Monday, October 16, 2017

The Doctor's Daily Dram - 2017 Update!

No policy stuff this time, but doing a public service by providing critical knowledge for doctors nonetheless, especially to those MDs new to practice: the Scotch Drinker's Essential Starter's Guide!

That's right. Unless you're pregnant or your religion won't allow it, getting acquainted with scotch is one of the great joys of life as a doctor. Better still, since scotch is not fruit-flavored, and is harsh to the uninitiated, it's likely to be overlooked by your children and their friends. So fill the cabinet with flavored Smirnoff, Malibu, and peach schnapps, and enjoy the finer things.

These are scotches that are widely available in Canadian liquor stores. Some of them won't be everywhere, especially past the $80 price point, but they aren't hard to track down. Still, this stuff ain't cheap. The entry point for single malts is over $40 CDN a bottle, and has been climbing in recent years. Worse still, the stuff under $50 is terrible (the McLelland's young malts), and not worth the bother. Still, past about $120 you get serious diminishing returns. Yes, the "attack" on the palate will be smoother and the finish longer, but that's the price point of two bottles of rock-solid single malts. Ask for the really pricey stuff as a gift.

Conflict of interest to declare: I wish. If someone wants to send me a free sample of single-malt, I'm not made of stone. This is 100% my opinion, based on tasting a lot of the stuff over the past few years.

If you're new to scotch, there's a lot to learn about the different regions of Scotland and the typical flavor profile of each region's malts. I won't rehash that stuff because that information can be found easily. It's also not all that relevant since, except for peated scotch, the barrels used to age the malt can often override the site of the distillery. I'd also recommend newbies have their first tastes with a little ice in the glass. Not only is this stuff an acquired taste, many single malts are bottled well above 40% ABV. Purists might give you what for, but 1) who cares? and 2) if you can't stomach the stuff on ice it's a complete waste to try it without.

If you only ever buy one single malt...

Make it The Glenlivet Founder's Reserve. It's cheaper and better than the equally ubiquitous Glenfiddich 12, which is a little too green-apple-one-dimensional. Founder's Reserve is easy to drink, tasty, and a superior to the Glenlivet 12 it's replaced as the entry point to this venerable distillery. Try one of those small bottles for under 20 bucks if you're a skeptic. Not even snobs turn up their nose at Glenlivet (which they will sometimes do at Glenfiddich 12). Always good to have on hand. 

The other moderately priced beginner's scotches I like are Auchentoshan 12, Aberfeldy 12, and Monkey Shoulder. Monkey Shoulder is a blend, but a damn good one that most tasters would guess is a single-malt. Monkey Shoulder is also dirt-cheap at most duty-free stores outside Canada. Auchentoshan 12 is fruitier and more spritely than Glenlivet, Aberfeldy is honey-sweet and perhaps the easiest to drink. All are equally good choices for novices.

If you've got a little more money (or a gift card) to burn, Glenmorangie Original 10 year, at $70, is a step up from Glenlivet or the others. 

If you want to understand the fuss about peated (smoky) scotch

Te Bheag is a peated blend, available for under 40 bucks. Bowmore 12 is now $60 regular price, and moderately peated. Even on sale, however, the Bowmore is pricing itself out of the market as an entry point to peated scotch. Over the years I've come to appreciate Bowmore more as an all-around quality drink in and of itself than as a peated scotch per se. You might be better off trying peated scotch at a restaurant (or someone else's house) if you must scratch the itch, because it's a love-it-or-hate-it taste.

Which brings me to Laphroaig Quarter Cask. If you decide peated scotch is for you, get a bottle of this. It's now over $80 regular, but damn well worth it. This stuff will put hair on your chest, and has a sweeter finish than the very popular $100 Ardbeg 10.

If you like smoky scotches but don't want to feel like you're drinking a campfire (if such a thing were possible), go with the aforementioned Bowmore 12, or consider Talisker 10 as fantastic stuff. A complex and tasty drink. Talisker has some hit-and-miss offerings at the duty-free, but the 10 is a classic.

The perennial champion of peated scotches, however, is Lagavulin 16. This is getting up there in price at around the $120 mark, but it is smooth with a finish that lasts. Very highly recommended, though the Laphroaig gives it a run for its money when you factor in the price difference.

Sherried scotch

Most scotch is aged in barrels that were previously used to age bourbon. However, no scotch library is complete without a quality single malt aged (or more commonly, finished) in casks previously used to age sherry. Sherried scotches, at least good ones, have a flavor profile that's one part single malt, one part fine red wine or brandy. These tend to run well past the $70 mark, so cost is definitely a factor for budget shoppers. Less expensive sherried scotches are out there (such as Aberlour 10), but at the lower end you're better off with Glenlivet.

Balvenie's Doublewood 12 is now the prototype single malt finished in ex-sherry casks (that distinction used to belong to The Macallan). Balvenie 12 is excellent, but the $90 sticker price in Canada is creeping past the point it should be. Use a gift card or find it at the duty-free.

Two great alternatives if you prefer your scotch on the sweet side are Glenmorangie Lasanta (which tends to be available only seasonally) and the $80-85 Auchentoshan Three Wood. The Auchentoshan is more sweet up front, while the Lasanta has a longer, spicier finish. 

Complex Highland single malts

The final category of must-try scotch is both perfect for, and in some ways wasted on, beginners. The Scottish Highland distilleries put out malts that are easy to drink but full of nuances in smell and taste.

Highland Park 12 comes in a plain-ish bottle and a cheap-looking box. Good, because maybe that's what helps keep it an absolute steal at $75-80. Floral on the nose, fruity on the tongue, creamy in the mouth, spicy on the finish, with a hint of smoke somewhere in the mix, it is quite simply a fantastic buy. Even someone new to scotch will like it, but with experience you savor it.

The gold standard in this category is Oban 14, the drink that rounds out the "classic malts" distributed by the Diageo conglomerate (the others are Talisker, Lagavulin, and Dalwhinnie 15). It's more refined than Highland Park, but also past the $110 mark. It's something you must go out of your way to try, but a purchase? Tough call at the price point if you're new to single malts.

Speaking of a tough call at the price point...

What to make of Blue Label? On the one hand, it's easy to call someone buying Blue Label a badge whore. $300 for a bottle of booze that's mass-produced, and a blended one at that? For the same money, you could get a peat bomb (Laphroaig QC), a sherried monster (Auchentoshan Three Wood), Highland Park 12, and a jumbo bottle of Glenlivet...or any number of limited bottlings from other distilleries.

Then again, Blue Label is damn good stuff. It's got the quintessential scotch taste, with a finish that sticks around forever. I wouldn't pay full sticker for it (though it's awesome to receive as a gift), but with money to burn at a duty-free...

Until next time, happy sipping!


  1. Lagavulin 16 remains my favorite. I stock up whenever I cross over to Alberta where it sells for about $90.

    1. I just browsed the Alberta prices. Bizarre...many are the same price or within $5 of Ontario prices, but then some are an absolute steal. Highland Park 12 for under $60? That's $75-80 a bottle in Ontario. Ardbeg 10 or Dalwhinnie 15 for $70? Each $100 a pop here. Unfair.

  2. Dennis... another one to pick up when you hit Alberta's "duty free" .. Aberlour Abunad'h. It is heaven.

    1. Abunad'h is not for the faint of heart. Hats off if you can take that neat or even with a few drops.