Guest Post: Top 5 Scotch Whiskies for Noobs

As you can see from the name of this site, we like to talk about whiskey with an “e” around here, focusing on the wonders of American distilling.  But some folks are more worldly than us, and their interests in booze stretch far across the Atlantic.  They want to know more about Scotch whisky, or whiskey without the “e” as we like to call it.  So we’ve brought in Keith Wood, a whisky expert who runs the aptly-named site Whisky Emporium.  He’s put together his Top 5 Scotch Whiskies for Noobs, and has been quite generous with his knowledge.  Take it away Keith! 

Keith Wood from Whisky Emporium

A big “thank you” to Don and Jim for inviting me to follow up on Don’s recent  article about his top five whiskeys for noobs with a comparable article about my own whisky recommendations for noobs.

I’ll try to keep this within the realm of “whisky for noobs” and do my utmost from pontificating about the delights of closed distilleries, rare bottlings and hard to find drams for silly amounts of money. Damn, so there’ll be no St. Magdalene, Inchgower, Glen Mhor or many other seriously good but pretty expensive and hard to find stuff. What I will suggest should be good solid whiskies with not only quality, but also value for money and not too difficult to source, unless of course, you live in one of the ‘dry’ States, in which case there’s not a lot I can do for you other than to make you drool!

I will also attempt to give you an insight into various different styles of whisky, including fruity, peaty, maritime, smooth and rich, but as I mention peaty I would quickly like to reply to a post by Jim in Don’s previous article which talked about peaty water.  Various Scottish distilleries are indeed famous for their highly peated whiskies but the peatiness doesn’t actually come from the water. It comes from the fact that peat is burned to create the heat and smoke used to dry the barley in the germination process. The phenols from the peat smoke permeate the barley and thus create the peatiness which is measured as PPM (parts per million).

Anyway, back to some recommendations;

1. The Glenlivet

The first distillery I would like to mention is pretty much a household name and was once such a pseudonym for quality that other distilleries effectively stole or ‘borrowed’ the name for their own whiskies. I am of course talking about The Glenlivet which is situated in Speyside and was first granted a license in 1824 which turned it from an illegal to a legal distillery. Such was the reputation of Glenlivet that other distilleries in the area started to use the name to try and associate themselves with a brand of quality. This was stopped in 1984 when ‘The Glenlivet’ won a court case to stop others using their name which until then had been seen on many labels, such as Miltonduff-Glenlivet, Tomintoul-Glenlivet .. etc.

So as you peruse the shelves of your local stores and see offerings from “The Glenlivet” think of smooth and fruity. The 12y edition is a fine drink with flavours of malt and fruit (think light fruit cocktail) and will never let you down. If you manage to find the 18y edition you will be rewarded with aromas of summer fruit (think apricots & peaches) and a rich, creamy palate including fruit, nuts and just a hint of coconut right at the end.
My personal tasting notes for The Glenlivet expressions may be found here;

2. Highland Park

For my second recommendation we travel to Scotland’s most northerly distillery, a claim which it wins by a half mile from its neighbour Scapa, the second most northerly one. I am of course talking about Highland Park on Orkney and I can best describe Highland Park as being synonymous with the Scottish countryside itself. Just imagine a weekend hike through the Scottish moorlands comprising heather, bracken and fresh air, with a hint of honey and very light smoke thrown into the mix for good measure. This is Highland Park at its best!

The range begins with a 12y expression which contains not only that Scottish countryside, but also a hint of almond and just a touch of fallen leaves.

Should you try the 18y expression you will not be disappointed. It does a little more, but this one is an absolute delight with all that countryside encompassed in a much more creamy experience which also includes hints of smoke and light peat.
Once again, my own HP tasting notes and experiences may be found here;

3. Dalmore & Glenfarclas

My next recommendations are more to do with a certain style of whisky rather than a single distillery as we explore how Scotch is made, or more specifically, matured.
You are all familiar with bourbon which must be matured in brand new casks. Well Scotch is different as it is almost exclusively matured in used casks (barrels) and the two main types are (your own) bourbon ones, or those which have previously been used for maturing sherry.
In this respect I would like to mention two distilleries which are famous for their use of excellent sherry casks; Dalmore & Glenfarclas.
Sherry cask matured whiskies are easily recognised by their richer, darker colour and also by the aromas and flavours of rich nuts, dark fruits, matured wood, leather, marzipan and other similar delights.
The Dalmore 12y is a good example of this style as it exhibits dark fruits (bramble, blackcurrant, raisins) within a gentle creaminess which also offers hints of butterscotch and all at a good price.
My Dalmore experiences;

