By Fred Minnick
I love finding value in booze. Value is the single reason why many people are leaving bourbon for rum and brandy, and why some have returned to Scotch. Now that everybody knows about bourbon and is drinking it, the prices are soaring and the regular drinker is diversifying his tastes and choices. (This is a Scotch story, so I won’t get on my bourbon-pricing high horse.) So what is the most value-centric category in Scotch? For me, it’s all about the Lowlands, an under-the-radar region offering lighter-body whiskies from Ailsa Bay, The Girvan, Glenkinchie, Auchentoshan, Bladnoch, Daftmill, and Annandale distilleries. Glasgow and Edinburgh are the major cities in the Lowlands, which—you guessed it—is south of the Highlands. In the UK, Lowlands whiskies received the reputation of the “Lowland Ladies” for having maltier and fruitier character than most Scotch. Of course, value in Scotch is a subjective judgment. It’s all expensive, but the Lowlands delivers value in its entry-level brands in the mid-$30 to mid-$40 range. You can also find extra old Lowlands at low prices, such as $600 for Carsebridge 50-year 1965 single grain, or $500 for Auchentoshan 32-year 1979 Oloroso Cask. Some of this value, as with this Carsebridge and Girvan, is coming from the single-grain category. The majority, but not all, of these whiskies are triple distilled and, as the triple-distilled moniker suggests, they’re typically light bodied.
Glenkinchie 12-year 86 proof, $45: Dark straw in color, and a gorgeous bouquet of sultry and saltiness with lemon zest, orange peel, and a hint of mango. The balanced palate tickles with citrus and honey. There’s but a hint of smoke in a medium finish.
Auchentoshan 12-year single malt 80 proof, $40: The leader of the Lowlands single-malt category, Auchentoshan’s color is russet with a bouquet of licorice, oyster shell, caramel, vanilla, and banana with a hint of citrus. The palate offers an unexpected spice right up front, followed by the fruit and citrus with hints of malt. It’s a short but deliciously sweet finish.
Auchentoshan American Oak 80 proof, $40: If you like bourbon, this is for you, offering up a color and nose slightly similar to American whiskey because of the barrels used. It’s rich with caramel and vanilla, and it hints of smoked barbecue bricks and a distant burning wood stove. The palate is soft, gently bringing in hints of citrus and candied corn. The finish is medium with a hint of chocolate.
Auchentoshan 18-year single malt 86 proof, $90: Straw in color. If you’re used to American whiskey, don’t let the color fool you. Darker isn’t always better in Scotch. The nose is classic Lowlands: citrus, fruit, honey, fresh-baked bread, and cooking malt. The palate drenches the tongue in vanilla and soft spice that gives way to caramel candy. The finish is medium to long with a hint of cardamom.
The girvan patent still 30-year single grain 84 proof, $450: Color isn’t as important in Scotch as it is in bourbon, because Scotches are aged in used barrels and the Scotland warehouses don’t endure Kentucky’s intense summers and winters; thus, whisky doesn’t penetrate the oak as deeply as bourbon. That’s why this whisky’s color should not lead you to dismiss it. The 30-year-old is light straw. The nose presents baked breads, vanillas, caramel, cinnamon bread, honey, and spice with hints of matiness and caramel chew. The finish is medium with a hint of honey.
You may notice in my notes here that there are few references to smoke, a saturated flavor profile in other Scotch whiskies, such as the Islay whiskies and a subtle richness in the Highlands. If you enjoy the lighter styles, but would like more amplified flavors, you might enjoy the Speyside. Scotch from this region tends to be heavier-bodied and more pronounced with sherry notes. The major distillers include ones you see all the time in the liquor store, such as The Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, and The Macallan. There’s one recent release from Speyside that is worth finding: Glen Grant Five Decades (92 proof, $150), with a unique red-wine nose with black fruits, vanilla, sherry, port, and with a few hints of spice and sweetness, and light palate of honey, citrus, toasted bread, and long sherry finish.