If you live overseas or are unfamiliar with the national grocery chain Trader Joe’s, all you need to know is that Trader Joe’s is popular for having lots of fun stuff at very cheap prices.
A notch or two above Aldi’s, it’s more of a “Whole Foods Light.” There is a vast frozen section and meals to-go galore for the lazy single person. Trader Joe’s was established in LA in the late sixties, and you can tell. The stores are adorned with Tiki-themed signage and bric-a-brac, which was the trendy LA style at the time.
It should be said upfront that the name Trader Joe’s is misleading. They don’t barter, per se. They’ll trade their stuff for your money, and that’s about it. I learned this the hard way; imagine the look of shame on my face as I reloaded all those pelts back into my Honda.
To get Trader Joe’s to put their name on a product is a long and arduous process. The testing panels consist of several Trader Joe’s crew members—not top-level executives—and they are highly selective. Before a product gets the greenlight, it will go through the democratic tasting panel process 6-7 times!
Trader Joes’ in-house branded products are the lion’s share of what you find at the store, on everything from nuts to gnocchi. In the liquor section, they carry a small smattering of Scotch whiskies: the usual suspects like The Macallan, The Glenlivet, and Glenfiddich make appearances in addition to several generic-looking bottles bearing the Trader Joe’s name. In the past, I’ve seen all sorts of Scotch odds and sods on the shelves. I’ve seen Ardmore distill for Trader Joe’s, as well as GlenAllachie and Glen Moray. More on these private labels later…
The most pertinent item for discussion on the TJ shelves is the trusty ol’ Finlaggan. I purchased my first Finlaggan in 2011. When I poured myself a dram, my gormless then-boyfriend thought I had burned something in the kitchen! (Sidebar: That’s how you know it’s good!) In traveling to Scotland, I was surprised to find Finlaggan at proper whisky shops, but not at Tesco. In the U.S., you can ONLY find Finlaggan at Trader Joe’s. I’ve never seen it at a liquor store. The exclusive secret deal between supplier/distributor/importer makes me salivate almost as much as the Islay treat itself. It is, without a doubt, the best Islay dram you can find for such a pittance.
The distillery that Finlaggan comes from is shrouded in mystery. I’ve been Nancy Drew-ing it for years now. Trader Joe’s is privately owned, so all supplier and distributor information is undisclosed. Industry sleuths surmise Finlaggan is Lagavulin. According to Josh Peterson, author of The Whiskey Jug and co-runner of the Southern California Whiskey Club, Finlaggan has been all-but-confirmed to have come initially from the Lagavulin distillery, but is currently said to originate from Caol Ila.
Caol Ila does make sense, and it is practically right next door to the Finlaggan loch; however, I still suspect Finlaggan is Bowmore. It tastes just like the well-balanced Bowmore to me: half smoke, half honeysuckle. Another clue: the founder of the company that makes Finlaggan has Bowmore ties. Brian Cook founded The Vintage Malt Whisky Co Ltd in 1992, and before that he was the director of Morrison Bowmore Distillers, so it makes sense they’d be in cahoots.
Finlaggan at Trader Joe’s is approximately $20. It BURIES other Islay bottles well into the hundred dollar price range, which makes it the best dram for your buck. I adore it. While the two closest TJ’s to me were out of Finlaggan, I tracked it down in Toluca Lake, where I guess no one knows anything. Finlaggan is one of the best pro tips I can give.
Last week, I purchased the four different TJ private label Scotches they had in stock. “The Highland Single Malt Scotch Whisky, distilled and bottled for Trader Joe’s” reads their labels. I bought the sherry cask finish, the bourbon cask finish, the rum cask finish, and the 19 year. The first three are all NAS, and roughly $20. To say they are “acceptable” would be to damn with faint praise. Can you say, “monumentally just fine? Exuberantly adequate?” I have been nipping on them for days, and I can’t find one unpleasant note in any of them.
The 19 year old was $49 so: right away, awesome. You’ll be paying a lot more if you want that number on the label of any other brand. I’ll admit the 19 year was my favorite. It had more surprises than the others. It had a dried honey nose, Nestle coffee creamers on the palate, and the finish was a warm clementine lilac.
The bourbon cask finish was my second favorite. I have a lot of respect for a no-nonsense dram. It has everything a first-fill bourbon cask finish is supposed to have; vanilla, honey, apple, mellow oakiness.
The sherry cask finish is gentle, unremarkable but clean. I wish it had a bit more sherry. It has a shy nose, but opens up well with water to reveal a wisp of general Allspice. It ends quietly. Since entry-level whisky drinkers seem to love a whisky that disappears right away (“Smooth!” being the highest compliment for some reason) I’d say it’s an excellent beginner dram. It was too wussy for me, though, so it was my least favorite.
