Beginner's single malt Scotch
December 5, 2005 10:37 AM   Subscribe

Scotchfilter! What's a decent, inexpensive and readily available single malt or good blend for a brand-new scotch drinker whose current dram of choice is a good dark sipping rum?

The intended recipient tried the Glenlivet after he'd had a lot of other things and was surprised by the strength but otherwise seemed to enjoy it and was interested in trying other Scotches. I could just get another bottle of Glenlivet, but it's a bit ordinary and generally-available, and besides, he's already tried that.

I don't want something pretending to be bourbon, but I don't want to overwhelm with iodine and peat either. Probably some sort of Speyside or Lowland, I guess. My own tastes head toward the spicy and peaty and I sometimes have a hard time telling the difference between a good mellow scotch and a boring one.

Also, any suggestions on how to safely mail/ship a bottle of Scotch are welcome too.
posted by mendel to Food & Drink (65 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
J&B. I started with J&B, J&B will be my mainstay until the day I die. I like all kinds of scotches of varying prices, but unless you've had a tango with J&B you've never really run.

PS In my more formative years I thought J&B was way too easy to drink and decided to go for the whole nine yards. Worst hang over ever.
posted by geoff. at 10:47 AM on December 5, 2005

If you're looking for something sort of entry level, McClelland Islay (or Speyside, too) Single Malt Scotch is pretty good. Both options are reasonably priced, and not overpoweringly characteristic of the region.

I see you're in Ontario. It's readily available at the LCBO.
posted by generichuman at 10:49 AM on December 5, 2005

I think that you'd like Glenrothes, which is a Speyside malt.
posted by Prospero at 10:53 AM on December 5, 2005

I like Highland Park's offerings. It was one of the first scotches I tried.
posted by terrapin at 10:53 AM on December 5, 2005

Lagavulin. Hands down.
posted by Captaintripps at 10:56 AM on December 5, 2005

posted by Captaintripps at 11:00 AM on December 5, 2005

I would suggest The Macallan. I think Highland Park is another great scotch, especially for the money. Of course you can spend a whole lot more if you wish, but these are great whiskys for a reasonable price. You might like The Complete Guide to Single Malt Scotch by Michael Jackson, but I guarantee you that it will set you back far more than its cover price. (Lagavulin is my favorite, but it is about $100 a bottle now!)
posted by caddis at 11:02 AM on December 5, 2005

I swear I saw it just a couple of weeks ago priced in the $50s. $100? Guess I'm not replacing my bottle any time soon. Thanks caddis.
posted by Captaintripps at 11:05 AM on December 5, 2005

I'll second The Macallan. The Macallan 12-year-old is reasonably priced (around or under $50US last time I bought it) and quite good, but not too challenging for a new scotch drinker.
posted by uncleozzy at 11:11 AM on December 5, 2005

The Macallan is definitely great - I'd also recommend The Dalmore as a friendly priced option.
posted by soplerfo at 11:12 AM on December 5, 2005

Many people believe that a splash of water, even just a few drops, opens up the aroma and adds enjoyment. It doesn't have to be from a natural spring running through a peat bog.
posted by StickyCarpet at 11:12 AM on December 5, 2005

A rum-drinker will want sweetness, so the Macallan is a good place to start, though I'd lean towards Aberlour, which is really mellow.
posted by holgate at 11:14 AM on December 5, 2005

Laphroaig. I like Bowmore too. And Macallan. Highland Park's a great recommendation too. For US readers (sorry, Mendel), you can pick up a lot of these at a very reasonable price at Trader Joe's. Oh, nearly forgot Glenmorangie!
posted by forallmankind at 11:17 AM on December 5, 2005

First, there is no such thing as a good blend... single malt is the only way to go.

Having said that, I'd go for a less challenging malt - Tamdhu, Bunnahabhain, maybe even a Campbeltown Springbank. Stay clear of the Islay malts like Lagavulin or Laphroaig until you've cut your teeth on the easier stuff.

Support the export!
posted by ny_scotsman at 11:19 AM on December 5, 2005

Second the "no such thing as a good blend... single malt is the only way to go" comment from ny_scotsman (I'm an la_scotsman btw).
posted by forallmankind at 11:23 AM on December 5, 2005

Second votes for both MacAllan and Aberlour. Both are "accessible", available in most bars, and taste wonderful.

