Single-malt scotch has exploded in the last five years, with sales increasing 10 percent annually and prices of some bottles rising as much as 50 percent in 2005 alone. Historic distilleries have reopened; more special editions are being released; and more malts are 30 years and older. To help sort through it all, we asked David “Robbo” Robertson, former master distiller of the Macallan and now partner in Jon, Mark and Robbo’s Easy Drinking Whiskey Co., to lead three male and three female editors in a tasting.
The Glenlivet ’64, $2,000
Smells like a subtle perfume. A smooth, honeyed opening turns into a long, winding journey with many peaks and valleys. If you can spend this much, you won’t be disappointed (Park Avenue Liquors, 292 Madison Ave., nr. 41st St.; 212-685-2442).
Bowmore, 34-year, $800
Extremely smooth for an Islay, with strong sherry flavor and lots of fruit. Yet the taste evaporates quickly, and it’s not distinctive enough to warrant the price (67 Wines and Spirits, 179 Columbus Ave., nr. 67th St.; 212-724-6767).
Highland Park, 30-year, cask strength, $365
Tasted neat, this 48.1 percent alcohol scotch is like a punch in the face. Add water and it opens up into a complex mix of spice and smoke (Park Avenue Liquors).
The Balvenie PortWood, 21-year, $80
Smells like cherry leather, thanks to port casks. With a big, full taste with smoke on the back, yet no bite, it’s the single malt for people who like blends (Astor Wines & Spirits, 12 Astor Pl., at Lafayette St.; 212-674-7500).
Glenmorangie, 12-year, port-wood finish, $65
Peachy in color and oddly fizzy, it dances on the tongue. Sweet and light enough to go with dessert, delicious neat, and a great entry point (Morrell & Co., 1 Rockefeller Plaza, at 49th St.; 212-981-1106).
Laphroaig, 10-year, cask strength, $60
Medicinal strength—57.3 percent—for the frozen tundra. Definitely an acquired taste, but if you like your whisky fiery and challenging, there is no other label (Astor Wines & Spirits).
The Macallan, 12-year, $48
A safe bet for the brand-conscious. Perfect balance between sweet-toffee and sour-apple tastes makes this Speyside malt a smooth yet three-dimensional dram (Sherry Lehman, 679 Madison Ave., at 61st St.; 212-838-7500).
Auchentoshan, three-wood, $46
A lovely, perfumey smell (thanks to those three wood casks) is followed by a disappointingly medicinal taste. Experienced palates only (Crossroads Wine and Liquor, 55 W. 14th St., nr. Sixth Ave.; 212-924-3060).
Dalmore Cigar Malt, $35
True to its name, it tastes like a cigar. Sadly, it’s a cherry-flavored Phillies Blunt, not a Cuban. The overly sweet, one-dimensional honey flavor means this is a regift (Cabrini Wines & Liquors, 831-833 W. 181st St., at Cabrini Ave.; 212-568-3290).
Glen Garioch, 10-year, $20
There’s little depth here, but it’s surprisingly smooth, with a slightly sweet, nutty flavor typical of Highland malts. Think of it as an easy dram for everyday drinking (Astor Wines & Spirits).Next: How to Drink Whisky
How to Drink Whisky
Tasting tips from master distiller David “Robbo” Robertson.(1) Drink before lunch or dinner. Your senses are heightened as you begin to get really hungry. (2) Group your scotches from mild to robust. That way, your tongue won’t get anaesthetized and you’ll be able to pick out distinct flavors even after ten tastes. (3) Use a small wine or sherry glass. The top of the glass is narrower than the base, so all the delicious aromas are concentrated there. (4) Add roughly the same amount of water as whisky. Sampling whisky neat is likely to hurt the nose and numb the tongue, rendering both senses less acute than they should be. Use bottled water. Tap is chlorinated, and its smell could affect what you taste. (5) Look at the color of the whisky. It’s an indicator of cask type, strength, and age. A pale yellow malt usually means it was fermented in bourbon barrels; a dark mahogany color signifies sherry casks. Beware: Many companies add spirit caramel to artificially darken the color. (6) Tilt the glass. The liquor that slides down the side is called the “tears”—the slower they run, the thicker, older, and stronger the whisky—a sign of quality. (7) Watch for bubbles. If they persist within a few seconds of pouring, you’re probably dealing with a cask-strength whisky and you may need to add more water. If tasted undiluted, whiskies this strong will go round your heart rapidly and you may overheat. (8) Price isn’t everything. Some old whiskies taste like sucking on a log. If you like that, great. If not, buy 100 bottles of a more reasonably priced dram instead.
On the Taste Trail
Scotland’s single-malt regions.1. The Highlands is the largest region and therefore the hardest to define. Coast whiskies might have a touch of smoke, while inland products tend to be more honeyed.
2. Islay malts are the most distinctive, easily identified by their smoky smell and peaty taste.
3. Speyside is home to more than half the distilleries in the country; they produce sweet, fruity, and very drinkable whisky.
4. Lowland distilleries number fewer than in any other region; their whiskies are lighter and softer, with citrus overtones.
GlossaryMalt What’s left after barley has germinated (thereby changing the starch to sugar). Single malts are purer and more distinctive than blends.
Cask The barrel used to store whisky is usually oak and always secondhand (for flavor). Distilleries sometimes use sherry, bourbon, and port casks for flavor variety.
Cask strength Whisky that has not been diluted after aging. Often more than 50 percent alcohol by volume.
Peat Dense vegetation found in large fields throughout Scotland. Used as fuel, also burned to dry malted barley, which accounts for the smoky taste of many whiskies.
Whiskey vs. whisky The former is the Irish spelling; the latter, the Scottish.