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Blind Scotch Taste Test — Which 12-Year-Old Single Malt Whisky Is Best?

On this week’s Blind Whiskey Taste Test we’re diving deep into single malt Scotch whiskies. Specifically, 12-year-old expressions.

Why that age? Because 12-year-old single malt whisky is an excellent entry-point into the wider and often much older world of single malt scotches. They’re accessible but not bottom shelf. And they’re quite often incredibly tasty — with diverse flavors depending on where they’re from and how they’re barrelled.

For this tasting, I was given eight pours of 12-year-old single malt whiskies. I blind tasted them and ranked them from least to most favorite. While most of these whiskies showed great nuance, in the end, there was one that really rose above the rest. Click on the price if the bottle feels like the one for you.

Let’s dive in!

Part 1: The Taste

Zach Johnston

Taste 1:

Zach Johnston

Tasting Notes:

There’s a subtle spice next to sweet, almost toffee malts with a touch of honey. There’s some nice dried fruit next to a mild nuttiness. This is definitely a sherry cask finish. A touch of spicy orange and dark chocolate comes in late as those sweet malts linger.

Taste 2:

Zach Johnston

Tasting Notes:

Honey, dried fruit, light malts, and a touch of vanilla … hello, Aberfeldy! That honey drives the taste towards more light malt. On a second nosing, a hint of fresh raw beef comes through that leads back towards the dried fruits and honey.

Taste 3:

Zach Johnston

Tasting Notes:

This is very enticing, with hints of very soft wood next to berries steeped in honey with a light vanilla edge. The taste dips into a slight black pepper with a note of brie rinds or, maybe, a cheese cellar. The end is slow and leaves you with a nice, warm buzzing in your senses and a real sense of velvet roundness.

Taste 4:

Zach Johnston

Tasting Notes:

This is very interesting. It’s creamy like a vanilla pudding with a bright pear orchard and some mild toffee. That leads towards a very easy and soft woodiness with a touch of candied pear and more vanilla cream. This is good stuff.

Taste 5:

Zach Johnston

Tasting Notes:

There’s a mix of Band-Aids next to chocolate and, almost… sandalwood? The taste holds onto that Band-Aid aspect as chocolate oranges and slightly bitter citrus pith arrives with a touch of earthy peat that’s more like cold ashes than smoke.

Taste 6:

Zach Johnston

Tasting Notes:

Woah! Fennel! That leads to some dried fruits and fresh apples on the nose. The taste, on the other hand, leans into sweet oak, figs, pear candies, and a softness that’s almost hard to believe. This is amazingly easy to drink, full of sweet fruits, and has just the right touches of oak, vanilla, and savory greens.

Taste 7:

Zach Johnston

Tasting Notes:

This is a malty sip with touches of lemon pudding next to a hint of tart apple. There are notes of orange rinds still studded with cloves next to a touch of honey and vanilla. But overall, this is very… well… standard.

Taste 8:

Zach Johnston

Tasting Notes:

First of all, it’s crazy that this is a 12-year-old whisky and still this light!

The nose has an old beach campfire vibe that’s followed by hints of Band-Aids still fresh and in the pack. There’s a light fruitiness that leads towards a little sea spray saltiness. There’s more earthy peat than billows of smoke (Hi there, Lagavulin). The end is light and easy, leaving me with a buzzing on my tongue.

Part 2: The Ranking

Zach Johnston

8) Balblair 12 (Taste 7)

InterBev

ABV: 46%

Average Price: $70

The Whisky:

This entry-point single malt from the Highlands is an easy drinker. The juice is aged in a combo of ex-bourbon casks and “double fired” or charred used American oak barrels. The results are touched with a little water to bring it down to proof and then bottled.

Bottom Line:

This was a perfectly nice pour of whisky. There were no rough edges and it hit every mark exactly. There was just not that … special something to make it stand out in this crowd.

Still, I’d 100 percent enjoy this on the rocks or in a highball without question.

7) BenRiach The Smoky Twelve (Taste 5)

Brown-Forman

ABV: 46%

Average Price: $72

The Whisky:

The base is a mix of unpeated and peated malted barley. Those juices are then mellowed for at least 12 years in a combination of ex-bourbon, ex-sherry, and ex-Marsala wine casks. The results are then blended by whisky icon Dr. Rachel Barrie into this arresting whisky.

