The Wee Skin-Flint's Whisky Fling
The Quest for a Single Malt Whisky for under $50
To be absolutely clear, there will be no actual ‘flinging’ in the modern sense of the word, except maybe a dram or two. A traditional Scottish jig might get danced – possibly in a kilt, certainly in plaid – but none of it is going up on Tick Tock, or where ever it is the kids make themselves obvious these days.
Ye old fling is really just a war dance to let off steam after some lively mass homicide. Being the olden days, you got style points for ‘flinging’ around your smallish round shield which kept you in the same place throughout the twirl. For the Wee Skin-Flint’s Whisky Fling, we are going to gambol around a reasonable price point.
And this can be a wee bit tricky.
I’ve always held that the enduring popularity for bourbon over Scotch whisky - even before the craft bourbon boom - has nothing to do with national pride. It’s the simple fact that bad Scotch is so much worse than bad bourbon. Even most Scotch drinkers will tell you this. The palette of malt whisky is much more complex than bourbon, rye or Tennessee whiskey, which in itself is counter-intuitive because Scotch is made with 100% barley so the mash bill is fairly simple. Scotch is wonderful, it’s magical – but that wonderful magic does not reside on the bottom shelf.
I first acquired the taste for Scotch as an undergraduate, making me about the only guy at the University of Alabama drinking the stuff. Which is precisely why I drank it – I could always tell if some goon has swiped my bottle at a band party. What I was drinking though was decidedly bottom shelf. I’ve grown up, and now have some prized bottles of malt whisky, for which I’ll pay a premium (or what I call a premium). And anyone can find lists on the internet touting the best Scotches for under $100, and at that price it jolly well be the best of something.
But where is the adventure in that?
Understand that I’m not talking about cheap Scotch, I had enough of that in Tuscaloosa. I’m talking about value. What we might call a nice Tuesday night dram. And with that definition sorted, so begins the wee Skin Flint’s quest for decent Single Malt Scotch Whisky under $50?
Loch Lomand Original - $35.00
Admittedly, Loch Lomand is not the sort of single malt whisky that is likely to make you start singing in Gaelic or quoting Robert Burns if you aren’t already inclined. At $35, though, you might be pleasantly surprised. And it’s about time after a few of the early failures of the whisky fling. Given the price point of this venture, it isn’t bad, just not terribly interesting.
Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The bottle states neither classification or age, and because its only recently available stateside, I thought I was drinking a lowland which are lighter, and in my opinion, less interesting. Technically, though, because the distillery is in Alexandria, this is classed as a Highland. Can’t tell you the age, but it’s is a bit green. The peat and smoke appear, but in hints. Honestly, you’ll get more cut grass, heather and lemon peel on the finish.
Overall, what we have here is a single malt scotch that is vividly average. At the price point, and in light of the early Islays we’ve tried, it isn’t a disappointment. Let’s call it a pleasant surprise, even.
I’ve never been a fan of scotch cocktails simply because I’ve always thought it was a terrible thing to do with scotch, but I know they exist. If that’s your bag, this might be a nice mixer. But if you are mixing, why pony up for a single malt in the first place? There are blends that are more interesting and cheaper.
To end on a positive note, just think of it as a lowland scotch, again, that’s what I thought it was. It’s a lighter whisky with nothing to prove. And that appears to be the pothole into which some of these cut-rate scotches fall.
In Sum: It isn't bad, certainly not at the price, it's just not very interesting. If nothing else it appears to be that way by design.
The Glenlivet Cognac Cask - $49.99
After a couple of swings and misses, the Wee Skin-Flint is actually getting somewhere! The Glenlivet 14-year-old Cognac Cask Selection is a beautiful single malt whisky that comes in under, if just, $50.00. The iconic Speyside distillery has released several expressions at the same price point, rum cask, double oak, but I was drawn to the cognac cask finish. Why cognac? I really like cognac. The whisky is laid up for better than a dozen years in the traditional bourbon and sherry casks, and then finished for at least six months in “the highest quality” ex-cognac casks.
