ot long ago, I tasted a single malt Scotch that was well over 30 years old at the time. The shape of the bottle, the label, the cap, everything on the outside was carefully planned by marketing teams. Even the name on the side, once a small independent distillery, changed hands as parent company merged with parent company over the years. But none of this changed the fact that the Scotch itself was made by a handful of guys in the early 1980s, distilling for a company that had already been in operation for well over 100 years. Then somehow, through transfers of ownership, handshakes, publicity stunts, bad weather, recessions and leaky casks, that liquid managed to survive, unblended and unbottled, through the Cold War and into the digital age. Just to be enjoyed for a few moments.
What I tasted in those few moments were decisions made decades before, predictions made by skilled distillers. There are events in life that represent this same planning, and that are often celebrated with a single malt. Relationships that turn to marriages that turn to families. College degrees that turn to lifelong careers that turn to retirements. Or maybe, just finally getting to the end of a particularly bad day and putting your feet up, alone and comfortable.
Below is a list of premium single malts, designed as a sequel to our list of affordable single malts, which can be found here. Prices for these bottles vary widely depending on where you are, but most fall into the range of $100 to $250, and are meant to represent putting off instant gratification for the long haul, for that glass of Scotch 40 years later. And to help you understand what makes these single malts so spectacular, we spoke with an expert who has made a living drinking and thinking about that very question.
The Scotch Expert: Charles MacLean has written 10 books on Scotch whisky, including two, Scotch Whisky and Malt Whisky, that were short-listed for Glenfiddich Awards.
MacLean:Time. This has been described as “the sixth ingredient,” along with malt, yeast, water, process and wood. Scotland’s cool, damp climate permits lengthy maturation, which develops depth and complexity of flavor — assuming the cask is right. There is no substitute for this, and although warmer climates — Kentucky, India, Taiwan — produce excellent whiskies, they are, necessarily, bottled younger. Craft. The long and romantic history of Scotch adds value to the product. When you buy a bottle of Scotch, you buy a helluva lot more than liquor in a bottle. You’re buying history and tradition, craft and experience, the blood of one small nation. Marketing. You might add to the point above: “…which has been promoted through thick and thin for a very long time.” Fashion. This comes and goes. Scotch is cool, then it’s Dad’s drink again.
For Bosses and In-Laws
Talisker 18 Year Old
Reliable Peat: Talisker is the only distillery on the Isle of Skye, and its 18-year expression falls smack in the middle of its age statement lineup. This bottle is difficult to get, but is worth the search — it took home World’s Best Single Malt Whiskey at the 2007 World Whiskey Awards.
Notes: Peat on the nose, with light citrus, brine and smokey sweetness on the tongue. A surprise favorite.
Alternative: To keep the same taste profile and take a big step down in cost and up in availability, look for Talisker 57° North.
Aberlour 18 Year Old
Most Easy-Drinking: Earlier this year, the A’bunadh — also from Aberlour in Speyside — was one of our favorites. The 18 continues this tradition by giving up the cask-strength burn for more complexity.
Notes: Sharp fruity spice, oak and lemon zest at first, then smoothing into hints of toffee and caramel that quickly fade.
Alternative: Harder to find, but worth the search, Aberlour 12 Non Chill Filtered is a highly sought-after expression.
Lagavulin 12 Year Old (2014 Special Release)
Best 12 Year: Lagavulin needs no introduction. Classic bottle, light and bright Scotch, distinct, fantastic taste.
Notes: The cask strength slaps you with butter, smoke and fruit on the nose and cracked peppercorn, citrus and peaty smoke on the tongue.
Alternative: For another good cask-strength bottle, the Glendronach Cask Strength Batch #2 is a bit cheaper and very special, if less nuanced.
Laphroaig 18 Year Old
Complex Peat: We included the Laphroaig Cask Strength and Quarter Cask in our last roundup. This offering, at 48% ABV, gives up the burn of the Cask Strength for a much more mellow finish while preserving the punishing peatiness.
Notes: Smoke that expands in your mouth, although more nuanced than you’d expect from Laphroaig, with what one taster called a “big daddy finish.” Where Lagavulin brings the pepper, Laphroaig leans on fresh pine.
Alternative: The Ardbeg Corryvreckan is another refined peat bomb at a slightly cheaper price.