Inevitably, any list of solid standards must be contentious, arbitrary, and incomplete. I compiled mine from several websites and online fora, added some malts at my own discretion and deleted those that are no longer found on the regular market, that were just revamped, or that are too controversial to be included among the others.
So, the list below is just a snapshot made at this point in time, and it remains to be seen how well it will fare. You might find a specific whisky missing from it, or you might wonder why some of these are up there. I certainly do both myself. At least, I hope that we can all agree that this list covers single malt scotch whiskies only. Blends, the Irish, American and other ones are not included as my occasional solid standards series is yet to cover these grounds. Otherwise, there might be quite some need to talk here – not the least about the question how to sort out this slightly tedious and confusing list.
Solid standards with an age statement
Aberlour 12 (non chill filtered), AnCnoc 12, Ardbeg 10, Arran 10, Balvenie 12 Double Wood, Benromach 10, Bunnahabhain 12, Caol Ila 12, Clynelish 14, Dalwhinnie 15, Deanston 12, Glen Garioch 12, Glen Grant 12, GlenAllachie 12, Glencadam 10, GlenDronach 12, Glenfarclas 15, Glengoyne 12, Glenmorangie 10, Hazelburn 10, Highland Park 12, Kilkerran 12, Lagavulin 16, Oban 14, Port Charlotte 10, Springbank 10, Talisker 10, Tamdhu 12, Tobermory 12, Tomatin 12.
Solid standards without an age statement
Arran Amarone cask finish, Bruichladdich The Classic Laddie, Glenfarclas 105, Kilchoman Sanaig, Laphroaig Quarter Cask, Longrow peated.
Introduction: How to sort things out?
With more than 130 operating distilleries, dozens of lost ones, and new ones opening on an almost monthly basis, the variety of whiskies out there can become quite overwhelming. With hundreds of thousands of whisky experts with differing tastes and opinions, a sense of orientation does not come easy either. So how is one to sort things out and get a sense of the lay of the land? How is one to get from the Aberlour 12 to the Tomatin of the same age at the bottom of the list? How should one plan an itinerary and what could serve as signposts? I was asking myself these questions when thinking about how to write this occasional series on solid standards. After all, I wanted my series to proceed in a somewhat orderly and progressive fashion. Alas, I am yet to find a satisfying answer.
Several renowned experts have come up with different ways and means to sort things out when it comes to whisky: personal taste, shared perceptions, tasting notes, the style or profile of a given whisky, its general features, the alphabet, or different whisky regions – these are the most common classifications. Each of these systems has its pros and cons, and it has proven rather difficult to agree on which one to choose over the others. Furthermore, the fact that the different categories employed by these systems do not readily translate into or map onto one another has not made things easier either. Sorting things out is hence no easy task – at least when it comes to whisky; nuts and bolts seem more straightforward when it comes to that.
In what follows, I will discuss the pros and cons of these classifications and shortly comment on how I will employ them in going on with this series. Thereafter, I review the Talisker 10, a renowned and solid standard or, as others call it, ‘always a benchmark’ or ‘the king of drinks’. My discussion might make for a rather lengthy read so feel free to skip it and to go straight to the review if you are here for the Talisker 10. Or you could jump straight to the comments and add your thoughts or objections to my list.
1. By personal preferences and taste
The classic and most common method has been to sort out whiskies according to one’s taste and liking. So did Robert Louis Stevenson back in the 1880s, creating his very own ‘king of drinks’ category which he clearly distinguished from those that he seemed to abhor:
The king o’ drinks, as I conceive it,
Talisker, Isla, or Glenlivet!
For after years wi’ a pockmantie
Frae Zanzibar to Alicante,
In mony a fash and sair affliction
I gie’t as my sincere conviction –
Of a’ their foreign tricks an’ pliskies,
I maist abominate their whiskies.
Robert Louis Stevenson. “The Scotsman’s Return from Abroad” (1885)
As did Robert Louis Stevenson, many sort out their whiskies according to how they like them. Usually, this happens in a somewhat organic fashion as it does on my shelf where my preferred bottles find their place up front and where the lesser ones get delegated to the rear. Based on my own taste and experiences, this classification sorts things out by ‘up front’ vs ‘rear’ and is weighted according to my own preferences. The whiskies have found their place on my shelf by constant revisions going hand in hand with sheer convenience and laziness. However, this way to sort things out is entirely subjective, biased, and up to my taste. It does not help me with whiskies which I am yet to try, it has no objective standard, and it is hard to communicate to others. So, sorting things out according to my own liking is not the most promising solution; and as did Robert Louis Stevenson by sorting his kings into different regions, I will have to draw on other features in sorting out my whiskies as well.
