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A Blind Taste Test Of Diageo’s Best Single Malt Scotches For 2020

I love single malt scotch. Three years ago, I leaned toward Ireland with my whiskey preferences, but I’ve been drinking more Scottish whisky during COVID, and I have to say: the stuff is growing on me. So much so, that I decided to do a blind tasting of some of the best scotch whiskies you can buy this year — Diageo’s Rare by Nature 2020 special collection release.

What’s the Rare by Nature collection? Eight iconic single malts from some of the most famous distilleries on earth. Aged from eight to 30 years. With clever barrelling techniques and a whole lot of history. Also, a few hefty price tags.

A little background here: I’ve been professionally tasting whiskey (beer, wine, gin, and every-f*cking-thing else) for nearly a decade now. I say that not to brag, but to emphatically note that I still don’t know most of what’s out there. There’s just so much booze to try. That being said, I do know what I know. And I can call out drams, even in a blind tasting.

This was made abundantly clear on this project. There were three Scottish single malts I know well — one of which I ride or die for — featured in this lineup. On the flip side, I wasn’t overly familiar with the other five whiskies in play. And tasting them blind really opened my mind to diving deeper into each label. In the end, I discovered eight whisky expressions that are all extremely good in very different ways, priced from “maybe I’ll get a bottle for someone I love for Christmas” to “maybe I’ll buy that if I win the lottery one day.”

Check the results and my tasting notes below!

Part I — The Blind Taste

Zach Johnston

Number One

Zach Johnston

The Taste:

There was a nice pear nose on this one that’s sweet and welcoming. The taste really amped that up with an apple candy sweetness that almost reminded me of a Jolly Rancher. There was a nice counterpoint of worn leather and a note of savoriness as the finish lingered and warmed.

The Bottom Line:

This was really nice, but a little sweet for me. I have no clue what it is but I could see cutting it into a highball to calm down the apple candy sweetness.

Number Two

Zach Johnston

The Taste:

There’s a clear ashy peatiness on the nose and it’s already evident that this is a Lagavulin. There’s a nice body of orange zest, spice, and buttery vanilla that leads back to the smoke and peat on the long and winding end.

The Bottom Line:

This is one of the best peaty whiskies out there, in that it doesn’t overdo it on the smoke while also keeping it front-and-center. I’d kill highballs made with this stuff all night long.

Number Three

Zach Johnston

The Taste:

There’s a really buttery cream soda aspect to this that delivers on the palate. The fruit peeks in but it’s really the vanilla-forward cream soda that dominates. The end takes a bit of a turn towards a mossy and wet forest as it slowly fades away.

The Bottom Line:

This is really easy to drink. A little water really amped up the earthy nature of the dram, while holding onto the lighter edge of the cream soda notes.

Number Four

Zach Johnston

The Taste:

There’s a rush of tropical fruits that lean towards banana, but not just banana sweetness. There’s a banana leaf grassiness to the sip, too — which mingles with Christmas spices and plenty of oak.

The Bottom Line:

I’ve never quite had anything like this and it literally made me say, “Woah.” in a good way. The fruit, spice, and oak are so delicate and light that you really don’t need anything with this dram.

Number Five

Zach Johnston

The Taste:

The sweetness in play is butterscotch, which leads towards a baked, spiced apple. The spice leans more towards a rich tobacco smoke for me with a long, spicy, fruity, and buttery finish.

The Bottom Line:

I wrote down that this is “really f*cking good.” And, wow, it is. I’m still thinking about it.

Number Six

Zach Johnston

The Taste:

This one delivers fresh florals next to bright, sweet fruit with a nice dose of oakiness. The sip edges into a black pepper spiciness that’s balanced with an overall creamy texture. The end is subtle and doesn’t overstay its welcome.

The Bottom Line:

I have no clue what this is, but I like it. That being said, it’s the dram I have the hardest time remembering after the fact.

Number Seven

Zach Johnston

The Taste:

Brine, mild smoke, and sweet pears mingle up top and this is 100 percent a Talisker. There’s a salty/sweet/smoky/fattiness to this dram that is exactly like a still-warm brisket smoker that’s smoked thousands of briskets.