I disagree about "no good blends" - there are higher-end blends (Johnnie Walker Black comes to mind) which I find quite tasty.
posted by TeamBilly at 11:28 AM on December 5, 2005

Again, The Macallan is a perennial favorite. I would check out the Balvenie 12-year-old Doublewood, too; it's a bit smoother and less smokey.
posted by The Michael The at 11:29 AM on December 5, 2005

The Balvenie (Double Wood, for preference) is the one I use on neophyte malt drinkers; it's complex and very slightly sweet, for a Speyside. First sip usually makes people smile.

And third on the no blends, from a to_scotsman. You want to keep your friends.
posted by scruss at 11:30 AM on December 5, 2005

Bowmore Darkest is a current favorite of mine.
posted by beowulf573 at 11:32 AM on December 5, 2005

Another vote for Laphroaig, but I agree that it may be a bit much at first. Once you warm up to it though, it's pretty nice.
posted by ktrey at 11:32 AM on December 5, 2005

As a beginner, steer well clear of Lagavulin and Laphroaig. They are great to someone with a seasoned palate, but will taste like hell to someone new to scotch.

I recently had a taste test with about 10 scotches (my friend brought 9 bottles, I offered 1. Thank god for friends). Surprisingly, the winner for me was Glenfarclas 12 year old, which I believe is not a real spendy one.

The Macallan and The Dalmore are excellent choices as well.
posted by mcstayinskool at 11:33 AM on December 5, 2005

Iain Banks wrote a book recently called Raw Spirit in which he tries to taste every commercially available single malt whisky. It's a fun read, not too expensive and quite educational.

I know that I'll be booed down by the aesthetes, but Teachers is my every-day drinking scotch blend. Every LCBO will have some. For the singe malts, I try to buy something new every time.
posted by bonehead at 11:34 AM on December 5, 2005

ah but there is such a thing as a good blend, you just have to turn to the irish -- e.g. power & son gold label.

and since as mentioned above a rum drinker may prefer sweetness, there's nothing wrong with bourbon -- knob creek or maker's mark.
posted by dorian at 11:37 AM on December 5, 2005

yes, but TeamBilly, would you, could you drink Black Label straight?

bonehead, the LCBO has one of the best selections of whiskies there is. It's often better than most stores in Scotland.
posted by scruss at 11:38 AM on December 5, 2005

Oh and for mailing---I send out four or five bottles of wine every Christmas---the LCBO sells great wooden single- and double-bottle boxes. With a bit of coloured paper or sisal, they make great shipping containers. I've sent stuff across country, by air, by courier, by bus, by post, to the States. Never had a problem.

Make sure that the bottle doesn't rattle in the box. Put the bottle/box in a sealed bag---freezer bags with duct tape work quite well. You just want to be sure that if the bottle does break, nothing leaks out of the plastic barrier.
posted by bonehead at 11:39 AM on December 5, 2005

J & B is a nice drink for the price.
posted by lunkfish at 11:46 AM on December 5, 2005

I'm a fan of the offerings from the Laphroaig distillery.
posted by Thorzdad at 11:53 AM on December 5, 2005

Lagavulin is just about my idea of a perfect single malt, but I'm not sure it's a "starter" scotch.

Maybe the Dalhwinnie? It's light, has a bit of a honey flavour to it and shies away from a lot of the heavy smoke & peat flavours.

Personally, they're all great... Except for Loch Dhu. If anyone offers you a bottle, glass or shot of Loch Dhu - refuse. (Unless you like the flavour of BBQ briquettes).
posted by Crosius at 11:53 AM on December 5, 2005

Tasting Notes for Loch Dhu, in case you need a chuckle.
posted by Crosius at 11:59 AM on December 5, 2005

All the above plus Oban. Lagavulin is delicious, but extremely smokey and can be an acquired taste.
posted by docpops at 12:00 PM on December 5, 2005

As ny_scotsman said, single malt is the only way to go. Don't get too tied up in any snobbery about the drink, there are a lot of people who swirl, sniff, pontificate on glass shapes and witter on about nose, bouquet, palette and other such nonsense. A glass tumbler that feels good in the hand, a good double of malt whisky and just a splash of water to soften the burn and bring out the flavour is all that is needed.