2. By reputation
As suggested in my last article, solid standards have commonly earned their reputation over time. Indeed, many whiskies sort out on the shelves of our imagination by personal recommendation and according to the stories that we tell or hear about them. After all, it is not a small thing to call a liquid ‘the king of drinks’ – who wouldn’t like to try that one? The good thing about these stories and recommendations is that they connect us with one another. They provide us with a common mythology, shared points of reference, heroic epics or horror stories, and never-ending arguments. Or they serve as warnings to those willing to listen. Personally, I find our chatter one of the most enjoyable aspects of being part of the whisky community. As for other faerie tales, there is usually some kernel of truth and a lot of exaggeration to our stories. Unfortunately, the trustworthy ones have become mixed up with marketing buzz and a lot of hype about the latest thing in town, and it has become increasingly difficult to tell the one from the other. The industry has not been sleeping and is now spinning yarns of its own joined by a host of influencers who are willing to copy and post anything on their profiles just to get another like.
Stories and fairy tales are very entertaining and make for beautiful collections, but they are not very systematic and hardly share a common standard. The introduction of scoring systems has been one attempt to change this. These systems allow one to evaluate the quality of a given whisky just by looking at its score. Problems aside which scoring scale or which system to choose, this method of sorting things out goes by sheer numbers. It cannot get more systematic than that, and one can find out at a glance which whiskies stand out from the fold. Personally, I find the scores generated by a community a bit more reliable than those given by a solitary taster, but this is just a matter of preference. The problem with these scores is that they tell one nothing about a given whisky except how well it fares in comparison to others. Faced with a mere 90, I learn nothing about the liquid; and a 90 for a Laphroaig can hardly mean the same thing as a 90 for a Glenlivet. At least, I would like to know more about the style and profile of a given whisky when I try to sort things out.
3. Style and profile
Tasting notes provide some information on a given whisky’s style and profile. Such notes have their pros and cons as well, and while they usually come with their respective whiskies, they do not really help to sort things out in the first place. Nonetheless, based on such notes one could sort out one’s whiskies by mapping them onto flavour wheels like the ones developed by Charles MacLean or those used by Bruichladdich or one could put them on malt whisky flavour maps as formerly done by Diageo. These tools use simple coordinates, they are highly visual, they give a good lay of the land, and they provide an easy sense of orientation. According to their main coordinates and axes, one can assess the basic profile of a given whisky and compare it to the others on display with spatial proximity indicating similarity and spatial distance expressing disparity. Inspired by such tools, but less visual in his solution, Serge Valentin has come up with the ‘SGP system’ that also relies on some basic criteria to sort out whiskies according to their profile. This system weighs how sweet, grassy, and phenolic a whisky is by giving each of these aspects a numeric score and thereby offers a quick and easy way to read its overall aromatic profile (once one has familiarized oneself with how to read this system…). These are some fine tools that make use of personal or collected notes to sort and weigh whiskies in comparison to one another.
Yet, these classificatory systems run into the same limitations as the notes that they are based on: Personal tastes and associations differ – where one taster finds abundant notes of heather, the other finds nothing but hay. Furthermore, it is anything but agreed upon which criteria one should choose as the main ones for the evaluation of a whisky’s aromatic profile. By way of an example, the ‘rich’ or ‘delicate’ that Diageo has suggested as basic coordinates for their flavour map are not incomprehensible but not entirely satisfactory to me either. Lastly, how and where can one draw a line in deciding on a whisky’s notes and profile? Is this note more to the winey or fruity side? Do we talk peaty or feinty on this one? And how are we to label the bigger chunks or boxes? Once again, the criteria are hard to pin down and anything but agreed upon.
4. Characteristics and features
Thus, many customers fall back on the obvious characteristics and features of a given whisky to make up their minds about buying it. They read the label, they hold the bottle against the light or have a close look at the pictures on the web, and they check on the price tag. Thus, they learn about a whisky’s distillery, its age and ABV, and the casks that were used in its maturation. A quite common and frequently commented feature that customers seem to rely on in judging their whiskies is their colour with the dark ones selling out rather quickly. Falling back on numeric figures (‘the older the better’, ‘cask strength over diluted ones’) and sensual perceptions (‘the darker the sweeter’), buyers thus find their own ways and means to compare and sort out whiskies.
Yet, the industry is well aware of this and tends to lend quite some E150a magic to its produce which is as enticing as it sounds. Allegedly, adding a few drops of caramel colouring does not alter a whisky’s profile, and the buyers are eager to get the dark ones, so why not help things a bit from that end? There have been different answers to this question, and the debate between purists and the industry is yet to reach any conclusions. From my end, I do not see why one should add something to a whisky which changes nothing but its colour and then shy away from openly declaring that – if not to make a fool out of one’s clients. However, we also make fools of ourselves if we fall for the same old trick that easily again and again. Be that as it may, some of the best whiskies I have ever had were rather light, while some of the worst were quite dark in hue and colour. So, colour is not that much of a reliable help either.