The result? The nose is beautiful, full of fruit and honey and just a hint of spice. The palette is rich, smooth and velvety with that spice holding back to show up only at the finish. The expression doesn’t really taste like cognac, it’s still a good Speyside whisky from a storied distiller that knows how it’s done. What’ those finishing casks add is a rounded quality that comes along for the ride.
You could make a solid argument that the Glenlivet is the prototype of the Speyside style. When King George IV visited Scotland in 1822, it was the Glenlivet he sampled. It was illegal at the time, but he was King, so there we are. Two years later, the distillery was on the right side of the law.
In context of our “whisky Fling” the success here may be that it isn’t Islay – a peaty, complex style of scotch which either turns drinkers off or turns them into fanatics for the style. As with anything else, the more complexity that’s added means the more things can go wrong. Speyside, however, is not quite the slave to peat smoke as Islay. As such, it lacks that creosote quality of the Arbeg Wee Beastie. It was also aged for three times as long, which probably has something to do with it.
In Sum: A win and well-worth the money. The cognac tones will go well with the holidays. Cheers!
Ardbeg Wee Beastie - $50.00
Arbeg's Wee Beastie is an entry level expression from Arbeg – and is a blend of their excellent Islay single malts. At 5 years old, it’s been described as “young & exuberant” which, any parent will tell you is not always a good thing. It is how I feel about this under $50 scotch, though.
Arbeg has produced – is producing - some phenomenal scotches, so really they ought to know better. My first attempt came after drinking a Talisker, and really I should have known better. I was bound to be disappointed.
So the next day gave it a whirl with an open mind. My first thought was, literally, “If I’m going to find a solid scotch for under $50, then I’ll need to get off my single malt high-horse.” Mrs. M, who only gave it a sniff, suggested that they’d used the peat equivalent to liquid smoke. And a lot of cheap scotches will do this. I’m skeptical of this with the Wee Beastie – but only because of my enduring faith in the know-how of Arbeg.
As damage control, I added a few dashes of orange bitters, which really does take that creosote edge off of the proceedings. At $50, you don’t want to be in damage control mode. I don’t normally go in for Scotch cocktails, but the Mamie Taylor float up while sipping this one: add ginger ale and lime. Which really was pretty good.
I also reverse engineered a dram into an ersatz Bailey’s – a Scottish Cream if you will. Also tasty, but a little shameful.
In Sum: Improving, but still, I don't like doctoring my scotch.
Ian Macleod Single Malt Islay - $37:
The price was right, perhaps a little too right for single malt Islay. My general rule of thumb is to avoid scotches with plaid labels or ones depicting clan chieftains: it’s the sign that the marketing department is working harder than the distiller.
MacLeod, however, is a bottler not a distiller. This in itself is not bad; the trend with a lot of these ultra-premium bourbons is to buy whiskies from various sources and blend them in house. Some with impressive results. I’d heard that the actual whisky Macleod had sourced was distilled by none other than Laphroigh. So, me thought, how bad could it be? The flaw in my logic was that Macleod wasn’t blending anything, just taking what it was being sold. In this case, if it was Laphroigh, it was whisky that had been disowned.
The other thing I’d heard was that Ian Macloed’s scotch was about as consistent as the weather in Scotland, which makes sense given the business model. I’ll never be able to attest one way or another to for the simple reason that I’ll never by another bottle.
What seemed like smoke on the nose was creosote on the tongue. Well, this happens, I threw in splash of water and let it breath. It got worse. This Whisky is like a blind date with a gal who seemed cute enough to trigger interest, but with a disappointing personality. So as dinner wears on, she gets less cute. I’ve had whiskies that took a few snorts to warm up to, but this, which started out as merely disappointing, just kept getting worse. By the end of our metaphorical date, I was signaling for the check with a flick of the wrist I was about to slash.
In Sum: Even at $37 this was not worth the money.