There are hundreds of malts out there to choose from so dive in. The big three are probably Glenmorangie, Macallan and Laphroig all of which are good drinking so perhaps start with them. Then experiment with different areas until you find the style of malt you like. Speyside malts tend to be quite sweet with little peatiness and Macallan is a good example of this. If you like this then try Glenlivit, Glen Grant or Cragganmore. Their are many more available if you look online from Moray distilleries long since closed. As for Lowland malts, there aren't very many left I'm afraid but look out for Glenkinchie.

If he likes dark rum then head for something with a bit of character and depth and get stuck into the Islays or the Campbelltowns, as ny_scotsman suggested maybe a bottle of Springbank would suit nicely.

From a personal point of view , I'll second holgate with the Aberlour and throw in my favourite the Glen Ord. Any problems getting the whisky you like please email me and I'll source you one from here in Scotland.

Slainte Mhath!
posted by brautigan at 12:00 PM on December 5, 2005

Another vote for the venerable Macallan.
posted by scody at 12:10 PM on December 5, 2005

Mostly good advice above. Although I'd say that the "NO BLENDS" nazi's are overtstating what is ultimately just a conventional wisdom. There are blends out there that stand up to single malts quite well. I'd take a bottle of Blue Label over most any of the entry level single-malts.
posted by drpynchon at 12:18 PM on December 5, 2005

I'm quite a fan of Glenlivet. Reasonably priced and tasty.
posted by solid-one-love at 12:24 PM on December 5, 2005

drpynchon: there are very few good blends which match even a half decent malt. And at $200+ a throw you can keep your Blue Label. But then I'm Scottish and obviously a little frugal when it comes to these matters.
posted by brautigan at 12:26 PM on December 5, 2005

Response by poster: Thanks, all. Lots of great suggestions, and feel free to keep them coming. Just to clarify, though: I'm an experienced Scotch drinker, it's just that I don't want to push my tastes on the person I want to buy a bottle for, because I know from experience at home that my tastes and beginners' don't always coincide so well. (I'm only now bringing my fiancée into the fold after scarring her a bit with the Lagavulin and Glenmorangie early. She did buy me a bottle of the Aberlour A'bunadh for my birthday last year, though, so I guess I'm doing OK!)

I'm a bit surprised I didn't think of the young Macallan. My brain just automatically files it in "too expensive" because I lust after the 25.
posted by mendel at 12:32 PM on December 5, 2005

So, drpynchon, you're saying a Blended scotch that retails for nearly $200 a bottle compares favourably with entry-level single-malts (costing less than $40 a bottle)?

You could get a nice set of single malts representing most of the regions for the price of a single bottle of Blue Label.

on preview, brautigan beat me to it.
posted by Crosius at 12:37 PM on December 5, 2005

... malt whisky and just a splash of water to soften the burn and bring out the flavour is all that is needed.

posted by StickyCarpet at 12:59 PM on December 5, 2005

I'll weigh in for Macallan as well. Also, Famous Grouse is the bestselling scotch in Scotland if that tells you naything and makes a good affordable single malt.

And if you can find it (I think they stopped making it a few years back) Knockando is excellent and affordable.
posted by Heminator at 1:08 PM on December 5, 2005

Yet another vote for Aberlour -- particularly the Aberlour Abunadh. Smooth beyond compare, brown sugar and honey. Love it. I've done the Balvenie, too, it's worthwhile.

When I started investigating single malts, I was surprised at how much variety there is. I'm working my way through a bottle of Caol Ila right now. Bizarre Islay stuff, I've described it to people as "new car smell". Not sure if I'd recommend it to someone who wasn't aware of what they were getting into--be a shame to drop $60 on something that just didn't match your taste. Better to sample first at a well-stocked bar or at a tasting.

Splash of water? That's what the Brita water pitcher in the fridge is for.
posted by gimonca at 1:23 PM on December 5, 2005

Highlands go well with beginners.

What's the price range?
posted by Coax at 1:33 PM on December 5, 2005

Lagavulin. Hands down.
posted by Captaintripps at 10:56 AM PST on December 5 [!]

