Back to Basics: Malts

So you're a new generational whisky enthusiast and you want to know where to start. You've got $40, maybe $50 to blow and you want to make it count. Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, Macallan, and Balvenie all seem rather safe. Heck, you can get most of those at Trader Joe's now. So where do you go for a basic single malt education that offers a core foundation of classic Scotch whisky flavor, but allows you to taste something a bit out of the ordinary, while remaining focused on value and bang-for-the-buck? You don't just want your money's worth, you want more than your money's worth. For me personally, these are six of the best malt expressions to start with. Let me tell you why:

Nikka 12 Year Old Taketsuru Pure Malt Japanese Whisky $59.99 - So you've heard that Japanese whisky is quite popular these days. You're right; it is. But while the mainstream choice is always going to be Suntory, it's Nikka that is quietly bringing the goods to your local boutique retailer. You can go back and read my posts from Japan for more info, but the Nikka 12 Year Old Taketsuru is a marriage of single malts from both the Yoichi distillery on Hokkaido, and the Miyagikyo distillery near Sendai. Using a formula of different flavors--sherry, malty, vanillic--made from whiskies aged in different types of casks, the aromas are heady and full of oily grains. The palate is soft, supple, brimming with fruit and a shift towards sherry and vanilla at the back. Bring this to a party and you'll be the star. Most people have never had it, so pour it blind and watch them say Macallan.

Glendronach 12 year old Distillery Bottling Single Malt Whisky $47.99 - Another whisky distillery that continues to over-deliver is Glendronach; a Highland distillery that uses a healthy dose of sherry in their single malt expressions. The 12 year is first matured in ex-Bourbon casks for a decade, then transferred to active sherry butts for a two year finishing. The result is a wonderfully fruity whisky on the initial entry, but one that quickly turns to cakebread and spice on the finish. The great thing about the 10 and 2 maturation process is that the malty character of the whisky doesn't get obliterated by the sherry. The rich oloroso character comes through, but it mixes wonderfully with the inherent whisky flavor. I just reopened this and it's tasting better than ever. This is a great whisky to cut your teeth on. Hell, this is just great whisky.

BenRiach 12 year old Single Malt Whisky $44.99 - BenRiach is the sister distillery to Glendronach and is a perfect example of the lighter Highland style of single malt. Rather than rich sherry flavor you've got pears and vanilla with the sweetness of oak spices. The finish gets malty and grainy, turning into just a basic, old school Scotch flavor. This is Scotch that tastes like Scotch; really good Scotch. The great thing about BenRiach is that you can graduate up the ladder and move into the peated and triple-distilled expressions. If you're a Lagavulin fan, I'd definitely recommend checking out the Benriach 17 Solstice. It's a smoky, Port-finished whisky that, in my opinion, delivers far beyond its price point. Gotta love BenRiach.

Glenmorangie 10 year old The Original Single Malt Whisky $29.99 - I've pretty much covered this guy here. Amazing value. Great whisky. Nuff said.

Ardbeg Uigeadail Traditional Strength Islay Single Malt Whisky $54.99 - This is the whisky that legitimized NAS (no age statment) single malts with hardcore fans (before a number of newer whiskies delegitimized them again). By using a marriage of both young and old casks, Ardbeg unleashed the barrel strength Uigeadail on the world and quickly became the industry darling. More than a decade later, it's still the standard for Islay whisky in my opinion (next year will actually be the 200th anniversary of the distillery). It's salty, peaty, briny, smoky, and layered with bits of butterscotch and vanilla underneath all the maritime flavor. The Ardbeg 10 and Corryvreckan are also great, but I think the Uigeadail at $55 is one of the world's great spirits. It's a whisky that every geek from SF to NYC was drinking five years ago, and bragging about to their friends. It's the whisky that made Islay cool again.

Springbank 10 Year Old Campbeltown Single Malt Whisky $54.99 - Finally, if you want to experience a bit of all these whiskies combined, then you go with Springbank 10. The Cambeltown stalwart is pretty much the last guy left on the Kintyre Peninsula, but they make whisky the old-fashioned way and it shows in the variation. If you want your whisky to taste the same way each time you buy a bottle, then Springbank isn't the whisky for you. Personally, I love the inconsistency. It reminds me that I'm drinking something real and hand-made. The 10 year is a marriage of both Bourbon and Sherry-aged whiskies, with a light amount of peat smoke. It has the richness of Glendronach and Nikka, the fruit of Glenmorangie and Benriach, and a bit of that Ardbeg smoke. Chewy, dense, and mouthcoating on the finish. One of my perennial favorites. I just opened a bottle before writing this post. It's like the first time again.

I'm loving this. These are six great bottles of hooch. Not one of them more than $60. Not one of them hard to get. All of them here when you need them. All of them top value.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll