Top Performers for Maximum Return on Minimum Investment.
Occasionally, as you’re enjoying a particular dram, there can be a stab of anxiety.
This is perhaps due to the fact that your favourite bottles will always disappear magically fast, the special ones in particular. Perhaps to the point you’re convinced the whisky pixies come help themselves in the middle of the night. You know it’s going to be expensive to feed ‘their’ avarice, right?
So it’s really wonderful when the anxiety of the cost is removed. That is, you’re so pleased by the relatively low cost versus the pleasure payback that it’s arguably more enjoyable to kick back with a hearty glassful of something reasonably affordable, simply because it’s going to be easier to replace. It makes it a lot easier to share it too.
And so, in the interests of Whisky Evangelism and spreading the enlightenment, I’ll share here where I, personally, have found that quality vs. cost balance.
Best Value Whisky 2017 – Rules
Some rules to this list of Scotch Single Malt Whiskies were applied:
Age Statements Mandatory.
In order to best compare like for like, I’ve used age statements as I feel there’s a level of measurability of investment on the producer’s side. It’s also a handy way to categorise the line up.
Official Bottlings (O.B.) Only
Since I’m going for consistency and availability, of course I’ve gone for the standard and readily available official distillery bottlings. If it appears that I’ve favoured certain distilleries, it’s probably true – but only because they demonstrate exceptional value and quality across their range, and are therefore difficult to ignore. Have I missed anything?
Price and Availability
I’ve used UK prices and availability (apologies, but simply because I live here). Such is the nature of whisky distribution and international markets that you may find a couple of these difficult to track down in your country. Certainly you’ll find variation in prices. The prices are based on December 2016, online retails and standard supermarket averages, in £GBP.
At this point I find myself reaching for the tired, overused clichés which some folks (me) can find a wee bit tiring. Nevertheless, they are in this example, entirely appropriate.
So here we have, in my opinion, the best “bang-for-your-buck” “go-to” “easy-access” single malts available today which will “maximise your return on investment!”
10 Years Old
1. Balblair 2005
Since Balblair employ a policy of displaying a vintage on their bottles, rather than an age, it can sometimes be confusing for older bottlings, where there are multiple releases with the same vintage. Keep an eye out for bottling year, cask type and, of course, price, to guide you. There’s no confusing this one as of yet, though. You’re looking for the standard 2005 which comes in a nice blue cardboard carton and is aged in ex-bourbon casks.
First bottled in 2016, this whisky’s main characteristic is a balanced and classy honey profile which belies its relative youth. It’s a lovely complex dram that will grow on you sip by sip. Balblair are to be applauded for their policies of natural colour, non-chill filtration and 46% standard minimum ABV. Their confidence in the product is well placed as the quality on display is high. Although there are cheaper 10 year olds out there, this is a great whisky at around £38.
2. Aberlour 10yo
A ubiquitous special offering of supermarkets. Yet, over-looking this sherry-influenced fruity, spicy, ten year old would be a mistake. Responsible for converting many to the delights of single malt Scotch and a steal at around £25 (or less!).
3. Springbank 10yo
Like the Balblair, a little higher priced at £38. Yet the distillery’s quality and integrity are never in question. Here you can sample their youngest O.B. finished in a mixture of bourbon and ex-sherry casks. A light puff of smoke with vanilla, spices and citrus; it’s crazy complex for the age.
12 Years Old
1. Highland Park 12yo
With the increasing prices of its older siblings, it’s pretty great that you can still drop into your local supermarket and grab a HP12 for £30 – often it’s on offer for less. It’s said that Highland Park represents the most balanced of all malts; the late Michael Jackson (the whisky writer, not the other guy) famously called it the “greatest all-rounder’ of whisky. I’m not so sure myself, but I really do love the stuff.
It’s presented as natural colour and commendably consistent in terms of quality. However, if you were ever a fan of HP ten or so years ago, it’s moved on a little since then in terms of flavour profile (as many have). It still offers up a wonderful texture and exceptionally long finish for its age. On the palate, citrus, malt and gentle honey combine with soft, sweet oak and pepper. It’s a fantastic step into gentle smoke and very drinkable. Should be a staple of every home cabinet.
2. Old Pulteney 12yo
A slightly drier, coastal Highland dram, the Old Pulteney is widely available and always well priced at around £25-30. Some people say they get a saltier experience from this, with citrus and herbal notes; for me it’s easy to imagine salted caramel. A high quality staple that deserves recognition for keeping this quality at this price point.
3. Bowmore 12yo
A first step over to Islay, and a gentle introduction into the peated style. This is a rich, aromatic whisky and, while smoky, it shows restraint where, say, a Laphroaig might feel like a punch in the middle of the face. At its core there’s a floral, herbal note that defines the majority of Bowmore expressions. Look for lavender and iodine. Around £30 and generally available.