Glenfarclas is another big name in Scotch but remarkably has managed to stay independent and is famous for their sherry cask policy. The 12y expression is a combination of those dark fruits, candy floss, butterscotch and slightly spicy toasted almonds. Thenif you move up to the Glenfarclas 105 or older expressions the rich delights on offer can be sublime. Glenfarclas is also renowned for value for money or a ‘big bang for your bucks’ which can’t be a bad thing!
Glenfarclas tasting notes;

4. The Macallan

My fourth and penultimate recommendation is one which many people would have included in my ‘sherry cask’ section above as The Macallan is also renowned for their use of excellent sherry casks. In fact throughout the 1980’s & 1990’s they built a reputation as the best whisky in the world on this policy.
Since then, their range has more or less split into two very different ranges; The ‘Fine Oak’ one and also the ‘Sherry’ range.
The Fine Oak range is based around mixing whisky matured in both bourbon barrels and sherry casks, but with the emphasis on the bourbon barrels. These are obviously slightly lighter whiskies with aromas and flavours of fresh wood, flora, herbs and even a fresh leafiness. Try the 12y it’s a decent dram.
As I mentioned, Macallan built their reputation on their sherry cask policy and for me this is where their magnificence really lies. The 12y is a good example of this, but if you can find a bottle of the 10y Cask Strength edition you’ll be rewarded with a 10y whisky that is truly magnificent. Budget a little more to the 18y sherry cask editions and you’ll get to use that phrase “awesome” which is so freely thrown around these days.
My own Macallan experiences;

5. Ardbeg & Laphroaig

Finally and ‘about time’ I hear you gasp, I move on to the phenomena that is known as phenols or peat and, although various distilleries now offer peated expressions, I wish to stick to the renowned home of peat that is Islay!
A Hebridean island off the West coast of Scotland with a land mass of 50,000 hectares or 500 square kilometres, with just over 3,000 inhabitants and more than 200 committees, but also home to 30,000 sheep and 60,000 geese!
It has eight working distilleries; Ardbeg, Bowmore, Bruichladdich, Bunnahabhain, Caol Ila, Kilchoman, Lagavulin and Laphroaig, plus one malting which also used to be a distillery; Port Ellen.

I’ll not go through them all, but suffice to say many of these are true peat monsters!
If you want a rich dose of peat and smoke, almost like chewing a piece of Islay itself then you cannot go wrong with a bottle of Ardbeg 10y.
My Ardbeg notes and experiences;

If you fancy mixing your peat into a cocktail which includes not only the earth itself, but also a good dose of salty Atlantic ocean, sea air and a side order of seaweed marinated in iodine then there’s only one choice and it’s Laphroaig 10y.

It may be worth noting here that during those times of prohibition, Laphroaig was the only whisky allowed into The States as it was considered ‘medicinal’ and not whisky!
My Laphroaig (pronounced ‘La-Froyg’) tasting notes;

Slànite Mhath
Keith  Wood
Whisky Emporium

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Categories: Scotch Whisky


Craft beer nerd, frequent beer blogger and occasional home brewer.

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24 Comments on “Guest Post: Top 5 Scotch Whiskies for Noobs”

  1. mikemoriendi
    June 28, 2010 at 11:37 am #

    Awesome. Thanks for this as I am trying to become a Scotch noob.

    • Don
      June 28, 2010 at 11:43 am #

      Mike and all:
      As many of you know I have sworn off Scotch for Whiskey with the “e”. This was due to an unfortunate episode in college when I had far too much cheap scotch. Ever since I haven’t been able to touch the stuff. This post, however has given me some courage to go back and try again. Of course I’ll let you know all about it.

    • June 28, 2010 at 11:45 am #

      I am, too. I know Don had a college episode with Scotch and now stays away from the stuff (I think it’s part of a parole agreement, along with staying at least 50 feet away from chickens and avoiding latex bodysuits). Anyway, I’m curious about this stuff and might dive in. I’m thinking Ardbeg – go for the deep end. Let’s chew on a Scottish island!

      • mikemoriendi
        June 28, 2010 at 9:41 pm #

        Thanks to BrewDog’s Paradox Isle of Arran I have wanted to try the Islay’s most of all. I love the peaty smell and taste.

  2. Rob Crozier
    June 28, 2010 at 11:58 am #

    Great post! I’ve gone the complete opposite route – starting with Scotch whisky and now delving into American whiskey. I have tried almost all of the whiskys listed with the exception of Ardbeg and they are all excellent. I’ve found that Scotch whisky is becoming a luxury item for me as most of the bottles listed cost between $50 – $75 a bottle whereas American whiskey can be as inexpensive as $25 for a good quality bottle. Thanks to Don, I have jumped into the ring of tasting what America has to offer and have enjoyed it immensely.

