Three stellar drams at reasonable prices.
While at a recent party, a friend introduced me to their friend with the line "Tom's a whiskey connoisseur." Though I do not use that term, I get the point: I've enjoyed considerably more drams of whisky (without the "e") than most people I meet. I have attended numerous tastings during the past few years, training my palate in the process, and began writing tasting notes.
The first question I'm asked, of course, is what is my tipple of choice?
I like a good bargain. Even though it may seem illogical at first, the fact is, at least in the US, one may purchase excellent single malt whisky for $50 or less. My top three choices for drinking like Don Draper without breaking the bank are below.
Highland Park 12 Year
($41.99 at BevMo!)
F. Paul Pacult, one of America's foremost spirits authorities and the publisher of Spirit Journal since 1991, calls Highland Park 18 Year "peerless" and his "all-time favorite spirit." It feels like Christmas Morning when I drink it; I've literally converted non-whisky drinkers because of it. While not as spectacular as the 18 Year, Highland Park's 12 Year may be the best whisky in its class. I first drank it five years ago while in Alaska.
Located in the Orkney Islands, Highland Park Distillery is Scotland's northernmost whisky distillery. The island's rugged terrain contributes to the rich character of Highland Park single malts. In particular, the lack of trees on the island provides the mild smoky/peaty flavors; the more tree roots in the peat, the more intense the smoky flavor. As a result, Highland Park whisky is more full bodied than a typical single malt from Speyside, but much more subtle in flavor than those made by Laphroaig or Talisker.
The nose is floral with a light grassiness. On the palate one will taste honey, citrus and cream, a well-balanced butterscotch or caramel.
Highland Park 12 Year is a steal for the price and could easily become a staple in one's liquor cabinet.
Cardhu 12 Year Single Malt
($45.99 at BevMo!)
A sentimental Speyside favorite first introduced to me by my friend Ian (his father was Cardhu's whisky maker before retiring roughly two decades ago), Cardhu distillery sits high on the Northern banks of the River Spey in Moraytown, in Speyside, the "Napa Valley of Whisky." The whisky presents two challenges.
The first is finding it in the US. A majority of Cardhu single malt reportedly is used as part of Johnnie Walker blends; of the remaining, few bottles make it outside of the UK and Spain, Cardhu's primary markets.
The second challenge is moving the glass away from my nose. Cardhu's distinctive wildflower aromas (heather) are so pleasant that I find myself holding the glass just to enjoy the scent. Couple the spirity nose with the well-balanced taste with a warming, dryish finish (I do eventually drink it), and it is easy to understand why Cardhu 12 Year won Double Gold Medal at the 2011 San Francisco World Sprits Competition.
Glenrothes Select Reserve
($39.99 at BevMo!)
The Glenrothes, another Speyside whisky, is different from many other single malts in that since 1993 its bottlings are determined by vintage not age (their moniker is "maturity, not age"). Instead of drinking a dram of their 18 Year, one instead will swill their 1994. The Glenrothes 1987, unfortunately close to extinction, is exceptional; the 1975 I sampled tasted like dried apricot, a sign that it was past its prime.
The Glenrothes also sells a Select Reserve, a blend of several Glenrothes vintages, as part of its non-vintage line. When drinking it, you'll smell zesty citrus fruit on the nose and perhaps some subtle vanilla. The palate is silky with light honey; you'll definitely taste the vanilla.
As with the other two single malts, a few drops of water open up the flavors of the spirit by releasing the oils in the whisky, producing a deeper, more complex flavor with buttery notes. Just be careful not to add too much water to this whisky, as it may dilute more subtle flavors; you may be left just tasting the butter.
All three brands recommended above prove that exceptional Scotch whisky does not need to be expensive, thereby making whisky tasting enjoyable for many more future aficionados.