No good drink goes unfinished

Don’t you just hate wine snobs? You know who I mean, the people that sit around discussing everything about about the wine except the grape. “Oh, you can really taste the shady porch these grapes were grown under with just a touch of the vinter’s old Volvo station wagon…” It’s ridiculous, they’re pompous blowhards, and I have never tasted hints of ladybugs and daffodils in a glass of red wine.

I need that preface before I start talking about Scotch, because there are Scotch snobs as well. I’m not really one of them but for some reason I find myself more willing to hob-nob with ’em. I can tell the difference between Scotches, but I’ve never thought one tasted like apples and cinnamon while another one had light notes of vanilla. This is a much more blue collar look at Scotch whisky, and why I prefer it to American bourbon. (Although after years of mocking different shapes and sizes of wine glasses, I did buckle for my love of a good single malt and got a set of Glencairn glass. More here.)

My last post detailed my awful experience with Jim Beam that led me to avoid liquor for over a decade and become a microbrew snob (where, incidentally, you can taste hints of orange and honey, etc.), and the eventual conquering of my fears. During that decade, I feared and avoided whiskey above all else. Just the smell of a whiskey made me ill. Little did I know that not all whiskey is whisky…

I find it hilarious that we mock the Brits for extra letters in their words like colour, honour, or shoppe but when it comes to whiskey, America has added an “e”. Since we’re talking about Scotch, but may refer back to American stuff, I’ll be using the spellings interchangeably depending on the spirit’s region of origin.

Bourbon comes form the United States, Scotch comes from Scotland, and they’re both whisk(e)ys. The big differences are in how they’re made. You can read up on their respective histories and methods in more detail with the provided links, and there are lots of good sites that talk about it more detail, so I’m just going to make some broad generalizations here for the basics. Bourbon is made from 51% or greater corn mash and aged in new charred oak barrels. Scotch malts are pure barley, typically smoked with a peat fire, and aged in used barrels from sherry or bourbon production. I can only guess the root grain used to create the mash makes a significant difference in the flavor, and the barrels certainly do. The longer a whisky is aged in the casks, the darker and more flavorful it becomes as it extracts flavor from the wood. It also mellows as some of the alcohol evaporates off. Longer aging drives up the price significantly as it’s longer the distiller has to sit on the product and the 1.5-2% of volume lost each year to evaporation or the “angels’ share” means there’s simply less to go around. Supply and demand at work. Single malts come from a single distillery, where blended malts can come from several.

One of my favorite things about single malt Scotch? The cap has a cork. You get that fun little pop! every time you open it, and it just feels more substantial and classy than a twist cap like the American whiskeys have. Where Maker’s Mark (not even 60 years old at the time of this writing) wax dips their bottles in an ostentatious attempt at class, your average Scotch is far more understated and simply is classy. Nice.

A quick note on etiquette- There are all kinds of opinions on how to drink Scotch, what’s acceptable and not, etc. I prefer a really old single malt, neat. However, I see nothing wrong with an ice cube or two in a 12-year served in a lowball or Old Fashioned glass if that’s how you like it. Some people like a splash of water to dilute it, and kind of “spread out” the flavors and make them easier to taste or discern. The ice cube or two will have the same effect, but also chill the whisky and inhibit the flavor; so I’d be wary of ice in an 18-year and avoid it entirely in anything older. Splash of water and glassware is up to you. Just please don’t use a single malt as a mixer- that’s what Jack and Jim Beam are for.

  • The Glenlivet– The biggest selling single malt in the U.S., and second largest worldwide. It’s a Speyside (meaning it’s water is from the River Spey), and the oldest legal distillery in the business. I began my venture into single malt Scotch with their 12-year, over ice. It’s easy to see why this is the number one seller in the States, as I think it mostly closely straddles the line between being distinctively Scotch but tasting somewhat of the American bourbon whose casks it ages in. I find it a little boring now that I’ve tried so many others, but it sells in such volume for a reason. Fairly light in color, I understand why people call it “fruity”. I never thought about the bottle being tinted green until I sampled more and realized it works to hide how light in color the 12 year is. While this is definitely a beginner’s Scotch, there’s nothing wrong with that. Think of it as Levi’s in a world now populated in jeans ranging from Wal-Mart to high end designers. The 18 year was predictably darker and more flavorful, but simply a more intense sampling of the 12.
  • Glenfiddich– Another Speyside, and my personal favorite, the name is Gaelic for “Valley of the Deer”. Best selling single malt worldwide, I’d like to believe it’s for the flavor, but more likely for the aggressive marketing in duty-free shops. Regardless, I enjoy this more than Glenlivet and tend to find bottles of equivalent vintage to be darker and more flavorful. The 12 year is still fairly basic, but with how fast prices jump for more aged bottles I think an 18 year bottle is where I would stop spending for something I plan to keep in inventory. It’s not a bargain, but I figure the price/quality is acceptable for the occasional dram. But my very favorite that has never been topped is the 30 year. At $200 a bottle, it’s not an everyday sampler. But the flavor and complete lack of burn make it divine- like nectar of the gods. Dark, mellow, and I want to get all hoity-toity and declare it’s smoky undertones. I loved it.
  • The Macallan– I’m just going to say it: I find this one to be grossly overpriced. It’s the Prada of whiskys: high end because they say it is. The Macallan declares it’s “original and spiritual home” to be Speyside… Except that it’s a Highland, when pressed by the 2009 Scotch Whisky Regulations. I don’t know or care, really, other than it furthers my belief that Macallan is more claim than actuality. The third largest selling single malt, they’ve issued some claims to make me question who’s the biggest and if claims are by volume or profit. In the end, it doesn’t matter, and this is the third of the Big 3, in whatever order they should appear. I’d have liked to have tried the original Sherry Oak line from which they built their reputation, as the Fine Oak series is fairly new (introduced in 2004), but the newer triple casked variety isn’t bad by any means. The 10 year is actually very nice. Elegant, if I can get away with saying so. Honestly, it’s a very good whisky and I’d take this before the Glens Livet and Fiddich 12 year bottles. The Fine Oak 25 Year is highway robbery, though. At over $500 a bottle it was very smooth, but not nearly as flavorful as a Glenfiddich 30 and more than twice the cost. I’ll skip the Cinderella satin box lining that says this is for royals and stick with the less pretentious, less costly, and far tastier ‘fiddich 30. It’s woodsier/smokier, manlier, and they want you to be pioneer with their Explorer something-or-other that’s also manly sounding. Anything manly enough to take over the end of this paragraph wins.
  • Johnny Walker– In contrast to the single malts I generally prefer, this brand is a blended Scotch whisky. I was going to link to their site directly, but Wikipedia has such a great write up of their history and labels I opted to give you that instead. The blended nature of their whisky produces a very consistent flavor from bottle to bottle and year to year. They maintain that blending allows them to achieve the flavor they’re after. True enough, but I can’t help but feel like it leads to being… boring. Just like any other national chain or brand from Budweiser to Applebee’s- it will always be the same, and therefore it will never be special. Not bad, mind you, just… well… A glass of Black label with a few ice cubes is an uninteresting but dependable drink. I tried a glass of Blue label, but it doesn’t live up to it’s price: I found it to be very smooth but far too plain and flavorless. Verdict– Stick with the Black label in the absence of anything more interesting.
  • The Balvenie- Another Speyside, their DoubleWood 12 Year is one of the best deals I think I’ve ever had in single malt Scotch. It’s only a 12-year, but it has great flavor, is very smooth, and was bargain priced. I would take this over a Glenlivet or Glenfiddich 18 year any day of the week. I loved this one. Two thumbs up regardless of price, but when the price is such that it can be an “everyday” dram, how can I not recommend it?
  • Grangestone- This one caught me totally off-guard. It’s a 12 year single malt sold 50% off retail at Total Wine. Not to sound like a snob, but a $20 bottle of Scotch just makes me nervous and sounds like mixer-only territory. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Flavorful and comparatively smooth, this Highland is better and darker than an utterly forgettable 18 year bottle gathering dust on my counter and I feel like I stole it for the price/quality. If I were to make an introductory recommendation to Scotch, this and the Balvenie would be my choices both for flavor and low cost of admittance.
  • anCnoc- I had their 12 year and absolutely hated it. Some say it’s a Speyside, but they don’t even have a website to tell their own story or confirm. It’s definitely a Highland region, and supposedly the water is from a Knock Hill spring. Bland and burning, the only way I could tolerate it was with generous ice in the glass to dull the regret swirling between the cubes. I won’t link to it, I won’t recommend it, and I won’t serve it somebody I dislike. Others love it though, so this is strictly my opinion and worth as much as you paid to read it.
  • Grants- Another blended whisky, I don’t know what I had but it was… Well, I won’t be studying up on or sampling any more Grants. Let’s leave it at that.

I’m sure I’ve missed a few, but this is getting to be a really lengthy post. The long and short of it is that I hate Jim Beam, tolerate Jack & Ginger on the rocks (with a squeeze of lemon, no lime), and would encourage anyone who hasn’t tried a good single malt to give it a whirl. While you can get bombed with it if that’s the intent, I find it a very easy drink to enjoy in moderation, the company of friends and good conversation. I hope you’ll do the same.

29 thoughts on “No good drink goes unfinished

  1. I am way behind the ball when it comes to whisk(e)y. I did Kessler’s while my borther did Jack. Then I tried Canadian Club and Canadian Mist, but thought they were all horrible. I stayed away from it for 20+ years except for the occasion shot while watching a good western. (I now have a shot of good tequila instead. 1800 or Patron Silver)

    It took my trying Jameson at the Celtic fest to open me up to Whisk(e)y again. What’s interesting though, is that they don’t consider themselves either a true scotch or a bourbon. Whith hot air dried peat instead of burned and tripple distilled processing, I’m not sure where it fits either. But it is smooth and doesn’t burn like the others I mentioned.

    I’ll definietly have to try some that you suggested. Neat of course. THat way I get the true taste.

    • Whisk(e)y doesn’t have to be bourbon or Scotch. Since Jameson’s is Irish, by law/regulation it doesn’t fit in either category but I’ll give it a try when the opportunity presents itself.

    • If you liked Jameson do yourself a favor and try having Redbreast either the 12 or 18 year. It is a single potstill Irish whiskey that far exceeds any of the flavors you’ll find it Jamison. It is one of my absolute favorites. The only problem is it used to be fairly priced like grangestone scotch however it got popular and the price the bottle doubled.

  2. I have never been disappointed by a Balvenie. They have some very interesting bottles, and if you enjoyed the DoubleWood, it would probably be worth it to try something else in their line.

  3. Macallan is definitely in Speyside, owned by the Highland Whisky company just a few miles away from Glenfiddich, Balvenie, Johnny Walker (Cardhu) and Glenlivet. All quality established brands thanks to some very canny marketing pioneers.

    • “Since the Scotch Whisky Regulations 2009 came into force labelling of bottles of Scotch whisky has been regulated, and currently produced bottles of The Macallan indicate it is a Highland Single Malt.”

      There’s a reason they claim Speyside as it’s “spiritual” home. Based on where it’s currently made (the water source) it is no longer true.

      • Hmm, I read that too on Wiki maybe it has something to do with the water source being from bore holes. Geographically its still in Speyside very close in fact to the river Spey. Agreed it is a good Malt for one of the mass produced.

        Came to your blog trying to find info about the Grangestone since a friend in US told me about it. I can’t find out anything about it.

      • I think you’re correct about the confusion being due to water source. Because the distillery is still said to be in Speyside, so it must be the water that’s from the highlands.

      • I found that online that grangestone is actually owned by Glenfiddich over arching company but was family owned previously. When talking to the scotch whiskey guy at total wine I found the total wine just signed a contract with grangestone to be there only seller in United States. So that should be the only place you will be able to find it for probably the next five years. I am currently drinking their grangestone 18 year single malt and it is just as pleasing as the 12 year. The only difference is that it is twice the price at $54.

  4. Great post Eric.

    I’ve consumed a small fortune in scotch, and can speak somewhat intelligently about the subject. I’ll never use words like fruity to describe a spirit distilled from barley and smoked over a peat fire. To hell with the snobs!

    My quest in scotches now is not the most rare and exotic, but the best *values* in scotch. Being able to pick a good value requires experience and maturity — and a sense of adventure.That’s what led me to find Grangestone, and subsequently you blog.

    It’s really impressive for the price. My first thought after my first taste was, “this is a classic scotch flavor.” It’s not trying to impress with superfluous caskings, lengthy agings, and the like. It’s just a good, solid scotch and a great value at $23.

    Usually when I’m in the $20 – $30 price range, I’m looking at a Glenlivet or Glenmorangie 10. Of course, those are Total Wine prices. I’d have to add another $10 anywhere else. The Glenlivet is, as you described, light and right. It happens to be about the only single malt I can get at many bars, except for the higher end, and higher priced establishments. You’re right on with the McCallan. I used to enjoy it as a scotch noob, but now find it too sweet, and too expensive, although the 10 year old is a decent value. I also agree with the Balvenie Double wood endorsement. Johhny Black works in a pinch, especially if I’m in a smoky Islay mood. Alas, we diverge in opinion on the Glenfiddich. But I’ve only had the 12 and 15.