Amazingly, the actual body of the whisky is light, approachable, and doesn’t overdo any of those notes.

The Bottom Line:

This doesn’t need anything besides a glass and your lips. For me, this is a spectacular dram.

Number Eight

Zach Johnston

The Taste:

There’s a nice fruit cake note up top with plenty of spice and dark candied fruits in play. The sip has this interplay with dark chocolate and chili spice that helps amp up the Christmas cake fruitiness and sweetness.

The Bottom Line:

This is super easy to drink … or maybe I’m just getting tipsy?

Part II: The Answers

Zach Johnston

Number One: Cragganmore Aged 20 Years

Diageo

ABV: 55.8%
Average Price: $175

The Whisky:

This Speyside whisky was distilled in 1999. That means it spent 20 long years maturing in refill and freshly charred new casks before going in the bottle at cask strength.

This particular age of Cragganmore has never been released before.

Number Two: Lagavulin Aged 12 Years

Diageo

ABV: 56.4%
Average Price: $165 (available soon)

The Whisky:

Lagavulin is one of the most iconic single malts from Islay. This expression was solely matured in refill American oak barrels. The final product is meant to imbue the beauty of Islay in each sip.

Number Three: The Singleton Aged 17 Years

Diageo

ABV: 55.1%
Average Price: $120 (available soon)

The Whisky:

This whisky from one Dufftown was distilled back in 2002. The juice spent 17 years aging in refill American oak hogsheads, which is about a quarter the size of a full barrel. The results were bottled at cask strength.

Number Four: Pittyvaich Aged 30 Years

Diageo

ABV: 50.8%
Average Price: $500 (very limited and available later this year)

The Whisky:

Pittyvaich is a Speyside “ghost distillery.” It’s been closed for 18 years. That means this is a very limited release, with only 7,000 bottles and that’s it … forever.

The juice is the very last of the stock from 1989, finished in first-fill ex-bourbon before bottling.

Number Five: Cardhu Aged 11 Years

Diageo

ABV: 56%
Average Price: $110

The Whisky:

This Speyside whiskey is all about embracing the flower-covered hills around the distillery. The juice is aged in refill, new, and ex-bourbon American oak for eleven years before going into the bottle at cask strength.

Number Six: Dalwhinnie Aged 30 Years

Diageo

ABV: 51.9%
Average Price: $800

The Whisky:

Dalwhinnie has the honor of being the highest altitude distillery in Scotland. This expression is an ultra-rare one-off whisky that was put to rest in 1989 in ex-bourbon hogsheads and left alone for all those decades. 30 years later, there was only enough whisky for 6,978 bottles.

Once they’re gone, that’s it.

Number Seven: Talisker Aged 8 Years

Diageo

ABV: 57.9%
Average Price: $120

The Whisky:

This was the first-ever Talisker to be finished in pot-still Caribbean rum casks. The idea was to enliven the briny seaside aspects of the young juice while adding a deeper sweetness. This whisky really brings something new to the table amongst the salty-smoky whiskies that Talisker is known for.

Number Eight: Mortlach Aged 21 Years

Diageo

ABV: 56.9%
Average Price: $750 (available soon)

The Whisky:

Mortlach was the first “legal” distillery in Dufftown, giving this a classic heritage. But the shingle is also largely unknown, or at least unheralded outside of hardcore scotch aficionados. The whisky is small-batch aged and then finished in Pedro Ximenez and Oloroso sherry seasoned casks, adding some serious depth to the sip.

Part III: Final Thoughts

If I had to rank these from most preferred to least, It’d be something like this…

1. Talisker 8 (hands down — what can I say, I’m a sucker for smoky Texas brisket in a glass)
2. Cardhu 11
3. Pittyvaich 30 (biggest surprise)
4. Mortlach 21
5. Lagavulin 12
6.The Singleton 17
7. Dalwhinnie 30
8. Cragganmore 20 (too much apple candy for me)

All of that being said, I also ranked Talisker higher because it sneaks into the affordable range for a special occasion. Some of the others I really dug — Pittyvaich and Mortlach — are squarely outside of that range.

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