This was going to be a Burns Night post.
If it had been, it would probably have morphed into something hideously cheesy and generic. Possibly a ‘what to drink with haggis’ type deal, or a ‘most appropriate drams to toast the bard with affair.’ You know the score. If you don’t, you almost certainly will in a couple of days time...
So I changed my mind. I’ve never been much for pairing whisk(e)y with food in the first place – no issue with anyone who does, I just happen to be a wine drinker. And frankly I imagine Mr Burns would be seething at the notion of a 26 year old Englishman being presumptuous enough to suggest what whiskies he should be toasted with.
Instead, submitted here is the first of my ‘whiskies under £50’ articles.
Old Pilgrim readers will know I’m rather fond of this category, as it represents the price bracket that most of us can stretch to by the bottle. Dalmore releasing a 50 year old for £50,000 a throw is all very well (actually, it definitely isn’t, but more on that another time) but personally I prefer to read about whiskies I can go straight out and purchase if I like the sound of them. (Or, more probably, stay in and purchase on my computer.)
So today I’ll be looking at my favourite five Scotch whiskies in that price bracket. Which is the only concession to Burns Night I’ll be making. All of these are relatively easy to come by, give you change from a red note, and have offered me hours of pleasure in my years of sipping and scribbling. In no particular order, here goes:
Springbank 12yo Cask Strength
Bottle cost: £47.46
My bottle of the year for under £50 in 2016. Springbank is very much the darling of the whiskynet; well priced, idiosyncratic and interesting stuff. It’s a big whisky, this one; meat and thick fruit with wafts of smoke. Full bodied and rich enough to contain its alcohol, and shape-shiftingly complex enough to find something new with every nosing. Springbank make a couple of batches of this a year, and it is routinely excellent. My personal favourite so far has been the January 2016, but there’s fun to be hand whatever you find. (Varying strength. Usually c.54%ABV)
Bottle cost: £79.95
I am very open in my adoration of A’Bunadh. It wasn’t the first whisky I enjoyed, but it probably was the first I fell properly in love with. My first cask strength; my first entirely matured in sherry. If big, rich flavours of raisin and chocolate and intense honey and oak and dried orange are your thing, liberally sprinkled with cloves and sweet spices, then this needs to be on your radar. One of those whiskies that just tastes like Christmas. Another that holds its alcohol well, though there’s no hiding 60%. Also another released in batches, but the quality is pretty reliable with every release. My current bottle is Batch 54, and is utterly delicious. (Varying strength. Usually c.60%ABV)
Johnnie Walker 12yo Black Label
Bottle cost: £27.95
Fine, it’s slightly ubiquitous, but what’s wrong with that? The bottom line is that if you speak to whiskymakers and commentators around the world, this is one of the pours they hold in highest regard. It’s right in my sweet spot peat-wise; enough to give you that delicious waft of smoke, but not so much that it overwhelms the elements of honey and citrus. Brilliantly balanced and nicely middle weighted, this is a proper blender’s blend, and one of those whiskies that almost everyone is likely to enjoy. I love it. And I’m not sorry about that. Don’t think much of the Red though, I’m afraid… 40%ABV
Bottle cost: £58.95
I absolutely love Glencadam. Don’t usually go a bundle on finishes, but this one works. And the reason it works is that the Oloroso puts a layer of raisin, baked apple and date on top of the honey, crème brûlée and malty biscuit character, rather than swamping or overloading it. As with the Johnnie Walker Black and the Compass Box, it’s the balance that I really enjoy, and the delicious complexity that gives the lie to claims that all the best whiskies have a lick of smoke. Intensity of flavour works beautifully with the alcohol level too. I was slightly late to the party on this one, but I’m in no hurry whatsoever to leave. 46%ABV
Compass Box ‘The Spice Tree’
Bottle cost: £46.95
An odd one this, because whilst the techniques involved in making it are rather innovative, the resultant whisky has an incredibly classic flavour. I’ve tasted it next to whiskies of yesteryear, and there are striking similarities. Dry and spicy, with a lovely wood influence – it’s very well named on the whole! A good dollop of Clynelish gives it a malty and slightly unctuous texture, but this is real drawing room furniture stuff, with elements of nutmeg and black pepper. Again, the weight of flavour and body works beautifully in tandem with the alcohol level. Slightly cerebral – it isn’t so much a kick-back-and-relax pour, more a switch-on-and-concentrate drop. But sometimes I find that’s just the ticket. 46%ABV
It’s not easy narrowing down a list to your five favourites. I had to scribble out the likes of Lagavulin 16, Clynelish 14 – even Ben Nevis 10. But in the end, these were the five left on my page.
And that’s the important distinction about the word ‘favourite’. They’re not necessarily the best you’ve ever had, or the rarest, or the most appealing to post on social media. They’re the whiskies you’d take a glass of at any time; the ones that strike the most personal chord, and that always put a smile on your face. The pour you want when you’ve nothing specific in mind besides a whisky you’re guaranteed to enjoy.
So I guess I do have a Burns Night recommendation, which is not to drink any of these five whiskies. It’s one of the few nights a year when whisky is the global centre-stage drink, and I think that’s worth celebrating with the pour that is most personal to you. A chance for enthusiasts to open a bottle with a group of close friends and show them why this drink means so much. Your own perfect Scotch whisky. The tribute I suspect that Robert Burns would have most wanted.
But come the 26th you should definitely go out and pick one of these five up. Because they’re bloody delicious. And cracking value too. Cheers!