The basis of my personal rating system for single malt Scotch whisky is quite simple.
I just try to translate the amount of fun my nose and tongue are having with a malt
whisky into a digit on a 1-to-100 scale. The whisky that I like the best simply gets
the highest score and makes it to the top of my Hit List. So, why aren't my shelves
filled with bottles of Yamazaki 1979, Laphroaig 31yo and Glenfarclas 1969?
I'll tell you why... That's because I'm Dutch!
We Dutch are famous for our penny-pinching abilities. Many of the malt whiskies
at the top of the Hit List will cost you a pretty penny, especially the older & rarer
bottles. Being as Dutch as I am, I want to pay as little as possible for my whisky.
With more and more Scotch malt whisky producers pushing for higher prices and
demand from Asia and South America growing, the financial future looms gloomy.
One could argue that the single malt whisky market was fairly 'undeveloped' until
the end of the 20th century. In that period, Glenfiddich and Macallan were two
important pioneers of whisky marketing. Unfortunately, marketing & packaging
cost money, so around the turn of the millennium prices started to rise...
Older whiskies are usually more expensive to begin with when they
--are shipped from the warehouse, partly because of the casks have
---to be stored for many years and the 'angels share' evaporates.
----Most calculations of taxes and tariffs are based on the listed price
-----of a bottle. That means that you'll just pay EVEN MORE TAXES on
------those expensive bottles. As a result, most bottles in my (fairly
------modest) drinking collection are (relatively) younger and cheaper
------single malt whiskies. I guess that we Dutch take the pinching of
-----pennies even more serious than others, because the first version
----of this BFYB List contained precisely calculated 'BFYB' scores for all the
---official bottlings that I had sampled up to that point. Because I've spent weeks on a deceptively simple formula
--(and the labour intensive calculations that go with it), I've archived some of the results on a separate page.
On the page with the history of the BFYB List you can see how . ...
I eventually came to my senses and produced a 'leaner & meaner' BFYB List.
It contains a handful of good, recommendable whiskies that I've sampled relatively
recently and that can be easily obtained at reasonable prices. (Of course I can't
guarantee that the bottle you'll pick up is from the same 'batch' that I've tried
myself.) It's hardly fair to compare 'mundane' blends to single malts, but there
are actually still some decent blends available that offer good value for money
at +/- 15 Euro's; with Teacher's Highland Cream being the first that springs to mind.
However, looking at 'premium' blends I'd say that single malt whiskies win the value match hands down.
Take the Johnnie Walker Blue Label, for example. That's a good whisky, but it only scored 75 points in
my book. Such a score is nothing to be ashamed of, but most of the dozen whiskies listed below earned
a significantly higher score. What's more, each of them can be obtained for far less than the 150 Euros
they want for a bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue Label. No hard choice, as far as I'm concerned. In fact,
you could buy four or even five bottles from the 'Bang For Your Buck List' below for the price of one
bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue Label. Not only will you receive much more 'bang' for your 'buck', you'll
also be able to experience and compare a far wider range of different whisky styles.
So, if you want to impress your friends with how much money you can spend
on the Johnnie Walker Blue Label will do just fine, but if you REALLY want to give
them an interesting evening you might want to serve some single malts instead.
But insane price/quality ratios are not reserved exclusively for common blends
anymore. A few years ago Dalmore and Macallan became entangled in a deranged
PR battle about 'who can stick the highest price tag on a bottle'. The latest and
greatest example I saw was in December 2011 when Dalmore sent a tarted up
bottle around the world with a fat price tag of 250,000 Euros (excluding VAT).
Few of these PR stunt bottles actually get sold; 'buyers' usually stay anonymous.
(Funny detail: in 2011 the profits of owners Whyte & Mackay plummeted by 60%.
There's one more change compared to earlier versions of this Bang For Your Buck List.
It concerns 'stylistic' selection criteria. In the past I've tried to collect three whiskies in four different styles (3 fairly light & accessible 'summertime' drams, 3 bigger, rounder & maltier whiskies, 3 clearly 'sherried' malts and 3 peaty whiskies. In recent years prices for whisky - especially of the
Scotch variety) have grown more expensive, so I've loosened my criteria. I personally feel these are all good whiskies. What's more; they're affordable enough for you not to start crying your eyes out if you happen to disagree with my personal taste ;-)
So, if the Beginner's Guide has inspired you to try a few drams (or even organise a tasting session with some friends), here are a few whiskies that won't break the bank. For the price of one JW Blue you could, for example, get yourself four bottles of the Tamdhu, the Aberlour 10yo, the Balvenie 12yo and (if you're feeling really brave) the Laphroaig 10yo Cask Strength.