Bottom Line:

This really is a great entry point to peated whiskies if you’re afraid of the peat and smoke monsters from Islay. The core tenets of peaty whisky are in play — those Band-Aids, for instance — but it’s way more earthy than smoky. Still, it wasn’t the best peated whisky of the day.

6) Lagavulin 12 Rare By Nature 2020 (Taste 8)

Diageo

ABV: 56.4%

Average Price: $250

The Whisky:

This is last year’s Rare By Nature special release. The juice was aged exclusively in refill American oak and blended to dial in those Islay flavors. The whisky is then bottled at cask strength with no extra fussing.

Bottom Line:

Okay, the lightness in both the body and color of this whisky for an expression that’s both 12-years-old and cask strength (meaning no water was used) is kind of wild. You don’t even need water or a rock to cool it down, it’s that smooth. Still, the peat just wasn’t doing it for me today with all that Band-Aid in the sip.

5) Aberfeldy 12 (Taste 2)

Bacardi

ABV: 40%

Average Price: $45

The Whisky:

This Highland malt is the cornerstone of the much-beloved Dewar’s Blended Scotch. This whisky is a very accessible single malt that spends 12 years resting before it’s married and proofed with that soft Highland water and bottled.

Bottom Line:

This was nice today. It wasn’t quite as welcoming and smooth as the first taste, but it really hit the spot as a subtle sipper with a good honey/fruit edge.

4) Glenmorangie The Lasanta Sherry Cask Finish (Taste 1)

Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy

ABV: 43%

Average Price: $55

The Whisky:

The 12-year-old expression from Glenmorangie spends most of those years maturing in old bourbon casks. The juice is then transferred to Oloroso and Pedro Ximénez Sherry casks for a final maturation. It’s then proofed with Highland water and bottled.

Bottom Line:

This tasted like really goddamn good whisky. A little water or a rock would be well suited to this dram. Though, as I think about it, I really want to use it in a Manhattan.

3) Glenkinchie 2020 Distiller’s Edition (Taste 3)

Diageo

ABV: 43%

Average Price: $85

The Whisky:

This limited edition expression from last year’s Diageo Distiller’s Editions is expertly crafted whisky. The juice has a finishing maturation in a specially made barrel which is constructed from used and new American oak that’s then filled with Amontillado sherry for a month. Once that fortified wine is dumped, the whisky goes in for its final maturation.

Bottom Line:

This is one of those whiskies that just works. And that made it hard to place the top thre. That old Scottish cheese cellar vibe really sang to me in this tasting. I’m definitely coming back to this whisky as a cheese pairing dram.

2) Glenfiddich 12 (Taste 4)

William Grant & Sons

ABV: 40%

Average Price: $50

The Whisky:

This is an entry whisky not only to Speyside but to single malts in general. The juice is aged in a combination of used American and European oak before it’s married, rested, proofed with Speyside’s iconic water, and bottled.

Bottom Line:

I was shocked that this was Glenfiddich. I rarely ever order this because I see it everywhere. But this was just so well-rounded and accessible. I’m definitely going to start using this more in highballs and cocktails and the odd pour every now and then.

1) Cragganmore Distiller’s Edition 2020 (Taste 6)

Diageo

ABV: 40%

Average Price: $85

The Whisky:

Cragganmore is an iconic Scottish distillery. The whisky is matured in sherry casks for 12 years. It’s then transferred into American oak casks that held port for a final maturation phase before proofing and bottling.

Bottom Line:

Nothing really came close to the nuance, accessibility, and just … niceness of this dram. I was thinking about all that fruit and softwood and that fennel nose for a while after this tasting. A wonderful sip.

Part 3: Final Thoughts

Zach Johnston

The Cragganmore really blew me away. It’s so easy to drink with zero off-putting edges.

That being said, I did dig the two peated whiskies but they just weren’t as inviting as the sweet malts today. Now that it’s been a while since I drank these, I’m gravitating back to the Balblair as a highball mixer, the Aberfeldy as a good end-of-the-day dram, and that bloody Glenfiddich. That was the biggest surprise. I don’t know if I simply forgot I liked it or how easy-drinking it is?

Regardless, that stuff really stood out today as a solid sipper.


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