Single-malt scotch is a brand of whisky which is aged in oak barrels and distilled in Scotland from water and malted barley. Before it can be called ‘scotch’, it has to first be aged for no less than three years. Most importantly, it must not have any other additives apart from caramel coloring (which does not have any flavor but is just used to adjust the color of the whisky) and water. Scotch matured in oak barrels is either peated (tastes like earth and smoke, which come from the peat in the water which is used to make and dilute the whisky as well as from smoke from the peat fires that have been used for healing the stills) or not.
Fundamentally, scotch is aged in oak barrels. There are instances during which these oak barrels held something else like another whisky, bourbon, sherry, wine, port, Madeira, calvados, rum, etc. These previous contents of the oak barrels are going to affect the flavor of the scotch since a very small portion of them still exists in the fiber of the wood. A more pronounced impact of the oak barrels’ previous contents is dependent on the length of the aging of the oak barrels. When a scotch is matured in only these oak barrels, it is then said to have been ‘aged’ or ‘matured’ in that barrel type (e.g. ex-bourbon-matured or sherry-aged). When the whisky spent only a brief period of time (normally at the end of the aging process) in any of these oak barrels, it is said to have been ‘finished’ (e.g. port-finished or Sauternes-finished). Even a period as short as six months in ex-wine oak barrels is enough for scotch to acquire several interesting flavors.
Although aging in oak barrels is a crucial factor in the determination of a scotch’s flavor, it is not a great way of predicting or even determining the scotch’s flavor. The best indicator for quality is usually the price. A bottle of a 12-year old Lagavulin goes for about $99 while a Glenlivet bottle of the same age goes for only $25. A 16-year old Lagavulin is sold for roughly $65. See my pricing guidelines on this post so as to see my view on price-versus-quality of scotch aged in oak barrels.
Finally, alcohol content can have various quantities from between 40% ABV (alcohol by volume) which is the accepted minimum for scotch, to highs of up to 70% ABV or more. Many ‘standard’ distilleries tend to produce somewhere between 50% and 40% ABV.
The following is a list of single-malt scotches and their ages and from different oak barrels which I recommend for beginners.
* The Balveine Double Wood (12 years old) — it is matured in a mixture of mixture of ex-sherry and ex-bourbon oak barrels. This Speysider is an instant classic and it is one of the easiest to drink malts around. Going for $36 – $40 a bottle, it is extremely good value.
* Dalwhinnie (15 years old in oak barrels) — This is a highland whisky which has picked up some elements of heather and honey from oak barrels. It is very soft on the throat and goes for roughly $55 a bottle.
* The Macallan (12-years old in oak barrels) — this is exclusively matured in ex-sherry oak barrels and it is very popular. It is heavy on the raising, sweet syrupy and plum notes. It is also quite a bargain at only $45.
* GlenDronach (12 years old in oak barrels) — This is my personal preference over the Macallan. The style is the same (100% ex-sherry oak barrels). However, this has picked up a meatier and more savory quality from the oak barrels. It is also lowly priced at only $45.
* Oban (14 years in oak barrels) — this is another Highlander just like Dalwhinnie. This particular brand exudes style with tones of honey combined with lots of floral, heathery aromas from oak barrels. It is as sweet as honey and golden raisins. However, this is a bit higher priced than others. It goes for $60 a bottle.
* Highland Park (12 years old in oak barrels) — this is quite a bargain at only $40 a bottle. Matured in oak barrels from the Isle of Orkeny, this dram is mildly sherried and this gives it its sweet taste. What you get is a citrusy, smoky and sweet combination that puts it in a class of its own, and this is thanks to oak barrels.
If you are looking for smokier peated style of whiskies, your best bets are:
* Laphroaig (10 years old in oak barrels) Even though it is a little bit rough, it is one of the best value scotches and goes for only $33 a bottle. It is heavily smoky and contains hints of seaweed and seasalt.
* Caol Ila (12 years old in oak barrels) — this is a milder cousin to the rougher Laphoraig. It is peated but it is also muted enough and it serves as a good introduction to smoky whiskies. Due to its mildness which does not overwhelm other malts, it is normally used in blended whisky.
* Talisker (10 years old in oak barrels) — this is one of my favorites. Even though it is peated, it has a distinct mineral character which truly tastes like the rocky sea-batter island coastline in which it is made. Even though it is highly priced at $50, it is worth every single cent.
If you really must try a cask-strength scotch, go for:
* The Glenlivet Nadurra — if there is a possibility that anything with a 53% alcohol level to be gentle, then this is it. It is a classic Speyside and it contains a lot of sweetness balanced with green fruit and apple notes thanks to exotic oak barrels. It is the perfect introduction to cask-strength scotch. If the burn sensation is too great, you can always dilute it with water.