The 'cask strength' and 'peated' varieties both scored well in the upper 80's in my book, but both are priced over 50 Euro's in most stores, so that puts them just out of 'BFYB' territory. With a street price of circa 40 Euro's this standard expression provides an excellent alternative for many Scotch 'brands' that have been sliding down a slippery slope in recent years while prices have been growing steadily in the opposite direction. Fortunately, there's a nice alternative from India now...
Amrut NAS 'Indian Single Malt Whisky' (46%, OB, India)
When the Indian 'Amrut' distillery entered the Malt Maniacs Awards for the very first time in 2008 they made a big impression.
All three expressions of Amrut I've recently tried (this regular expression bottled at 46% ABV, a cask strength version and a
peated bottling) performed very well against a backdrop of rising prices & dropping quality of many Scotch single malt whiskies.
Greenore 8yo (40%, OB, Ireland)
The Greenore is the 'ugly duckling' of the twelve whiskies on this list with a score 72 points and a street
price of almost 30 Euro's. That's a LOT more than the circa 20 Euro's it cost a few years ago, but still...
Considering that this is (A) Irish, (B) a grain whiskey and (C) just eight years old, that score of 'only' 72 points is mightily
impressive. This is the first young grain whisk(e)y that I actually liked, beating comparable Scottish products like the
'Blackbarrel' with a stick. Even though the price has gone up considerably recently; you won't find many single malts in
this price segment and this still beats any blend I know of under 30 Euro's. Maybe not perfectly suitable for everyday
dramming, but given its fairly unique credentials (Irish AND single grain) it's a nice addition for the whisky collection of
everybody who, like me, likes to expose his guests to different styles and types of whisk(e)y now and then.
Tamdhu 'No Age Statement' (40%, OB)
This 'standard' version of Tamdhu has been available for well over a decade now, and it is one of the very
few single malt whiskies that has managed to maintain a very friendly price; 25 Euros is very reasonable IMHO.
There are not that many single malts available in this price range (except for the occasional 'bastard malt') and Tamdhu hasn't let me down so far. The score of 75 points (for a batch that was
released circa 2007) may not seem particularly impressive at first sight, but keep in mind that different malts perform differently under different circumstances. In the summertime I tend to pass by the heavier sherried and
peated malts and go for a lighter, cleaner malt. The Tamdhu is a
clean, refreshing malt that doesn't require the attention that 'bigger' whiskies demand.
This is a light, unassuming summertime dram with a very reasonable price.
Balvenie 12yo 'Doublewood' (43%, OB)
The Balvenie 12yo 'Doublewood' is an old favourite of mine. Even though the latest batch I tried
wasn't quite as excellent as earlier batches which scored 85 or 86 points, it's still a very fine dram.
With a priced of circa 35 Euros it's not the cheapest malt around, but I feel it offers great value in this class.
The 10 years old 'Founders Reserve' from Balvenie distillery used to be even more affordable but lacked the rich
fruity notes and extra complexity that's imparted by the extensive sherry finish of the Doublewood. In this case,
I feel it was worth the few extra Euro's - but I'm not entirely sure the 10yo expression is still available anyway.
Aberlour 10yo (43%, OB)
While the prices of most other official bottlings of Scotch single malts has been rising steadily over the
last few years, the price of this 'standard' Aberlour expression has remained fairly constant at circa 30 Euros.
In recent years single malts with a generous dose of sherry influence have become rare. Macallan used to be my main purveyor of sherried single malts, but in recent years they managed to price themselves well outside the realm of reason while the quality of their whisky showed an opposing trend. The same happened with Glenfarclas; their '105' isn't nearly as good as it once was while the price has almost doubled within just a few years. The Aberlour 10 isn't an all-out sherry monster like the more upmarket 'A'bunadh' at cask strength, but if sherry is your thing here's an affordable, versatile sipping whisky.
Benriach 13yo 'Maderensis Fumosus' (46%, OB, Madeira Finish)
Now that heavily sherried whiskies have become rare (especially in this price segment), it's a good thing that many
distillers seem to have mastered the art of 'finishing' in recent years - or at least they've grown much better at it.
The new owners of Benriach distillery have managed to revive the dormant brand with a string of exciting finishes since they
took over in 2004. I think Benriach was also the first Speyside distillery to produce heavily peated whisky in quite some time.
With a price of 51 Euro's (at La Maison du Whisky in 2009) this bottling is slightly more expensive than most others on this
BFYB list, but in my humble opinion it's more than worth it - especially since you get a finished AND a heavily peated whisky.