13-15 Years Old
1. Glenfarclas 15yo
From one of Speyside’s great independent distilleries, this is the perfect sweet spot for a whisky from Glenfarclas. It delivers the distillery character at a very affordable price, especially after 15 years in ex-sherry oak. If you were to imagine the perfect christmas dram to offer your (VIP!) guests, this would be the one. Spiced, nutty and full, with a drying finish, this very moreish whisky is presented at a respectable 46% ABV. Although I do quite enjoy it neat, there’s more to be explored with a teaspoon of water splashed in. It’s usually about £45 everywhere, maybe a little higher at a specialist, but you pay for the banter and knowledge.
2. Springbank 15yo
I know this is my second Springbank, but once you get a taste for this distillery you’ll understand why (if it weren’t for the fact the 18yo is so difficult to track down it would be a contender for the 18yo section). This is a little more expensive at around £60, but what a package it delivers. Again, it’s the layers of flavour and complexity here that engages you. If you try this and find it’s not inspiring, try pouring it alongside anything, and I mean anything, of a similar age and taste in contrast. Expect fruity spice and vanilla sitting comfortably together with polished leather and sticky oak. It’s a compelling dram.
3. Balblair 1999
There are a few releases of the Balblair 1999 vintage available out there, and in all honesty, they’re all great whiskies. If I were forced to settle, I’d probably pick out the core 1999 which you can pick up for less than £60, but there’s also a cracking travel exclusive that’s around £54 for a litre – should you be passing through an airport shop anytime soon. The distillery’s honey character is there in spades with all versions.
16-17 Years Old
1. Lagavulin 16yo
So familiar is this whisky that some folks seem to take it for granted. Think about it. Aged for 16 years, consistently good quality and a whisky experience that’s virtually unique – yet available in virtually every bar or hotel anywhere you’ve ever been. It’s eye-poppingly powerful, yet it’s the balance that catches you. Yes, it’s a peat monster; smoky and saline, briny with black tea and every kind of aromatic ointment from hospitals of yesteryear. Yet the sweetness wraps around all of these more challenging notes and introduces you, softly, to each one, carefully and individually.
Lagavulin 16 is responsible for transforming me from a casual whisky fan, to a passionate geek. It’s also responsible for converting more of my friends to whisky than any other dram. It’s the Dad. And it only costs around £48 to £55. Tip: Look for it in Costco and you’ll get it for even less.
2. Old Pulteney 17yo
You know, the more complex a whisky, the more flavours and aromas there are to be discovered, and the more difficult it is to tie them down. They flash and flicker as if they’re playing hide and seek. Dave Broom refers to this is a ‘chattering burn of flavours’. Enter Old Pulteney 17.
It’s an easily accessible and thoroughly enjoyable dram, and it’s moreish enough for you to find it difficult not to reach for another pour. This is when you begin to notice things. Things like white fruits and creamy toffees, then apples and clove, then fresh citrus, then a pop of caramel and the thinnest thread of smoke delivered with a waxy, honeyed mouthfeel. If Lagavulin 16 wasn’t such a powerful proposition in this age range, OP17 would be my clear choice. Expect to pay around £65 and immediately feel like you should return to the shop and give them some more money.
3. Aberlour 16yo
This is one of those drams which you should pour for someone who’s not really sure if they like whisky, at least not without drowning it with water. Let them sit with it and allow the honey and spice aromas draw them in. The alcohol on the nose will have them wary, but so gentle and soft is the arrival on the palate that it can shock and have them stare into the glass wondering what’s just happened. A damn good single malt, that’s what. It could be pointed out that at this age a few more points ABV would crank the quality even higher, but 16 years and this quality at around £45? Come on.
18 Years Old
1. Glengoyne 18yo
Fuelled by bias and nostalgia, some people, sometimes, can be caught bemoaning the constant changes in the whisky landscape, and lament the lost quality of years gone by and the increasing prices. These inevitable changes are happening, but not everywhere, and not to the extent we might think. Some distilleries are, in fact, shining examples of consistency. Take Glengoyne, just North of Glasgow, quietly producing drams of show-stopping quality, year after year, and getting better at it all the while.
I’ll admit I think their 10yo could use a little more grip and interest, perhaps just a couple more years in the cask, but this 18 cannot have any such criticism laid at it. Exclusively aged in a mix of re-fill and first-fill ex-sherry casks it’s a compelling and engaging dram. By no means a sherry ‘monster’, but a far more creamy, balanced presentation of the style, and less of a caricature. Quietly pour one of these for the whisky snob in your life and have them return, empty glass in hand, begging for a wee bit more. Around £75, mostly available through specialists, online or, even better, at the distillery.