    When people ask me for scotch suggestions, I point them to Glenlivet to start. Then I just throw out distilleries where you can’t go wrong. Glenlivet, Glenmorangie, Balvennie, but steer them away from McCallan because of the poor value.

    FWIW, lately I’ve been dipping into the under $20 range for a daily-drammer and have discovered two competent blends — Sheildaig, and Monarch of the Glen. I’ve settled on the Sheildaig 12 for about $15 for the 750ml. In the Monarch lineup, you can go 3, 8, 12, and 15 year for $9, $12, $15, $17 respectively. The Monarch 15 is the way to go there. Of course, I’ve only found these at Total Wine.

    Here’s to another day, another dram!

    JR

    • Thanks, JR. Weird thing is, right now the only Scotch in the house is Macallan 10 year. I’ve recently moved to Fargo and there isn’t a Total Wine anywhere nearby but the local booze barn had a great sale going so I picked up two bottles. I’ll look into Sheildaig and Monarch and thanks for the tip!

  5. Love the article!! A brief two cents, in my experience, would be: Johnny Gold is far better than Black label and Blue.

    I got turned onto Macallan in leiu of Black Label and my journey into all things Scotch began…

    I totally agree with your various assessments, ESPECIALLY of The Grangestone! A GREAT Single malt, affordable at “mixer” prices and smoother and more flavorful than Macallan of the same year. Good call there! More people should give it a shot!

  6. Just bought the Grangestone 12yr at Total Wines. Stumbled on it while picking up a bottle of Highland Park (Another brand several friends have recommended). I almost didn’t buy the Grangestone because of the price (how could a $23 single malt be good?), but I’m glad to see the reviews here. I will look forward to opening it.

    I should say I’m from Canada and vacationing in the US. Total Wines is a godsend!!! Scotch prices up north are roughly double TW prices, and there are no wholesalers (prices are gov’t regulated, and sold in Gov’t stores).

    My shelf currently consists of Glenmorangie 10, Balvenie 12 Doublewood, JW Black (good if you’re having a lot), and now Highland Park 12, and Grangestone 12. I’ve also bought Glenfiddich and Glanlivet (duty free), but was not impressed with either. I’d take JW Black over both.

    If you know any other value priced but quality Scotches I could try (like Grangestone), I’d love some recommendations as it seems with scotch you don’t always get what you pay for.

    Thanks for the great article. Look forward to keeping up with your blog.

    • I recently moved from Las Vegas to Fargo, North Dakota. So now I miss Total Wine as well! I haven’t found any other hidden treasures when it comes to scotch due to that, so I find myself exploring what different gins have to offer these days. There’s just as much variation thanks to botanicals in different recipes, but far less cost because gin isn’t dependent upon aging.

  7. Has anyone been able to compare the 3 exclusive Total Wine scotches?
    Grangestone vs Shieldaig vs Glen Ness?
    I will be heading over to Total Wine soon to try the Grangestone

  8. I am sorry I need to correct the question above
    Has anyone been able to compare the 3 exclusive Total Wine scotches?
    Grangestone vs Shieldaig vs Monarch of the Glen?
    I will be heading over to Total Wine soon to try the Grangestone

    • Hey Mike.

      YES. I’ve compared the three (brands). Sheildaig and Monarch are a good value, but I say the Grangestone is a GREAT value. The comparisons are a little complicated since Grangestone is a 12 single-malt, and you’re asking for comparisons to different aged blends.

      In general, I continue to select Grangestone over all the others.

      Of the Monarch blends, I’d have to go with at least the 15 to approach the quality of the Grangestone 12. I seem to recall the Grangestone being a few bucks more than the Monarch 15. I’d spring for the Grangestone any day. Of the Monarch blends, I’ve tried them all, but can’t recommend anything younger than the 12. I didn’t care the the 8 so much, as it started to have that cheap scotch flavor.

      I’m a big fan of the Sheildaigs, but again I think I’m paying about the same for a 12 yr blend compared to the Grangestone. So, again, I go with Grangestone. I have to admit that I haven’t tried the Sheildaig 18 yr. But i think that was approaching the cost of a Glenmorangie 10 or Glenlivet 12, which I would opt for over the Sheildaig 18.

      So, there you have it. I’d recommend the Grangestone over the others.

