Single malt Scotch whisky is a two-sided coin. On one side are the value bottles that don’t taste like value bottles at all. I’m talking ten to twelve-year-old whiskies from some of the most well-regarded distilleries in Scotland. The other side is comprised of the big money bottles. While these long-aged single malts can start around $200, they can fetch thousands of dollars (especially on the aftermarket).
But where is the true cut-off in terms of flavor and value? Are $200 bottles really that much better than, say, a very solid $60 bottle? I’m not so sure. I believe that the differences in flavor and aroma are often so slight that the average (even not-so-average) whisky drinker can’t completely discern the differences.
To put this little theory to the test, I’m once again embarking on a blind taste test. This time around, I took four $200 (and beyond) bottles and paired them with four bottles in the $60 range.
Part 1: The Taste
Since there’s a big price difference, there should be a huge difference in the rankings, right? Not necessarily, as this is based solely on my senses of smell and taste. Just because one single malt is over $200 and another is $55 doesn’t necessarily mean that I’ll be able to discern the quality difference. We’re not talking bottom-shelf swill and $1,000 bottles here.
Our lineup is as follows:
- The Dalmore 18
- The Balvenie Portwood 21
- Glendronach Allardice 18
- Glenmorangie Signet
- Craigellachie 13
- Aberlour 12
- Glenfiddich 14
- Glen Scotia Double Cask
Let the blind tasting commence!
The nose is a mixture of spice and sweetness with candied orange peels, toffee, cinnamon, and vanilla beans taking center stage. Sipping this single malt reveals hints of raisins, citrus zest, berries, and sweet sherry — with just a hint of spicy pepper at the finish.
From my notes: “What an insanely luscious opener.”
When I nosed this whisky, I found aromas of vanilla beans, candied apples, a teensy bit of stone fruit, and just a hint of smoke. The palate is crazy complex. I noticed dried cherries, raisins, sweet caramel-like malts, brown sugar, and a gentle smoky finish.
This isn’t smoky like an Islay malt. The smoke is more like a compliment to the other flavors.
First, I was struck by the nose of caramel apples, candied orange peels, and a nice hit of wood char. The palate is loaded with flavors of caramelized sugar, sweet cinnamon, wood char, and slight spices. It all ends with a nice sweet, spicy finish.
The only problem with this whisky is that it’s a little sweeter and woody than I’d prefer a single malt to be.
One sniff and I was totally aware that this was a sherry aged (at least sherry rested) whisky. The fruity, sherry flavor almost knocked me to the ground. There’s also butterscotch and vanilla in there, attempting to sneak through. Sipping it was more of the same. On top of the prevalent sherry, there were also hints of dried fruits, toffee, and ripe berries.
Overall, a little sweet for my liking.
The nose is littered with scents like salted caramel, candied apples, vanilla beans, and dried fruits. On the palate, I found hints of chocolate fudge, dried cherries, fresh berries, and more vanilla. The finish is sweet, mellow, and memorable.
There’s a surprising amount of chocolate aroma on the nose. This is followed by dried fruits, toffee, and subtle spices. Sipping this whisky, I found notes of candied orange peel, chocolate fudge, brown sugar, maple syrup, and a gentle, nutty sweetness throughout.
Complex aromas of dried cherries, raisins, vanilla, and buttercream frosting are found on the nose. When I took the first sip, I found a symphony of maple candy, butterscotch, brown butter, dried fruits, and a pleasant hit of sweetness and wood char at the very end.
The nose was a bit abrasive for my liking. There was a hint of smoked bacon, a bit of caramel, and dried fruits. The palate was nutty and was highlighted with caramel apple flavors, but that was about it. The finish was hot, spicy, and a little much for my palate.
Part 2: The Ranking
I love partaking in blind taste tests, especially when they involve single malt whisky. The flavor profiles, depending on the regions and type of aging, can be so vastly different. There are bound to be exciting lower-priced bottles that find their way higher up in the rankings than their prices dictate.
Are you as excited as me? Keep reading to see how they stacked up.