    • June 28, 2010 at 12:48 pm #

      Have you tried Stagg yet, Rob? Keith and Don and Mike from Thank Heaven for Beer all seem to think it’s the bees knees.

      • Rob Crozier
        June 28, 2010 at 3:03 pm #

        I have not tried Stagg yet – its a bit pricey at $75 a bottle. I picked up Bulleit over the weekend but haven’t tried it just yet.

  3. June 28, 2010 at 12:04 pm #

    Oh dear, I really must proof-read a little more carefully. Sorry for the couple of glaring errors but I hope you still get the idea.

    Don, I meet so many people who say something like “No, I don’t like whisky. I still remember that fateful day at college …….” The fact is that single malts are so varied in flavours and style that I insist there is a whisky for everyone, no matter what you encountered or did in those halcyon days, you just haven’t found ‘yours’ yet.

    Slàinte Mhath,

    • June 28, 2010 at 12:42 pm #

      Thanks for putting this together Keith. I’ve been curious to learn more about Scotch, but my brother is totally useless in this regard. Ever since that incident in college involving two bottles of Scoresby, four flaming marshmallows and a shaved lamb, he has sworn the stuff off.

      It’s nice to have a place to start.

  4. June 28, 2010 at 12:11 pm #

    Technically I believe I “own” a 1’x1′ piece of Laphroaig’s property.

    • June 28, 2010 at 12:38 pm #

      Woohoo – party on Sean’s patch of peat!!

    • June 28, 2010 at 1:02 pm #

      I believe that you can technically call yourself a Scottish ‘Laird’ as a land-owner of 1sq Foot of Islay and as such, Scotland.
      This has been a great marketing coup from Laphroaig and if you turn up at the distillery they will even pay you rent in the form of a miniature bottle of Laphroaig 10y.

      It’s a great dram too.

  5. June 28, 2010 at 12:25 pm #

    Great post by Keith, who happens to live a stone’s throw away from me here in the deepest heart of darkest Bavaria.

    You certainly can’t go wrong with this selection. And any noob who has tasted them all ain’t no noob anymore and will be eager to move on to the 100-odd more distilleries that Scotland has to offer.

    • June 28, 2010 at 12:47 pm #

      I agree, it’s an education waiting to occur.

      I clicked your name on your comment and checked out your site, Oliver. Very nice indeed. I had no idea that Bavaria was such a hotbed of whisky information and expertise. Cream pies and chocolate cakes, yes; Scotch experts, no.

      • June 28, 2010 at 12:49 pm #

        Glad you like my site, Jim. A agree about the cream pies but don’t forget the Bavarian beer!

      • June 28, 2010 at 12:51 pm #

        D’oh! Well at least I’m not supposed to be the beer expert. Wait a minute…

  6. June 28, 2010 at 8:20 pm #

    Nice post. I’m a big fan of Dalmore 12 year scotch. I definitely went through a bourbon and scotch phase a few years back and think about to revisit it. Now I have some good places to start.

  7. Don
    June 29, 2010 at 12:09 pm #

    Keith: A question. I know that many (if not all) scotch is blended. For Whiskey, blending is a bad thing. It adds Grain Neutral Spirits (Vodka) and essentially waters down the flavor without loosing the alcohol content like adding water would. This is a nasty practice and makes absolutely awful whiskey. I’m thinking that scotch blends are different and a usual part of the process for making scotch whisky. Can you enlighten me?

    Also, I too believe I haven’t found the right whisky. I’m thinking the Glenlivet sounded good. I think fruity could be a better flavor for me as I try to get over my college experience.

    • June 29, 2010 at 1:35 pm #

      Don a jolly good question and if I may say, a common possible misconception so please allow me to elaborate somewhat, although I suspect this could be a quite long reply, I’ll try to keep it simple.

      Firstly the naming conventions for Scotch;
      If you mean volume sold, you are quite corrrect in surmising that most Scotch is blended and when I say blended I mean household names like Johnnie Walker, Bells, Famous Grouse, White Horse, Ballantine’s, Whyte & MacKay and many others.
      So, what is blended whisky?
      Basically it is a mix of various, possibly very many single malt whiskies and at least one grain whisky (which means grains other than (malted) barley may be used). Each supplier or label has their own secret recipe, a bit like coke or KFC. OK then, not quite comparable to those, but you know what I mean?

      The idea behind blended whisky was to retain an identifiable product and one which during the early 1900’s was perceived as more gentle or even more sophisticated than single malts. For example, Johnnie Walker wanted consistency in his products, so that if you bought a bottle of red label one day, then again in a few months or even years time, it should still taste the same.

      I mentioned ‘Grain’ whisky, lots of it is produced and it is usually a very smooth and delicate whisky, especially if you get one over 20 years old, but grain whisky is not often sold as such due to most of it, probably well over 90%, going solely into various blended whiskies. Its purpose in a blend is to smoothen the end product and add a little roundness to the single malts which can be a little rougher.

