Spirits of the Season 2013 - Scotland the Brave, five affordable scotch whiskys to consider

Spirits of the Season 2013 - Scotch is one of those spirits that runs the gamut of experiences and flavors, from peat and charcoal-y crispness to rounded out fruit and spiced mellowed cognac notes, the tastes of the "eau de vie" really can throw a novice for a loop.

Pricewise, you can get into real trouble trying to keep up with the Joneses on what you offer guests at the holidays. But we found five affordable scotch whiskys (under $70 USD) that offer a variety of finishes and will please just about everyone who prefer this whisky to bourbon or rye.

Scotch is produced in Scotland in certain regions.  There are five primary scotch whisky production regions: Highland, Lowland, Speyside, Campbeltown and Islay.  There is also the lesser discussed region 6, the "Islands", which are all of the whisky producing islands in Scotland (except Islay). 

Just like a good bourbon, the malts produced in each region have some common characteristics that separate them from scotch from other regions.

The Highlands is the largest region in Scotland for whisky production and traditionally delivers fuller-bodies whiskies with peat and smoke notes.  Highland whiskies often taste very different from each other, from the heathery, spicy character of Northern Highlands to the fruitier whiskies of the Southern Highlands.

The Lowlands is located at the southern-most part of Scotland, and is a flat region with no mountains.  Scotch from this region are generally considered as the most light bodied of the Single Malts. However we tried two from Auchentoshan that are decidely NOT light, and topped our list below. Famous Lowland distilleries: Glenkinchie, Bladnoch, Auchentoshan

Speyside has the highest concentration of distilleries (more than half the distilleries in Scotland are located in Speyside).  The region received its name from the river Spey, which cuts through the area.  Many of the distilleries use water straight from the river Spey in their production process.  Speyside scotch are thought to be the country's most complex, and is known for their sweetness and elegant flavors and aromas.
Famous distilleries: Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, Macallan, and blends like Johnnie Walker and Chivas Regal.

Once the whisky capital of Scotland, there are only three distilleries remaining in Campbeltown.  The Scotch here is peaty, and some say "salty."

Islay scotch is considered to be the smokiest and strongest-flavored. Their strong flavor is believed to be due to the region's exposure to the high winds and seas of the west coast. It is definitely for the smoke lovers as the one scotch we tested, Bowmore, was very strong in the charcoal and smoke notes.  Famous distilleries: Laphroaig, Lagavulin, Bowmore, Ardbeg.

A single-malt scotch whisky is nothing more or less than the product of a single distillery. Not the product of a single batch or a single barrel, but just a single distillery.

A single-grain scotch whisky varies only in that it contains barley and one or more other cereal grains, usually wheat or corn. Single refers not to a product made from a single grain, but a product made at a single distillery.  When whisky is aged in oak barrels, a number of variables influence the final character of the spirit. We could literally go on for days about how this affects the end flavor of each whisky. American bourbon makers often send their casks over to Scotland for these seasoning purposes.

Because brands are keen on giving the end user (you and I) a comparable experience from each and every bottle bought of a certain scotch, many distillers understand and blend accordingly, as nearly all whiskies on the market today are made by mixing barrels together to achieve a product that's consistent from one release to the next.

A master blender must keep true to the brand's flavor profile. This is a difficult task.

For the novice scotch fancier, there are three types of blends you'll encounter:

Blended malt scotch whisky:  These are a blend of single malts from two or more distilleries.    

Blended grain scotch whisky: A blend of single grains from two or more distilleries. Single grains are usually known for being light and mild, but some distilleries produce exceptional grain whiskies.

Blended scotch whisky: Most common. These blended scotches comprise 90% of the scotch category in sales. A blended scotch is a mix of both malt whiskies and grain whiskies, sourced from several different distilleries. Common brands include Johnnie Walker, Dewar's, Cutty Sark, J & B, and Chivas Regal.

For the holidays, here are five classy and affordable scotch whisky brands to check out:

1. Auchentoshan Three Wood (around 62.00)


Our top pick for sheer complexity and lack of top notes of smoke. Auchentoshan Three Wood is a Lowland single malt matured in three different casks: Pedro Ximenez Sherry casks, bourbon casks and Oloroso sherry. We loved it and it's perfect to sip neat, enjoying the notes of fruit, sherry, cognac and dark rum-like finishes. Deep amber color. Superb finish with no sharp bite. Least peat-like of the five we tried.

2. Glen Garioch 1797 Founder's Reserve (around 42.00)

Another amber potion that finishes with less bite and less smoke than most. Crafted by John & Alexander Manson since 1797, this selection of Non Chill-Filtered Glen Garioch has a touch of spice. Founder's Reserve, for the money, is one of the nicer Highland single malts with honey and vanilla underscores with a hint of apple. Really drinkable, and we all preferred this neat.

3. Auchentoshan Single Malt Classic  (around 36.00)

A great mixer scotch, or to serve neat too. Most of us here liked this on the rocks with a lemon rind curl. Lowland single malt whisky from the Auchentoshan distillery, no age statement is given. There are hints of a fruit and bourbon vanilla finish.

4. Bowmore Islay Single Malt 12 years (around 46.00)

Okay, this is the one that separates the smokey peat lovers from those of us who adore The Balvenie DoubleWood or Auchentoshan Three Wood. It's too much for me but my office mates who like a more manly scotch were into it.  The 12 year-old elixir has coastal notes peat, charcoal and a greener finish than the others.

5. Glen Grant The Major's Reserve (around 30.00)

No age statement malt from Glen Grant, The Major's Reserve is very easy to drink, and a great entry level malt from the distillery. What that means is of all the varietals we tried, this one is a pure mixer that has a thinner finish and was the least complex. A good beginner's scotch, but not weighty enough for a more seasoned scotch drinker.

Further Reading on M&C