No Beer, No Fear: An Incomplete Guide to “Approachable” Single Malts

Before a recent trip to see my folks, my dad asked me to bring home several bottles of single malt that he could keep as “house” scotches. Two criteria: inexpensive and little to no peat smoke.

When I visit home I look forward to Sundays. At one o’clock we gather around the flat screen and tune to the Patriots game, but not before my dad, brother and I agonizingly debate what to eat. Wings, pizza, homemade “bar food”? We spend WAY too much time on this. After near-paralyzing indecision, my brother was charged with chicken nachos and guac. Perfect. Until fifteen minutes before kickoff, we realized that we had NO BEER (well, actually, one light beer, but that clearly does not count.) Panic.

“Dad, see if Mom can go get beer.”

“Why do I have to ask Mom? You ask Mom. Besides, I want to drink today, not three days from now… You guys want wine?”

“Wine? Dad, we’re eating nachos and watching football. What about those scotches I brought? Want to taste through those?”

Brief hesitation.

“Fine, but we’re not spitting.”

And so began a tasting of fourteen (no, I did not lug home fourteen bottles; he had most of them already) reasonably priced (mostly under $50) un- and lightly peated single malts (with an exception or two) from the Highland, Island, Speyside and Islay regions.

Although perfect entries into the smoke-free, value single malt category, we shirked the Lowland distillery Auchentoshan’s “Classic” and “12-year” drams on account of our familiarity with them. Same with the delicious, honeyed Cragganmore 12. We also skipped Campbeltown’s Springbank 10 because fourteen scotches seemed enough for one sitting.

I took a stab at ordering the bottles by flavor and body so as not to overpower what would follow. Apart from the obvious – peat goes last – this was art, not science.

We started in Speyside with the most popular scotch in America, Glenlivet 12. My faded memories of Glenlivet 12 were of bitter spice notes and a finish like Usain Bolt. Returning to it, I picked up tropical fruit and spice notes that prompted me to use it in an autumn cocktail. As a base for a concoction with ingredients like maple syrup, pumpkin spice, ginger and citrus, this dram found its niche in my bar.

“The authentic taste of malt whisky, untainted by peat smoke.” – Glengoyne, straddling the Highland/Lowland line, prides itself on the distinction that it air-dries its barley as opposed to burning peat to heat it. The distillery also boasts the slowest distillation process in Scotland. The result is a genuinely smokeless malt largely stripped of bitter sulfuric notes. To my taste it was viscous and sherry-sweet. French toast with syrup. Perhaps not as complex as what was to come, we agreed that Glengoyne 10 is a fantastic bargain house whisky for those who enjoy sweet, buttery spirits.

After a brief detour, we returned to Speyside with Cardhu’s 12 year, which was our “Rashomon” whisky. For me, honey and toasted spice on the nose coalesced in the mouth as Honey Nut Cheerios. The mouthfeel was a touch thick and oily, but the finish fairly quick. My dad got cinnamon, ripe fruit and cereal, a medium to full body, and a longer finish. My brother found it smooth and pleasant enough. A perfect example of the subjectivity of palate; you are on your own with this one.

But not with Aberlour, one of my (family’s) favorite Speyside producers. The nose on Aberlour 12 was elegant, floral, honeyed, and with sherry fruit redolent of candied orange peel. Lightness in the mouth betrayed the complexity of this spirit, which elicited thoughts of gingerbread cookies in the oven, dried apricot, and fields of wildflowers and heather. I would happily make this my aperitif whisky.

Glen Garioch’s Founder’s Reserve is a young kid with aspirations and plenty of potential. Youthful yet complex. A touch of dough on the nose with layers of marshmallow and fruit, accented with spice bread and more fruit on the palate. The finish was not terribly long, but it seemed just right. My dad was particularly impressed.

Pleasantly sweet wood was our strongest impression of the next whisky, The Balvenie 12 Doublewood, which predominantly sees bourbon barrels but is finished in old sherry butts. At once soft and rich, this whisky is a perfect appetizer for more complex offerings.

AnCnoc 12 was unlike any other scotch of the day. It brimmed with a grassy, saccharine citrus flavor I likened to sweet lemongrass. In spite of salted caramel, cream and gentle spice notes, the sugary lemongrass kept rearing its head. A whisky I will revisit for its uniqueness and approachable price point.

Exclusive to Astor, the independent bottler Dun Bheagan’s 15-year expression of Glen Grant was full of ripe honeydew melon and pear with a fragrant nose and a touch of lingering pepper on the finish. A gentle wisp of smoke turned my brother off this dram, but in the lightly peated category, my dad and I loved it for its balance of lightness and depth. It is among the Astor staff’s favorite Dun Bheagan offerings.