      In my original article I named various whiskies and these are all ‘Single Malts’ which by definition means each is made from malted barley (allowed to begin germination) and everything in the said bottle originates from only that named distillery. This means that something called “The Glenlivet” was distilled only at The Glenlivet distillery, Ardbeg only at Ardbeg distillery .. etc.

      Once upon a time there was another type of whisky called ‘Vatted’ whisky. This is also a mixture, but one of various single malts, from different distilleries, but without any grain whisky in there.
      Unfortunately, along with another term ‘Pure Malt’ which you may have seen on various Cardhu bottles of the past this was considered confusing so in Nov last year the UK Government along with the SWA (Scotch Whisky Association) redfined Scotch labelling to only allow the following 5 categories:

      1. Single Malt – as explained above.
      2. Blended Scotch – As explained above – Single malts & Grain.
      3. Single Grain whisky – Grain whisky from only one distillery.
      4. Blended Malt whisky – what we used to call ‘Vatted’ – a mix of only single malts.
      5. Blended Grain whisky – a mixture of various grain whiskies from different distilleries.

      So, when you see a bottle of Ardbeg, or The Glenlivet, or Macallan … etc on a store shelf you will notice that the label states ‘Single Malt’. Let’s take Ardbeg 10y as an example here; This means in turn that only whisky from Ardbeg distillery is in the bottle, but it also states an age which means the youngest Ardbeg in the bottle.
      Is this also why you think all Scotch is blended – because Ardbeg 10y contains various different Ardbegs? Well, although it is a mixture, all from Ardbeg, it is still a Single Malt not a blend! Also, as I said it may contain various ages …. 10y, 11y, even 20y .. but even if it only has one drop of 10y it must be called 10y.

      There is one more thing worth mentioning and that is the concept of ‘Single Cask’:
      If you see, for example a bottle of Ardbeg (or any other single malt) where the label states ‘Single Cask’ this means that all the whisky in that bottle is not only from Ardbeg, but from just one cask of Ardbeg. The label will also state the cask number in this case, along with the date distilled and the date bottled.
      Which brings me to one very last point, when you see an age declaration on a bottle, like 10y, this means full years. So if a whisky is distilled and poured into a cask on 5th June 2000, but bottled on 4th June 2010 it is only 9y, even though only one day short of 10y.

      I hope this helps?

      • June 29, 2010 at 4:08 pm #

        Keith, this is beefy enough to be a post. I’m going to give it its own patch of real estate.

    • June 29, 2010 at 4:22 pm #

      Don, old (20+ yo) Scotch blends can be fantastic and can in fact compare with old single malts. The reason is that even the cheap grain whisky- as already pointed out by Keith – can transform into a delicious liquid, if you give it enough time in a cask.

      Which leads me to a question about US blends. And I guess your statement about blending being bad was induced by your experience with those. I am pretty well-informed about Scotch, but almost a noob what US whisky is concerned. So I ask myself if there really only are bad and cheap US blends on the market or if there also are old “premium” blends available.

  8. JAMIE
    November 25, 2010 at 9:46 am #

    Hi DON, JIM or anyone. Simple, Straight QUESTION. What WHISKEY has the MOUTH-FEEL that is “LEATHERY” and “TOBACCO????????????

    Prefer the “Affordable” + “Widely Available”.

    ABout ARDBEG 10 price. Can go little higher.

    Something called FAINTLY??? I’m real idiot.

    SO recap. My mouth-feel I want is LEATHERY, TOBACCO or CIGAR , Buttery, CREME, Soft Fruits. Smoke/Peat, CHEWY, Smooth, Slide down.

    Not nail polish, lemon zest, and tang and this paste feel -yuk(was in my chivas 12 + bushmills10. ).

    Rambling stuff. not important.

    What do I look for.

    I read BENCHMARK does. Would have to order it from another state or overseas. Plus bourbon makes me tied.

    Any SCOTCH that would be in my local Australia big liqueur/wine store?

    • Don
      November 27, 2010 at 2:02 pm #

      Two I can recommend that might be in your wheelhouse as it were. First I Johnny Walker Black Label. I think this would have both the mouthfeel and flavor profile you are looking for. My second choice would be Glenmorangie, Probably the original 10 or the Quinta Ruban 12 year varieties. Let me know if this works for you. Happy exploring.


  1. Guest Post: Blended Scotch Whisky Defined « Beer & Whiskey Brothers - June 30, 2010

    […] my original article I named various Scotch whiskies for noobs and these are all ‘Single Malts,’ which means each is made from malted barley (allowed to begin […]

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