Lagavulin is delicious, but extremely smokey and can be an acquired taste.
posted by docpops at 12:00 PM PST on December 5 [!]

I have nothing to add. Enjoy!
posted by lagavulin at 1:50 PM on December 5, 2005

There's such a selection of great single malts out there that it's hard to suggest just one. This time of year it's possible to find gift sets consisting of small (50ml?) bottles of quality single malts. I suggest you go that route or find a whisky bar near where your friend lives and sign him up for a tasting to help identify what he likes.
posted by SteveInMaine at 2:03 PM on December 5, 2005

I'd say Ardbeg is my personal favourite. Probably a bit of a punch for a beginner though. The Macallan 10 Years Old Fine Oak is a great whisky that is a bit easier going than some others.

Very young Ardbeg is apparently very palatable but I haven't tried it myself. Very popular in Italy and Spain where a lot of the younger whiskies end up.
posted by ClanvidHorse at 2:26 PM on December 5, 2005

Lots of great (though slightly mass-market) suggestions here. Just wanted to add my favourite bargain: the blended TÉ BHEAG. It's strong yet soft and quite sweet; rum drinkers will probably enjoy it.
posted by blag at 2:28 PM on December 5, 2005

scruss - yes, yes I have, and yes, yes I do like it.

Part of the issue is that in some of the places I travel to, they very often only have a few blended scotches, and very few single-malts. I abhor Dewars, so I find that JW Black (and the red kind, sometimes) are decent when I can't find a single that I like.

Someone mentioned Maker's Mark and Knob Creek. These are really good bourbons, and might make a nice transitional taste (or change of pace) when learning scotch. Good call on that.
posted by TeamBilly at 2:28 PM on December 5, 2005

IMO, the single-malt puritanism can be a bit of a hair shirt. The folks at Compass Box Whisky make blended whiskies that will make a believer out of anyone. Likewise the Auchentoshan Three-Wood.
posted by Triode at 2:43 PM on December 5, 2005

So, drpynchon, you're saying a Blended scotch that retails for nearly $200 a bottle compares favourably with entry-level single-malts (costing less than $40 a bottle)?

Well, yes. But that's just a drastic example. There are comparably overpriced single malts that also may not compare. Ultimately it's not a matter of price or age, it's a matter of taste. Taking several excellent scotches and having an "expert" blend them for what is thought to be the appropriate balance and complexity isn't necessarily going to yield a weaker scotch if done right. I think that's a fairly obvious point that flies in the face of single-malt "purists."

But again, it ultimately is a matter of taste.
posted by drpynchon at 3:10 PM on December 5, 2005

I'm quite fond of the Famous Grouse. And, like me, it is cheap. But neither of us are a single malt.
posted by grouse at 3:35 PM on December 5, 2005 [1 favorite]

I'm a relatively inexperienced single-malt drinker that doesn't like anything too spicy or peaty and my liquor cabinet now always includes Glenfiddich and Macallan (12 year vintages) both of which I find mellow and extremely drinkable. I also always keep a bottle of Knob Creek on hand.

I like mine with a couple chips of ice... works like splash of water but with just a little coolness.
posted by maniactown at 3:45 PM on December 5, 2005

For someone whose current tipple of choice is dark rum, I'd be tempted to try one of the special Port Wood or Madeira Wood bottlings of Glenmorangie. They seem to me to have some of that rum-like spicy-sweet undernote, and Glenmorangie is an unimpeachably excellent single-malt.
posted by Kat Allison at 4:09 PM on December 5, 2005

Another vote for The Macallan and Cragganmore (amazingly delicious for such a superficially "smooth" whisky). My own favorites are the Islays, especially Lagavulin, but that's not what's being asked for here.

There are blends out there that stand up to single malts quite well. I'd take a bottle of Blue Label over most any of the entry level single-malts.

Like others, I find this bizarre, but to each his own. Sounds to me like anti-snobbery snobbery, though.
posted by languagehat at 5:12 PM on December 5, 2005

Springbank or Old Pulteney
posted by prjo at 5:18 PM on December 5, 2005

Just got a bottle of Cragganmore and it's dandy. More going on than Glenlivet, but not so much that it's overwhelming to my scotch-newb sensabilities.
posted by cortex at 6:04 PM on December 5, 2005

Stay away from the blended stuff (although Johnny Walker Black has some Talisker in it).