8) Craigellachie 13 (Taste 8)
Average Price: $60
For years, Craigellachie was simply used as one of the whiskies in the Dewar’s blend. First released as a single malt in 2014, it’s referred to as the “bad boy of Speyside” because of its bold, aggressive, rich, slightly smoky flavor.
This was a fairly aggressive whisky, to say the least. It was spicier than I’m used to but not completely unpleasant. Just not as mellow as I’d prefer.
7) GlenDronach Allardice 18 (Taste 4)
Average Price: $190
Named for GlenDronach’s founder James Allardice, this 18-year-old whisky was aged totally in Oloroso sherry casks. It’s known for its fruity, sweet, sherry-centric, mellow, almost dessert-like flavor.
There’s “mellow and smooth with a nice sweetness” and then there’s cloyingly sweet borderline dessert whisky. Don’t get me wrong, this is a great whisky. I’m just only going to drink it paired with sticky toffee pudding or some chocolate.
6) Glenfiddich 14 Bourbon Barrel Reserve (Taste 3)
Average Price: $59.99
This single malt was created as a gateway between Scotch and bourbon drinkers. It’s a little bit of Scotland and a little bit of Kentucky in one tasty little package. This 14-year-old single malt is aged exclusively in ex-bourbon barrels before being finished in new, charred American oak barrels from a cooperage in Kentucky.
While many single malts are known for their flavors of vanilla, citrus, and toffee, this whisky relies a lot more on the charred wood flavor usually found in an American bourbon.
That char was… fine. But I didn’t love it.
5) Aberlour 12 Double Cask (Taste 7)
Average Price: $63
There’s a reason that bartenders are in love with Aberlour 12 Double Cask. It’s because the folks at Aberlour turned the flavor up to eleven by maturing this whisky in both oak barrels as well as sherry casks. The result is a well-rounded, slightly sweet, rich whisky.
This is a really well-balanced whisky. There’s a nice fruity sweetness throughout that makes me think there was some sherry finishing, but also a nice rich, caramel-malty flavor.
4) The Balvenie 21 PortWood Finish (Taste 2)
Average Price: $240
This is the flagship whisky in The Balvenie’s Port Wood series. It was aged for 21 years in oak barrels before finishing in 30-year-old port pipes. It’s well-known for its mix of sweetness, richness, and slight smoky flavor.
This is the kind of whisky I’d want to drink after a heavy meal. It ticks all of my whisky boxes. It’s sweet, rich, and subtly smoky.
3) Glenmorangie Signet (Taste 6)
Average Price: $230
This award-winning single malt was crafted from a blend of two very different whiskies. The first was made using single estate Cadboll malt and the second was made using malted chocolate barely. It was aged in American oak barrels. While there’s no age statement, it’s believed that the whiskies included are some of Glenmorangie’s rarest and oldest.
This is a truly unique whisky. It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly makes it so special. Perhaps it’s the chocolate, caramel, and citrus elements. Or perhaps it’s the fact that it’s so incredibly smooth and sippable.
2) Glen Scotia Double Cask (Taste 5)
Average Price: $56
At one point, Campbeltown was home to more than thirty distilleries. There are a lot fewer these days with the likes of Springbank and Glen Scotia leading the way. This memorable single malt from the latter was aged in both first-fill bourbon casks as well as Pedro Ximénez sherry butts.
The is a very well-balanced single malt whisky. There’s a great caramel backbone that is complemented by a nice fruitiness. A great after-hours sipper and, obviously, an incredible value buy.
1) The Dalmore 18 (Taste 1)
Average Price: $240
Few Scotch brands conjure luxury more than The Dalmore. Even the bottle looks fancier than its counterparts. Its 18-year-old expression is first matured for fourteen years in American oak casks before being transferred to Matusalem sherry butts for three years prior to spending one more year in another sherry cask.
While I enjoyed every dram on this list (to some degree). None were as memorable and decadent as this one. It’s clear that this whisky spent a great deal of time in sherry casks because it’s sweet, fruity, and amazingly mellow. But it’s also obvious due to the vanilla and chocolate flavors that it didn’t spend its whole life in sherry. Overall, an amazing pour.
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