Regarding the other criteria, I am not sure if they are as dependable as commonly assumed. Setting aside the sheer madness surrounding inaugural releases, young whiskies can be quite fantastic while old ones might have succumbed to the wood at some point in their maturation. There is no chance to tell from their age. And while casks certainly matter to a whisky’s taste and profile, they differ in quality and impact. Sometimes, casks can overpower a whisky and dominate its profile, at other times, they only leave a faint impression. It takes two to tango, and personally, I prefer if both have their share in an interactive and complex choreography. Furthermore, while the industry likes to make some fuss about the special casks used in a whisky’s maturation, it is usually a bit shy about letting the customers know for how long the liquid has rested in these. There is certainly a difference between three months and three years here, so that a ‘matured in sherry casks’ appearing in bold print on the label does not always mean the same thing. Arguably, the independent bottlers do a much better and more transparent job when it comes to the information given on their labels, but as this is a series about solid standards, I will not get into that here.
5. Distilleries by alphabet
So far, these various characteristics and features seem hardly reliable to sort out whiskies in an overall shared and agreed-upon manner. Thus, numerous writers have opted for the encyclopaedic fashion: Charles MacLean, Michael Jackson, Ruben, Serge Valentin, the Malt Whisky Yearbook, the Whiskybase, or the guy with the hat – all sort out their whiskies according to the name of their distilleries. This system applies the same criteria to all single malts, it offers an easy orientation, it is unbiased and unweighted, and it does not allow for personal preferences. So, there is not much fuss or debate about this classification which offers the community a neutral go-to and a widely shared frame.
Yet, while all whiskies sort out by the same criteria in this system, where their distilleries find themselves in the alphabet is just a matter of historical accident, and this way to classify things remains indifferent to a whisky’s features and qualities. Thus, one must look elsewhere to learn about the differences between an Aberfeldy and a Wolfburn as the alphabet provides one with no hint or lead on that. Furthermore, whiskies produced by a single distillery can differ quite drastically as in the case of BenRiach which comes in peated and unpeated versions. So, we are once more back asking for more knowledge or guidance about a given whisky’s profile to sort things out.
6. Whisky regions
The broadest way to sort out whiskies by their overall profile has been to categorize them according to the specific regions of their production. This has been done by British tax collectors, by Robert Louis Stevenson in his poem – Isla referring to Islay and Glenlivet to the Speyside –, and by the Scotch Whisky Association that presently acknowledges five different whisky regions. Of these regions, the Speyside is claimed to produce delicate and fruity whiskies, Campbeltown is robust and oily, the Lowlands are soft and smooth, the Highlands appear more intense, and Islay has become synonymous with peat. Hence, these regions seem to offer a fair guidance in sorting out one’s whiskies and are therefore frequently used by educators to give newcomers some orientation.
Yet, once more appearances are deceiving. First and foremost, the styles found within a single region can differ widely, whereas whiskies from separate regions can be quite similar in character. Besides being all produced in the Highlands region, Ardmore, Scapa, and Glengoyne have nothing in common; whereas it is not that easy to tell a peated BenRiach from a peated Bunnahabhain or an unpeated Caol Ila from a Dalwhinnie. Furthermore, what counts as a region seems rather arbitrary, and the quarrels about that have gifted us with Mitchell’s Glengyle distillery. As the owner of this distillery was eager to put Campbeltown back on the whisky-regions-map, he opened a third distillery in this town in 2004. Thereby, Campbeltown caught up with the Lowlands and had to be counted as a whisky region of its own by the SWA again. Thus, the three distilleries in Campbeltown make for a single whisky region as do the hundred-plus ones in the Speyside. Meanwhile, the Highlands region is more of a by-product of the other regions and hardly makes for a singular style or a coherent region. Last and least, the industry has recently invented an ‘Islands’-region lumping together the Orkneys, the Isle of Skye, Mull, Jura, and Arran, somehow suggesting that Talisker and Arran share the same style which borders on utter nonsense. Thus, the different whisky regions are not that dependable either when it comes to sorting things out.
These would be the most common ways to sort things out when it comes to whisky. Concluding this tour d’horizon, let me stress that I did not mean to discredit or discard any one of these methods; nor did I try to sell you one over the others. What I sought to do was to highlight their merits and their shortcomings. After all, these are tools that should allow us to sort out our actual or imaginary shelves, and all of them help and hamper us in this in certain ways. Accordingly, I would not opt for only one of them but for a creative play of the imagination that draws on and mixes all of them, tapping unto different classifications to benefit from the insights that they yield. This is also done by other reviewers who combine the alphabet with scores and notes or have come up with other creative solutions. Furthermore, none of these classifications is written in stone, and we should keep a healthy dose of scepticism towards them. After all, the proof is not in a whisky’s classification but in its delivery; as in puddings, it is hard to nail things down when it comes to whisky. So, let us finally get to the drinking and see how we sort out the Talisker 10.