Dalmore immediately struck us as rich and profound in the glass. Half the juice has seen bourbon, the other half Matusalem sherry, but additive caramel coloring also had something to do with the appearance of maturity and depth. Illusion or not, it segued to a nose of buckwheat honey and cinnamon-y grain. The sipper tasted of molasses, over-steeped Earl Grey, and orange zest. Dark chocolate and tobacco notes had my dad, a cigar man, wanting to light up.

After Dalmore we broke the rules. A couple of years back my dad picked up a bottle of Jura 16 at Edinburgh duty free. Not only do we not carry it at Astor – we have their 10-year, Prophecy, and Superstition – but it also falls outside the reasonably priced category. We tasted it anyway. Salted caramel, marzipan, esters, and a touch of brine on the nose, in the mouth it was sweet and savory with a dash of pepper all beneath a layer of sugary cream. This one went down all too easily.

As did the next whisky. Going into the tasting, I knew Highland Park 12 was a frontrunner. From the Isle of Orkney, known for its heathery peat, Highland Park produces classic sherry-cask whisky that cleans up at spirit awards around the world. Twenty percent of the distillery’s 12-year expression goes into first fill casks, imbuing the whisky with a rich golden hue. The aromas off the glass were heather, honey and fresh-cut tropical fruit. Round, full and sweet in the mouth, it dried out quickly, yielding to gentle heather peat that lingered. A work of art, this malt is a steal. Even my brother kept returning to this dram despite his aversion to smoke.

Drifting over to Islay, the next two bottles were from my favorite distillery in Scotland, Bruichladdich. With a profound sense of place, an emphasis on sustainable local sourcing, and an inclination to experiment, Bruichladdich isn’t kidding when it refers to itself as a “progressive” distillery. Master distiller Jim McEwan handpicks specific casks, blends them, and further ages them in French Grenache casks to create “Rocks.” The name does not imply how you ought to drink this dram, though you could enjoy it over ice. Rather, it is an homage to Islay’s “oldest rocks in the whisky world” through which water has filtered for over one billion years. A vibrant, oceanic character escaped the glass, along with syrupy stewed berries. The palate was at once rich and lively: vanilla bean ice cream topped with spiced berries and a touch of sharp brine. Not having the longest finish of the bunch, Rocks made its impression early and strong.

The Bruichladdich 12 Year Second Edition does a slower dance than its sibling. Unlike Rocks, it only sees American oak and has the gentlest touch of peat at just 3 ppm. In typical ‘Laddie fashion, the Atlantic ebbed from the glass, and orchard fruit was laced with a fine thread of smoke. A medium, buttery texture, we also got sea-salted caramel, ripe stone fruit, and a bit of moss and brine. It wrapped with a gradual finish of sweet wood, nuts and pepper. This is a dram I would point smokeless scotch drinkers to when they are ready to baby-step into smoke.

Finish line in sight, we reached the end of the course. In spite of my dad’s request, I still brought home a characteristic, peatier Islay malt: Bowmore Legend. Bowmore, Islay’s oldest distillery, produces gorgeously peated malts with a lively seaside character. In my opinion one of the best values in Scotland, Bowmore Legend is bright and golden in the glass with smoky, salty and medicinal notes on the nose. The integration of savory and sweet in the mouth is perfect: white chocolate with a dash of seawater beneath a veil of smoke. My brother couldn’t really hang, on account of the peat, but my dad and I kept coming back to this steal of a bottle.

Perhaps you aren’t ready to swap suds for scotch on Sundays, but there is nothing like a warming single malt to offset the brrrr of winter. Hat and mittens for the soul. Every day at Astor, multiple customers ask for Johnnie Black, in part because the world of single malts is an expensive curiosity. I get it: Faced with a plethora of options, each with distinctive traits, who wants to invest in a pricey malt they fear they will be spitting out when they can simply return to familiarity? Truth is, selecting a single malt does not have to be like reading a Chinese paper, and hopefully our Sunday without beer will help you decipher this exciting world. Trust me, a single malt at these price points with little to no smoke is a risk worth taking.

The nachos finally emerged from the oven (note to self: do not taste fourteen scotches on an empty stomach), and we poured ourselves a few of our favorite drams. My dad returned to Glen Garioch, Aberlour and Highland Park. I beelined to Bruichladdich. My brother served himself a second plate of nachos.

Who needs beer when you have single malt scotch?

 

Bottles We Tasted:
Glenlivet 12 Yr.
Glengoyne 10 yr. Single Malt
Cardhu 12 Yr. Speyside
Aberlour 12Yr. Speyside
Glen Garioch 1797 Founder’s Reserve (Out of Stock)
Balvenie Doublewood 12 Yr.
AnCnoc 12 yr Single Malt Whisky
Dun Bheagan Glen Grant 15 yr. Bourbon Barrel
Dalmore 12 Yr.
Highland Park 12 Yr.
Bruichladdich 12 yr
Bowmore Legend Islay
Bruichladdich Rocks