Scotch for the Holidays

So what’s a good brand of Scotch that doesn’t cost the earth?

Hm. Good question, Kevin.

Pretty much all Scotch is expensive these days. Diageo had to build a new distillery in Scotland – some 5 million gallons a year if I remember correctly – because of worldwide demand. (Scotch of course must be distilled and aged in Scotland.)

They are also choking a couple of their more mundane labels to age supply for more expensive brands.

So given limited supply and rising demand, the stuff will cost you.

If you just want a blended Scotch for the occasional visitor and cocktail, I’d probably go with Johnnie Walker Black Label. It’s got a nice highland flavour set and it’s old enough and smooth enough to appease Scotch afficionados. It’s also generic enough not to upset blended Scotch drinkers.

If you want to go a little upscale you want a single malt, but it’s best to stick with a Highland variety because they are the majority of the flavour set in blended scotches. The best choice from my point of view is Glenfiddich. Their 12 year old is a very nice scotch and it’s about the same as Black Label.

However, the trend these days is to old single malts, the older the better. The older the scotch the smoother the flavours, and the greater the impact of the barrel. Many people adore the candy and vanilla flavour sets, although I find them a bit tedious in the more geriatric whisky, and I’m too damn cheap to pay for them.

You will absolutely pay for age, so for example the Macallan 12 year old is about $70, their 15 year old is $120 and their 21 year old $325.

Glenlivet 18 year old is a relative bargain at about $80. It’s a great highland whisky although these days is insufficiently eccentric for most scotch fans.

If you want to start checking out the less generic flavour profiles I’d suggest starting with the Islands and Islay. I’m an absolutely huge fan of Lagavulin but be forewarned it’s way way WAY over the top for most people. It’s also about $125.

A slightly more neutral Islay, and a very nice scotch is the Bowmore lineup. We usually drink the 12 and 15 year olds though they have an 18 at about $65.

I have never had a bad bottle of scotch, although I find some of the younger blends less enjoyable. My honest advice is to buy any label you’ve never tried that suits your budget, and give it a whirl. More obscure labels are often very nice, and usually more affordable.


  1. While I am late to comment on this article I do have to add my (un)romantic journey of scotch since it was Dr. Booze that set me straight. A long, long, very long time ago, when I was barely 18, I had my first encounter with scotch. A buddy of mine and I went out drinking the night before New Years Eve. At the time it wasn’t our intent to get hammered but one thing led into another, or rather, a six pack led into the vodka and then into the scotch. After the beer was gone, the vodka was gone and half a fifth of scotch was gone I definitely remember it was the closest I have ever came to alcohol poisoning. Obviously many years later the memory lingers on however, what I remember most is not even being able to get up beside anyone drinking scotch for the risk of hurling going on nearly 30 years. If you had a scotch in your hand at a party I could smell it across the room the memory was that strong. Than I met Dr Booze!

    After a most wonderful evening of fine dining and wine drinking (at the home of DrB) we would always end with the obligatory digestif usually with some wonderful finger treats such as dark chocolate tidbits. So we got into a discussion about whiskies and up popped the word “scotch” and fear! After my rather elaborate and lengthy telling the tale of my youthful indiscretion with a bottle of scotch, DrB explained in characteristically convincing form how I was missing out on one of the world’s truest gifts to mankind from our brethren across the pond. Unconvinced, I did relent to try a very, very small, taste of my very first single malt, and believe me it was a small initial taste.

    A funny thing suddenly happened, I was asking for more….and more! Yet, memory being long, I did not over indulge myself on this occasion. Rather, DrB helped me through the nosing (for me the most difficult), the taste, and the texture of this suddenly wonderful elixir. I don’t recall what the brand was, but I was hooked.

    Since that incredible night I have never looked back. Now single malt is my preferred before, after or even midnight beverage. I have explored the blends to the 45 year olds; keep a healthy stock in the cabinet of 12-18 (as DrB indicates above, this stuff ain’t cheap), single cask, and never a blend. I have learned to enjoy my Cubans at scotch and cigar tastings in So Africa; tried every brand possible big showcase whiskey tastings in San Francisco; and have pleasured myself with the worse (first encounter) to the best. I have arrived at this phase of my life with the utmost gratitude for DrB.

    Though it has been a very long time since my wife and I have sat down and broke bread with DrB (when are you coming to San Francisco?) every time I now indulge my palate with a SM I have very fond memories of how I arrived at this point in time.

    Thank you Dr. Booze

  2. Hey Bill! Thanks for checking in. I’m trying to get to Napa, sometime in the next year or so. Sairey (AKA The Professor) may or may not be coming along.

    For the record I’m pretty sure we served you a Bowmore 12, although it might have been a Lagavulin which was quite cheap back then (a mere $50!) and I was doing everything but putting it in IV bottles.

    In hindsight if it was Lagavulin, I was throwing you into the deep end. While the nose is sufficiently different it might help, it’s also so extreme it might have put you even further off Scotch…

  3. Bowmore or Lagavulin both are great scotches though I have to admit I am partial to the Lagavulin. I have a special release of Lag and it is really, really good. I am also partial to Oban as well. Recently have been swilling a McCallan cask strength, rather potent that one. I fear the alcohol gets in the way of enjoying the rest of its nuances. I quite agree with your assessment of the McCallan 12 yr, I like to keep it around for the daily digestifs saving the others for guests and special occasions. Here in SFO it is easy to find MC12 on sale for $38US. Lag is a bit more pricey at $80US.

    Let us know if you head this way.

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