2. Glenlivet 18yo
Glenlivet’s 18 year old can be easily overlooked by whisky folks looking for something a bit less familiar, but that would be a mistake as this is a very refined 18 year old for the money. On paper it would read a little like the Glengoyne 18, but look out for the faintest lick of distant smoke and fresh pineapple on the nose, while on the palate it has a little more red fruits, spice and boiled sweets. It’s a fuller, bolder, sherried style. What’s really amazing is that it’s less than £60, and if you’re passing through duty free – you’ll get a litre for that money.
3. AnCnoc 18yo
I was one of many who felt deep disappointment when Knockdhu (the distillery where this single malt is produced – long story) discontinued their 16yo expression. Such was the perfect blend of utterly addictive complexity in such a delicately balanced and light malt that I was sure it would become a staple in my cabinet. But, alas – it’s gone. Happily, however, they released an 18yo version. And although this is a little different with more ex-sherry influence, the distillery character is intact and it’s really lovely. It’s lightly spiced with a whiff of orange jaffa cake and creamy vanillas; imagine you’ve taken a bold and beefy Speysider and taught it some table manners. £70 through specialists and online.
4. Bunnahabhain 18yo
Now for something a little different. Whatever they’re putting in the water over there in one of Islay’s most secluded distilleries, I hope they keep doing it. There’s a flavour profile in whisky that I like to call, in Scots dialect, ‘fusty’. It’s detectable in Highland Park, Bowmore, Springbank and some others. Generally attributed to an older style of whisky production, it’s the slightly damp, moist, mulchy flavour; according to theWhiskyRev it smells and tastes of old books. That may not seem very appealing, yet it’s quite delicious when you get a taste for it. You can sample it in this beautiful Bunnahabhain. This is a lightly-peated Islay, with super-sweet smoke, salt and winter spices all over the place, but it’s the oaky notes and the viscous, medicinal texture that will hook you. It tastes a lot older than 18 years. £70 online, but going to the distillery to pick up a bottle yourself will change your life.
19-22 Years Old
1. Old Pulteney 21yo
What were you doing 21 years ago? Can you even remember? Whatever it was, this brilliant dram has been waiting since – just for you to encounter it’s magnificence. A friend bought this a long time back and as I write this I’m embarrassed to realise I haven’t bought this myself, stealing his and buying occasional whisky bar drams instead. After scouring all the available malts in this age bracket I’m realising I should’ve invested already. Tasting notes here would be a little redundant, as there’s almost everything in this dram somewhere; it’s a peach. Around £95 from specialists or online – it’s about time I took some of my own advice.
2. Glenfarclas 21yo
Not another Glenfarclas? Well, incase I’ve not made the point clear enough already; they make a damn good dram. What’s astonishing is that they crank the quality and depth up a few notches here from the 15, by letting it slumber for an extra 6 years, and still manage to retail it for less than £90. The only thing that can beat that, at this age and price, is the next dram on the list…
3. AnCnoc 22yo
£88. I’ll let you think about that for a moment. This is a 22 year old Highlander for £88. Now, price alone does not make the dram, but this quality at this price is not going to last for long. Think AnCnoc with heavier spice, blackcurrants and orange infused tea. Pause with it for a while and you may even pick up a glimpse of sweet woodsmoke and chocolate. I’ll say it one more time; £88.
1. Balblair 1990
This is the third Balblair in the list, so I guess you may be working out what I think is the best value distillery out there right now. This particular Balblair spent the vast majority of its life in American oak, adding sweet vanillas and tropical notes to the distillery’s honey character. It was then transferred to ex-oloroso sherry casks for a final two to three years to add another layer into the mix. The end result means the refinement on offer here is particularly impressive, with a rewarding and complex flavour profile that will keep you occupied the whole bottle through. It’s a full-bodied and yet remarkably well behaved and understated whisky, for the kind of folk who have impeccable taste without shouting about it. A steal at around £100; for a 23 year old cracker.
2. Glenfarclas 25yo
Seems I could be becoming a little dull. Another Glenfarclas now. This is the third. Am I just lazy? The thing is I could’ve made it four as the 10yo is a creamy delight at £32, but it was the sumptuous 25 year old that sneaked a mention due to it’s cracking presentation after a full quarter century. Snap it up. One day you’ll be retelling stories about the time you could pick up a 25 year old ‘farclas for only £120.
3. Special Mention: Balblair 1983
And sneaking in at the last moment, with a thoroughly deserved special mention, is yet another Balblair. You’re a little fed up now I’m guessing. But pause for just one moment and consider this prospect, because I think it’s one of the best kept secrets in single malt, bordering on the ridiculous. And this, dear reader, is my little gift to you for sticking with me and reading this far.
This is a sublime 1983 vintage dram that will make your eyes roll into the back of your head. In case I’ve not been clear here, Balblair must be the best value single malt distillery out there. This is a 32 year old whisky.
Thirty. Two. Years. Old.
Impeccably presented, for around £200. Search any retailer you like and try to find an official single malt of that age for anything close to that money. Go on. And while you’re there, dive in and invest in this sensory spectacle. It’s not going to last forever.