Highland Park 12yo (40%, OB)
This was one of the first whiskies on the BFYB list in the 1990's, before it disappeared from the
list in the early noughties due to rising prices and falling 'quality' - or at least a changing profile.
I'm very happy to report that the Highland Park 12 years old is back on this list - at least for now.
It's not that the quality has suddenly increased dramatically (it's still a few points below the glory days of the late 1990's), but its relative position has improved now that rising prices have pushed many alternatives off the list in recent years. The aftershocks of the credit crisis of 2008 will be felt on the shelves of liquorists around the world in years to come, but (for now) Highland Park has found a new quality/price balance.
Cragganmore 'Distillers Edition' (40%, OB)
I've never been particularly crazy about the 'regular' Cragganmore OB (it's just a little
too mainstream for me), but a second maturation in port pipes makes a big difference.
Glenmorangie pioneered the technique of 'finishing' whiskies in a second cask in the 1990's, but the quality of these
bottlings would vary considerably from year to year. Diageo followed a few years later and have managed to produce
a remarkably consistent range of double matured single malts. The 'distillers editions' of Talisker and Lagavulin happen
to be among my personal favourites, but in those cases they had a very solid 'base' to build upon. As a result, the high
scores are not too surprising. In the case of Cragganmore, the difference a second cask makes is quite astonishing.
Ardmore NAS 'Traditional Casks' (46%, OB)
This is a fairly heavily peated whisky (still quite unusual in Speyside), finished in small 'quarter casks'.
The nose is light, fresh and grainy - sweetish with a faint hint of peat in the background that grows stronger over time. Something faintly oily, spices and malty notes too - as well as some organics, something faintly fruity and anthracite.
In the nose it's not a peat monster, but the taste is much smokier than the nose suggests. Fairly sharp and not as complex. In fact, the palate is a little unsatisfactory, despite the touch of liquorice or salmiak in the finish. That being said, it's a recommendable dram in my book - and a nice way for relative novices to experience a little peat.
The peated Connemara from Ireland's Cooley distillery made quite an impression when it was released around the
year 2000 and as far as I'm concerned they managed to improve it even further in recent years. I have to admit that
I like the 'cask strength' version even better, but this 'standard' expression arguably offers better value.
Connemara NAS (40%, OB, Ireland)
The earliest versions of this BFYB list only contained whiskies from Scotland, but prices have grown
considerably in recent years. That means that whiskies and whiskeys from other countries are now
able to compete with the single malt whiskies from Scotland that once dominated the whisky scene.
Lagavulin 16yo (43%, OB)
This is was the single malt that ignited the holy fire in me over a decade ago. The 'Port Ellen' bottlings
of recent years are not quite as exquisite as the 'White Horse' bottlings from the 1990's (all of them
scored well into the 90's), but they still make this list. The Lagavulin 16yo may have lost some depth
& complexity over the years, but the peat is balanced out by just the right amount of fruits and tannins.
However, changes in production may trickle down into the future...
Like some other distilleries, Lagavulin switched to maturation in 100% bourbon casks in the late 1990's.
If they continue to carry a 16yo expression in their portfolio, we schould see a change in profile starting around the year 2015 - maybe even sooner. It's to be expected that the profile will move to the more 'bourbony' style of the 12yo Cask Strength version that was first released in 2002. It's a very fine dram, but much more in the clean 'Caol Ila' style.
Laphroaig 10yo Cask Strength (55.7%, OB)
Last but certainly not least is the amazing Laphroaig 10yo C/S. Both the old 'green stripe' and the more recent
'red stripe' version are brilliant. Although there are differences, both earned a whopping 94 points in my book.
The price of more than 50 Euros puts it outside my initial 'value' price range but in this case I think it's worth every penny.
This bottling even beats some of the amazing Douglas Laing Ardbegs from the early 1970's. If you decide to try just one bottle
from this list, make sure it's this one. Well, provided you're not allergic to peat, that is... This is a peat monster par excellence,
combining the depth and complexity of the Laphroaig 15yo OB with the raw power of the 'Phroaig 10yo. This offers the best
of both worlds, as far as I'm concerned... It's so good that I simply don't dare to open one of the eight bottles I have in my
reserve stock - top notch material.
As I've pointed out before, this BFYB list has evolved quite a bit over the years. The current list focuses on a dozen bottlings,
but during the 1990's it contained all the official bottlings I had tried so far. Maintaining that list became too cumbersome after
I had tried more than a hundred malts and prices kept changing, but you might still be able to benefit from my experience.
Below I'll explain how I came up with a 'magic formula' that helped me a lot in making sensible shopping decisions.