  9. I’m sorry. I was about to pick up a Highland Park 18 for myself for my birthday (that, and the fact that the bottle of it I have on my counter is running DANGEROUSLY low), and the gentleman at TotalWine recommended either the Grangestone 18 or 21, and I figured (stupidly), maybe that 21 might not be such a bad deal @ $30 less than the Highland Park 18. Boy was THAT a mistake.

    I absolutely smelled apple on the nose, the vanilla flavor on this 21 is way over the top. There’s like 0 ( that’s ZERO ) sweetness to this Grangestone 21. It’s as if the angels took any vestige of carbohydrate that might’ve remained after the initial brewing. The finish leaves a light woody tinge to the back of your tongue. But it’s as if it’s a whisp…and it’s gone. Not, that to even make this dram approachable I had to add a dash of water ( something I’m remiss to do on something this aged. It’s unconscionable that something aged over 15 years should really require water to even open a conversation with it. Something I’ve NEVER had to do with a Highland Park 15 or 18, before. ).

    If this is supposed to be Grangestone’s top of the line whisky, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle. Now I’m dubious as to the 12’s or 18’s. Sadly, I’ll be taking this back tomorrow to Total Wine’s for a refund, and get that Highland Park I had my hands on before the gentleman spoke to me about Grangestone.

    For reference purposes, Glen Morangie 10 is my go to “regular basis” drink, and have yet to be disappointed by it. And for those talking about smokey flavor, c’mon, you want smoke, grab a Laphroaig 10 ( or Quarter Cask ) and then let’s talk smokey.

  10. Marcelo I guess you are a Monkey’s Uncle after all, and it seems to me that all the burning on
    your tongue from younger drinks has now forbidden you from enjoying a delightful dram.
    Lady’s and gentlemen, this is what happens when a Scotch snob enters the arena, First
    the speculate about other brands having this or that better than the reviewed product at hand
    and then they try to trash a far superior accomplishment with there own arrogant opinion of
    what they consider better. Grangestone’s 25 and 30 year (blend) kicks the but of Mr Highland
    Park 15 and 18 any day of the week, and they are blends Under $100.00 USD. I my self walked
    in Total wine and had a taste of the Grangestone 21 and for $79.00 a bottle how can I even
    think of saying that Highland 18 would be a better choice simply on taste? If you think so,
    then maybe your Mercedes Benz has something to do with it.
    I tried the 12, 18, and 21 while passing by a table where they had samples to test. Again, for
    $79.00 USD that 21 Grangestone made the headline and I have been drinking Single malts for
    about 7 years now, and have tried Many from $50.00 to $400.00 , many of the popular brands
    and I am shocked that some people are so offended that an under dog comes along at a fraction
    of the price and can offer a 21 yr dram with the flavor, aromas, and finish that Grangestone has
    and all of a sudden people’s feelings get hurt because they blew tons of cash on more expensive
    drams that barely compare.
    How can it be possible that Chrysler 300 looks so good, and fell so great compared to a mercedes
    benz, and cost 1/3 the price, no way it can be. So go ahead and keep spending the money on
    the name brand if it makes you feel any better, but like the old saying goes, “Truth Hurts”.
    In closing, I tell all the new scotch students, sure a 21Glengoyne, 21 Auchentoshan, 21 Balvenie
    possibly will have a bit longer finish, even a slight more robust flavor, but nothing worth paying
    $200.00 per bottle. You are way better of saving your money and for $79.00 buy the 21 Grangestone single malt, or the 25 or 30 Blend for a few dollars extra and have your cake and eat it to, seriously I kid you not, and remember for a blend scotch to advertise a certain year on a bottle
    it must be the youngest of the blends it was mixed with, so on the 25 the blend will be a blend of all 25 yr old or greater, and same for the 30.

    Who said you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, cheers!

    • I believe you slightly misunderstood. It started that the 21 year was a disappointment compared to the others. My friends and I have had 12, 18,&21 year Grangestone together and with the 12 year being as good as I believe it is, I was very disappointed in the 21 year. Just as many of the people above have stated. You are right price doesn’t matter until you are spending more on disappointment.

  11. I grew up, as it were, on Ballantines. I found it far smoother than anything else at that price point when I was younger. Am about to try my first expensive bottle, a Grangestone 18yo.

    I agree with your review of Grants, I couldn’t even use it as a mixer.

  12. Thank you. Helps to have another perspective on whiskys. Just trying it out for now and being a grown woman, it seems I find this is more of an adventure for men. Appreciate the guidance – I have enjoyed my Grangestone thus far….

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