The Talisker 10 is big and, indeed, in many ways a benchmark. And aren’t benchmarks supposed to help us in evaluating and classifying things? So, how are we to sort things out when it comes to Talisker?
In 2016, when Torabhaig was founded on the southern coast of the Isle of Skye, Talisker became the ‘oldest active distillery’ on this island. Founded in 1830, Talisker has been making whisky for almost 200 years and grown into one of the giants of the industry. In 2017, Talisker sold over three million bottles of its single malt, making it one of the biggest whisky brands of the world. Beyond that, Talisker is one of the most important not-so-secret ingredients of the Johnny Walker blends albeit being added to these in small proportions only. Apparently, it is so special and irreplaceable in their blends that Diageo attempted to recreate the Talisker at Cragganmore in the mid-2000s when the Isle of Skye was exposed to a severe drought and Talisker distillery was coming to a standstill so that they would not run out of stock for their blending. Last year’s special release Cragganmore bears witness to that. But what is it that makes Talisker so special?
As the marketing buzz goes, Talisker is ‘made by the sea’, but, except for a few casks, it is matured on the mainland which is also where the malted barley from which it is made comes from. This has me doubting that it is the sea that makes a difference here. Originally, Talisker was triple distilled, but in 1928 its makers switched to the more conventional double distilling as well. The malt is medium-peated, full-bodied, and renowned for its chilli pepper note. I am no expert in the technicalities of whisky production, so I will not get into these, but let me highlight two parts of its equipment (also seen in this video) that make the Talisker distillery and its production quite unique and that might contribute to Talisker’s distinct profile. Talisker’s stills have a special feature: the ‘reflux purifiers’ (seen from 00:48 in the video)¹. These reconnect the lye pipes with the stills and have a significant part of the by then condensed distillate flow back into the stills, so that it gets distilled again. Technically speaking, Talisker is hence more than double distilled. Its worm tubs are Talisker’s second special feature (seen from 01:18 in the video). Worm tubs condense the distilled vapour back into liquid by having the pipes that carry it run through a cold-water bath. As condensation in the worm tubs is faster and occurs with less copper-contact than in the nowadays widely used shell-and-tube condensers, the spirit is rather heavy in the end. So, these two factors might contribute to Talisker’s unique character, but let us get to the pudding and see for ourselves…
Talisker 10 year old – review
The Talisker 10 is one of Diageo’s classic malts and one of the best-selling scotch whiskies in the world. It has been matured in ‘American oak’, which is to say Bourbon casks, for at least ten years before it is bottled at 45,8%. Unfortunately, it seems to be chill-filtered, and it has the all too obligatory E150a added to it for which I will detract one point from my final score. A full bottle will cost you less than 40 pounds or euro, which will probably have me adding one point to the final score. I take the samples from a bottle on my shelf which has been filled in 2019 and has been opened a while ago. This bottle is available almost everywhere, so please shop around but expect to pay £37.95 via The Whisky Exchange, £36.45 with Master of Malt, $66.99 with SharedPour or Amazon will demand £37.55.
On the nose: a sweet and spicy delivery displaying vanilla, brown sugar, and peppery chilli notes with a nice smoke whiffing through; I find the nose quite coastal (maybe the marketing buzz has gotten to my head) and have some floral, anise, and greasy notes.
In the mouth: as full-bodied as you can expect of 45,8% with the same sweet-and-spicy profile; vanilla with brown sugar, chilli peppers, some anise, salty notes, and a slight acidity. The finish is of medium length, warming and dry; the peppery chillies catch on early and add a quite pleasant afterburn to an otherwise sweet and ashy finish.
This is more than a solid standard. This is, indeed, a benchmark. The Talisker 10 is big, full-bodied, intense, and quite entertaining. The sweetness and the spiciness tango well together, the nicely integrated peat smoke adds another fine layer to this coastal malt which I quite like. The Talisker 10 puts the abominable Talisker Skye to the shame that it is; so if you also like this one, rather go for a pour of the Talisker 57° North, as long as it is still available, or move on to the Talisker 18. If it were not for the E150a, this would have been an easy 7 in my book, but then the price is more than right on this one. So here we are, sorting out the Talisker 10 on a scale from 1 to 10.
¹To the best of my knowledge, these ‘reflux purifiers’ are otherwise only found at Dailuaine distillery due to the shared heritage of both distilleries, but maybe someone reading this has more information on that? If so, please let me know in the comments!
Whisky Regions map kindly provided by the Scotch Whisky Association. Distillery photos by Jason. Lead image from The Whisky Exchange who also provide a commissionable link above plus the other retailers.