becoming fine associates with some of the best single malt scotch whisky alive today. There’s a history and a culture in sharing a dram — you touch the ancient world with each swallow back in time and here’s my yeoman’s review of six single malt scotches — and please realize I have no established palate or trained knowing about anything whisky. Enjoy my amateur responses and then, ever-so-gently, correct me — and set me right in the comments stream below — if you so feel the need.
One thing I’ve learned about buying good scotch, and not some rotgut is that, in the right, moderate, amount a proper dram can just give you a slight lift to the day. There’s no buzz. There’s no headache or feeling of drunkenness that so often accompanies the off-brands and the major American beers. The lingering effect is a lightness of being that places you slightly above your normal gravitational pull and keeps you there for a good bite of time.
This was my celebratory Tweet when The Macallan 18 landed in my hands:
It was wild to think back 18 years to 1996 — and where I was in my life and how I was living and why that sort of time-travel-by-taste-bud was initially overwhelming as I realized all the things that were to happen to me in the years The Macallan down my gullet was patiently waiting to age over the arc of time to bring home the moment here.
Here are my thoughts on some fine scotches and my final rating is based on a 10 point system where 10 is a “must have” and a zero is “forget it.”
My lovely and talented wife Janna decided to join me in this review. Her favorite things to drink are, in order, iced green tea and water. When she drinks alcohol, she usually goes for a margarita, a glass of house red wine or, more recently, a few shots of Fireball — so her experience and palate for fine scotch are just as inexperienced at mine.
We drank everything straight — no ice, no water — and we sipped each dram over a 20 minute period to get the fullness of taste experience as the alcohol aired out over time.
The Macallan 18 — $200 — Dried Fruit and Ginger with a Hint of Citrus, Vanilla and Cinnamon
I know a lot of scotch fans believe The Macallan is past its prime and doubly overpriced. I understand their concern, but as a first timer, my experience with The Macallan was overwhelmingly positive. The was a bite to the bit I wasn’t expecting and the sweet and rich taste made for an absolutely memorable moment of richness and aroma. The going price for The Macallan seems to be in the $240 range, but look around, and you can likely find a better buy at a big box liquor store for $200 or so. Or, better yet, ask your local liquor storekeep to give you a discount on their overpricing. From my experience, they’ll do it, if you can name the local place that does a better deal. My Rating: 10 out of 10.
Janna says: Refreshing smell. Perfect whisky aroma. Smells like candy. Light in the throat. Very fruity. It’s nice on my tongue and doesn’t burn. 7 out of 10.
Lagavulin 16 — $84 — Richly Peaty, Deep, Smoky Flavors, Ambrosial Finish
Lagavulin is one of those special experiences you can only have once — because drinking the earth and swallowing smoke and eating peat can only catch you off-guard the first time you take a swig — from then on you’re on your own, in a personal heaven, where you’re drowning in the lusciousness of living a high and right life in the bog. Lagavulin is serious-tasting business. It is smoky. It is peaty. Unexpected and heavy — and my new, all-time favorite! While I understand some scotchphiles do not like the color additive, and I agree, I also say it doesn’t matter when the bottle is the color of the smoke you’re imbibing and, after a glass or two, nothing else begins to compare with the ancient experience. You’re drinking the char, not the fire — and that’s a very good thing, indeed. My Rating: 11 out of 10.
Janna says: (smelling it) Ah! Smoky! (first sip) It smells better than it tastes. Smooth. Seafood aftertaste. More calming than tasty. 8 out of 10.
Oh, and here’s the fantastical actor/writer/dancer Nick Offerman sharing the ultimate salute for proper Lagavulin styling:
The Balvenie Single Barrel 12 — $80 — Deep Vanilla Oakiness, Honey Notes, Sweet Fruit, Subtle Spices
There is a certain sugariness to this beautiful bit of scotch. The color is light, the taste is light and it has the most alcohol percentage — 47.8% — of any of the scotches in this review. Many people appreciate the Balvenie brand and I can see why. The price is right. The taste is good and fruity and fresh the storytelling on the bottle, and packaging, are detailed and complete and compelling. I prefer a heavier, meatier, chew. If there’s something known as a “morning shot of scotch” — this would be it, for there’s no darkness here. My Rating: 6 out of 10.
Janna says: This is light, relaxed and it tingles down my throat — that’s the best part. 9 out of 10.
Highland Park 12 — $50 — Aromatic Peat, Honey, Smoky and Sweet
Highland Park is a fine scotch, but it feels like the ill cousin to Lagavulin in smokiness and chewability of earthy peat. There’s nothing wrong with feeling a bit weaker and woesome — there are times when you want a reminder of an experience and not a direct relation, and Highland Park is just the right sort of scotch whisky to take you for a ride without ending your destination; plus, it seems a popular choice for the price for scotch fans, so I’m all with that notion. The smokiness is hinted at, as is the lingering honey charm. My Rating: 7 out of 10.
Janna says: The bottle is “urban looking” and I like it a lot. Smells like cleaning supplies. Dirty smell. Tastes like licking an ashtray. My least favorite, but I like the style of the bottle! The bottle gets a 10 out of 10; whatever’s inside the bottle gets 4 out of 10.
Aberlour 18 — $85 — Cream and Peach balanced by Chocolate and Orange Zest
In the bit of research I’ve been doing in preparation for the drinking — err, writing — of this article, one of the most-loved scotch whisky brands on the market is Aberlour. Many people across multiple discussion streams like the value for the swallowing and I’m inclined to join them in that exaltation. Arriving in the heaviest glass bottle of all in review, Aberlour is sweet and light and sinus-filling in quite a magnificent and magnanimous manner. The lingering effect is one of substance, but without being pushy. There’s a fine finish to a memorable swag that stays tight with you in all the right ways. My Rating: 8 out of 10.
Janna says: Smelly licorice. Plain. No excitement. No flavor for a future mood. Burns my throat. 6 out of 10.
Glenfiddich 18 — $104 — Baked Apple and Cinnamon
Now we return to the center of our universe, closing the circle with Glenfiddich 18 and its close association in taste and style and methodology to The Macallan 18 that started this scotch whisky review! At half the price of The Macallan, this Glenfiddich is smooth and lingering and fine. I don’t find it has the same lasting “mouth weight” of The Macallan, but at $100 cheaper than The Macallan, I’ll learn to live with a little lightness of residue. There is a fruity, malty, chalky experience here that is both pleasing and undry. A real winner in every sense of the scotch world, but it feels a bit like a The Macallan imitator without its own sense of nose and bite. My Rating: 9 out of 10.
Janna says: Strong smell and it burns my mouth. Blah taste. There’s cinnamon here, but not like Fireball. Too manly for me. 5 out of 10.
That’s the review!
Now, have at us in the comments because I know we’ve made assumptions and probably unwittingly, yet innocently, shared wrong information — because if there’s one thing I’ve learned during this naive INTJ single malt scotch whisky quest — is that there’s just too much going on in this niche to know in a short period of time.
I also learned the best way to “nose” a shot of scotch is to drink your glass dry and then let the residue dry as well — and that after-smell in the empty glass is the lingering aftertaste and final experience you’re left to ponder. The scent is always absolutely delightful, and surprising, and should be made into a cologne for the wearing about the wrist and neck.