Lagavulin, Laphroaig, and Talisker are fine Scotches at "reasonable" price points. These are also pretty peaty ones.

Being at very similar prices, I'd take Glenmorangie (which is my primary scotch because of its price point) over Macallan.

If you want to "get into" scotches, I'd suggest hitting a bar known for a good selection and sampling three or four (maximum) a night to figure out what characteristics that you like. I can't remember what the place as called, but I was at one such in TO for a friend's bachelor party.

/sure, it was hickville, but when I was in college I used to win a lot of bar tabs by betting <somedrunk> that he couldn't tell the difference between glenlivet (or whatever the bar had on hand - but glenlivet [or that one that starts with an L with a white label] was common) and jack daniels [american Jack is a completely different beast to the exported Jack we get in .ca] (once they're sufficiently soused to not be able to tell the difference
posted by PurplePorpoise at 8:12 PM on December 5, 2005

The 14 y/o Oban is accessible to the newcomer, plus has lots to enjoy for the seasoned scotch drinker (read: snob). It's truly a lovely starter.
posted by jimfl at 8:29 PM on December 5, 2005

I agree that Lagavulin/Laphroaig are too peet-y for scotch newbies. I recommend Glenmorangie or Dalwhinnie.

If you or anyone you know is passing through Alberta anytime soon, buy it there. Scotch is WAY cheaper in Alberta than anywhere else in Canada. Something to do with the way liquor is taxed there. The liquor store in the Calgary airport has a pretty good scotch selection.
posted by sanitycheck at 8:52 PM on December 5, 2005

I prefer lighter single malts and liked the Tobermory I sampled.
posted by brujita at 10:48 PM on December 5, 2005

Response by poster: Wow, that's lots of advice! Thanks, everyone. It's reminded me of a lot of straightforward scotches I'd long forgotten about and given me a reality check about the price of the young Macallan, both of which are going to be a lot of help. I'll follow up here once I hit the LCBO later this week.

(Some of you guys need to remember to read the whole question, though.)
posted by mendel at 8:18 AM on December 6, 2005

The United States Postal Service does not allow alcohol to be mailed, unless the alcoholic content is under .5% . We get this question a lot this time of year. I don't know about UPS or Fedex.
posted by faceonmars at 8:23 AM on December 6, 2005

USPS (as well as other shippers) may not allow it, but lots of alcohol does get shipped that way. Getting a book about single malts, and several were mentioned, solves the whole shipping, state alcohol taxes, etc. morass. Regardless, I plan on sending my father a bottle of single malt scotch for his birthday, probably via UPS (which also technically does not allow this) - careful packing required.
posted by caddis at 12:37 PM on December 6, 2005

I am pretty sure that Canada Post doesn't "allow" the shipping of alcohol either, but I have done it plenty of times.

Did you visit the LCBO yet? Was on their website today, and there are a couple single malt gift packs available. The Glenmorangie and Macallan packs both look good:

The Glenmorangie pack is cheap and small (4x50mL, ~$25) and the Macallan pack is more generous but also more expensive (3x333mL, ~$80).
posted by sanitycheck at 1:54 PM on December 6, 2005

Canada Post and Canadian Customs both block shipment of alcohol. If they find it, they'll offer you the choice of destroying it or returning it to it's point of origin. The only way to get alcohol across national or provincial borders in Canada is to walk it across yourself.

They sent me a nice letter stating as much when I ordered a bottle from an online vendor.

This has to do with how Canada taxes alcohol, and how they sell licenses to import warehouses.
posted by Crosius at 2:33 PM on December 6, 2005

Ditto on the Cragganmore and Balvenie.

If someone had given me a bottle of Balvenie 10 year to start off my Scotch career, they would be remembered in my will.
posted by Coax at 6:54 AM on December 7, 2005

compass box!!!

hedonism ***
or peat monster
or asyla

... or actually anything from compass box.
posted by preauxx at 7:18 PM on December 30, 2005

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