The Only 9 Whiskies You Need to Know for Robbie Burns Day
Our compendium of single malts will help you choose the perfect dram to suit your persona.
January 23, 2018
There are 198 single malt whiskies from Scotland at your local BCLDB…and you can ignore 189 of them. We’ve dug deep into our tasting notes and have come up with the essential brands that you need to know in order to drink like a proper Scotsman this Robbie Burns Day.
The Whisky: Laphroaig
Owned By: A little American-Japanese company called Beam Suntory
The Expressions (that means bottles) to seek out: 10-year-old ($70), Lore ($175)
The Skinny: Laphroaig is old school. For years it’s green, white and black label didn’t change, something no doubt their most famous patron, Prince Charles, would approve of. This is an Islay whisky, which means it’s smoky (and it’s smokier than most on Islay) so this isn’t the first dram you go for when you’re getting into whisky. But if you’re someone who tends toward restraint and classicism without being overly fancy (it’s always been well priced—except in B.C.—for it’s quality), then a bottle of this on your mantle will be on point.
The Whisky: Glenmorangie
Owned By: A small French concern called LVMH
The Expressions (that means bottles) to seek out: The Original, 10-year-old ($70), Quinta Ruban ($87)
The Skinny: The Original may be the perfect malt for someone serious about learning all things whisky because it combines smoothness (its defining trait) with a complexity and a touch more sweetness than many malts. If it’s not to your taste my guess is that you don’t like whisky. And the brands more “prestige” bottlings, like the luxuriously rich port-cask aged Quinta Ruban are often so close in price to the Original that it’s an easy brand to experiment with. It’s a whisky for someone who’s not showy but confident in their choices.
The Whisky: Highland Park
Owned By: The Scottish-based Edrington Group (owner of The Macallan, Black Grouse and Cutty Sark)
The Expressions (that means bottles) to seek out: 12-year-old ($62), 18-year-old ($176)
The Skinny: Highland Park is located waaay north in the Orkney Islands (hence their fascination with all things viking) and the brand, founded in 1798, was relatively under-the-radar until the the 1980s when a series of victories at spirits competitions and glowing critics’ reviews brought it to the attention of more mainstream whisky drinkers. Since then it’s been a story of growth and continued success as they try to keep up with growing demand. The 18-year-old has been called “the world’s most perfect whisky” with only a hint of hyperbole. Highland Park drinkers still think of themselves as independent-minded types who don’t follow the crowd even though they’re willing to pay handsomely for the malt. If The Macallan is a stately Rolls Royce, then HP is more a sporty Bentley.
The Whisky: Ardbeg
Owned By: LVMH
The Expressions (that means bottles) to seek out: 10-year-old ($92), Kelpie ($165)
The Skinny: Glenmorangie’s LVMH stablemate couldn’t be more different. It’s not stately, or subdued and even though the distillery “dates” to 1815, its current incarnation dates from the mid-1990s when it started shipping product after a very long shutdown. But it is bold and brash and one of the most aggressive, distinctive drams out there. This is a whisky with a huge cult following (each of whom thinks they were first on the Ardbeg train) and each of their limited bottlings—Grooves and An Oa are the two most recent—become sought after trophies for whisky nerds. The Ardbeg drinker likes a very strong dram and likes everyone to know that they like a very strong dram. Grandfathers need likely not apply.
The Whisky: The Balvenie
Owned By: William Grant and Sons
The Expressions (that means bottles) to seek out: 15-year-old ($235), 21-year-old portwood ($380)
The Skinny: Perhaps the classiest of all single malts. There are no real “entry-level” whiskies here and they’ve recently started to specialize in single-cask bottlings, meaning your bottle may be one of only a few hundred from a particular cask (and it may be quite different than a bottle the same age from a different cask). The whiskies are rich, complex and not interested in blowing you away with their power but rather enticing you with their waves of flavour. If you fancy tweed coats then The Balvenie is for you. If you have a tailor on Savile Row who makes them for you, then The Balvenie is really for you. And it’s not “Balvenie,” it’s “The Balvenie.”
The Whisky: Lagavulin
Owned By: An expanding business called Diageo
The Expressions (that means bottles) to seek out: 16-year-old ($130)
The Skinny: Islay is home to the bruisers of whiskydom, but Lagavulin has always tried to elevate itself above the fray. It’s still peaty—boy, is it peaty—but for the longest time the only widely available expression was a full 16-years-old so it was big, but never wild. It’s the fave of comedian Nick Offernan and of actor Brian Cox (whose description here is perfect) and although it’s $130, it’s still a bargain for what you get.
The Whisky: The Macallan
Owned By: The Edrington Group
The Expressions (that means bottles) to seek out: Edition #3 ($160)
The Skinny: Simply the gold standard, The Macallan is a whisky which all others measure themselves against. Which is sort of the problem—their popularity means that expressions like the 12-year-old Sherry cask (which was the whisky that made the brand) are near impossible to find here. They’ve been replaced by the 1824 series bottles that have no age statements (NOS) and have yet to really grip the imagination of the consumer in quite the same frenzied way as their predecessors. Still, if you have the money, there’s no other whisky that makes a statement like a bottle of The Macallan (like The Balvenie, the “The” is mandatory) with some age on it. Just ask James Bond.
Owned By: Diageo
The Expressions (that means bottles) to seek out: Talisker 10-year-old ($95), Oban 14-year-old ($120)
The Skinny: We’re lumping these two west-coast-of-Scotland whiskies together not because they taste the same—Talisker is bold and spicy, Oban refined and elegant—but because their owner has recently decided to seriously ramp up the number of labels both offer. There’s now Oban Little Bay, Talisker Storm and Talisker 57 North. It’s a trend for most whiskies to dramatically expand their labels with a variety of NOS now sitting alongside the classics. A good rule? Stick with the classics, especially with these two beauties. The Talisker drinker owns a shipping line; the Oban drinker, a history prof.