I like the rum cask finish even more than the absurdly popular Balvenie Caribbean Cask! I would not have been able to detect its rum cask influence. Where the Balvenie tastes too conventionally rummy to me, the TJ’s one is subtle, with more raisins and Rice Krispies Treats on the nose, the classic Butterscotch Lifesavers on the palate, and no coconut. It has that turbulent astringency on the end that some may not prefer, a characteristic often identified as cheap… it *is* cheap, after all. Also, I like a whisky that reminds me what it is: water, alcohol, grain, and yeast. In a blind taste, I’d have guessed a traditional bourbon cask and older sherry cask finish. I’m finicky about rum influence because I don’t care for the basic flavors it imparts—
coconut, butter, sunblock. If a rum has partied with my whisky, I want it to be funky and curious—but I can’t expect that from the safe selection at Trader Joe’s.
In summation, these Scotches are all basic bitches, but in a beautiful way. These Scotches aren’t “good for their price,” they’re good. Period. I haven’t seen a 19 year-old anything as cheap, in any store, other than the private labels in national grocery stores. Costco was selling a terrific Alexander Murray Fettercairn 18 earlier this year for $49. I dare you to complain about that. Private label bottles for national chains rule.
Now, I cannot speak to the private bottlings for every national chain, as I like to vote with my dollar and some of those corporations are diabolical. But, I am roundly impressed with the practices of TJ’s and Costco. They have dignified wages and benefits, and excellent products where you know you aren’t just paying for the packaging. You do know that with most luxury products, you’re only splurging for the packaging, right? This is as true in skincare as it is in spirits. Trader Joe’s is a responsible corporate citizen. It has no traceable private or Super Pac donations to reactionary, authoritarian politicians, above average maternity/paternity leave, a commitment to growing indie and organic brands, and takes action to reduce waste in its own product packaging.
Another thing I like about TJ’s private label is they don’t try to trick you. The labels are industry-standard general, but not deliberately vague. Not obtuse. They don’t insult your intelligence. The front label says what region in Scotland it comes from, it breaks down the maturing and finishing process, and says where it’s bottled. Other unmentionable large chains make up broadly Scottish sounding names. If you didn’t know better, you’d think the whisky was made by the hard-working folks of the GlenMacDougaleton Distillery.
When you buy a single malt distilled and bottled from Trader Joe’s, it gives you enough information that you can educate yourself, if the spirit moves you. On the back label, the descriptions are hilariously unembellished: you’ll get fruit, spice, and sweetness, of course! (As if to say, “What did you expect, idiot?!”)
Scotch is an intimidating category, so I appreciate the simplicity. Most importantly, Trader Joe’s gets good Scotch into the hands of non-experts for an incredibly cheap price. Good Scotch should be available to everyone. Like finding a two-dollar paperback of Pride and Prejudice, you can have a pleasurable experience while expanding your knowledge. Perhaps Trader Joe’s is trading more than they think.
Trader Joe’s Highland Single Malt Scotch Whisky Sherry Cask Finish – review
Color: Tawny light amber.
On the nose: Can’t remember the last time I nosed ethanol up top! Then a shy marzipan emerges once I add water. Next come raisin English muffins and Dial soap residue.
In the mouth: Satin-thin, easy, negligible finish.
It’s an average-tasting dram. Its only offense is it’s dull. I’d pour for guests that don’t know anything about Scotch, and they’ll like it just fine.
Trader Joe’s Highland Single Malt Scotch Whisky Bourbon Cask Finish – review
Color: Tawny light amber (pretty much the exact same color as the Sherry Cask. They are indistinguishable. I even shone a flashlight to the liquids side by side.)
On the nose: Faint Kraft’s Caramel Squares, Citronella bug spray!
In the mouth: Honey flavor, buttery Pillsbury biscuits; with water, wait for it…Chex Mix Snacks! This evaporates fast with little heat (I’ll die before I describe any whisky as “smooth”).
Classic FF bourbon finish notes. This is a Sunday sipping Scotch, or a perfect dram to rev up my palate before I taste something more complicated.
Trader Joe’s Highland Single Malt Scotch Whisky Rum Cask Finish – review
Color: Slightly more ruddy + tawny light amber.
On the nose: Butterscotch Lifesavers and wet strawberry leaves.
In the mouth: Burned butter Rice Krispie Treats, light mouthfeel, lingering without a coda after explosion, but a ghost of clove. This is done before it hits your throat!
This tasted more like a sherry finish than a rum finish. There are your usual suspects: walnuts, baking spices, and dark fruits. Perhaps it’s the general Allspice and fruit sweetness that gives it the swell at the end. It sustains itself a bit more that the first two, as is usually the case with sweeter spirits.
Trader Joe’s Highland Single Malt Scotch Whisky Aged 19 Years – review
Color: Mellow gold, yellow undertones (noticeably the lightest of the five, although not a pale hue).
On the nose: Dried honey, subtle. With water, salted pistachios, wet paint but in the way that makes you hungry, light cedar.
In the mouth: The mouth dryness you get after cashews, juicy citrus, coffee cream, a nice thickness on the palate, then a bitter orange rind curtain call around the back tongue and epiglottis.
This was a fun dram because it revealed more to me throughout my week of sipping it, whereas the others plateaued.
I couldn’t pin this one down right away. For $50, it is a worthy staple of any liquor cabinet. The bottle would be an excellent Scotch to use in a blind tasting. Tell your friends you have something extra special for them, pour it, watch them guess away! Watch them mistake it for something rare and expensive. Delight in their surprise when you reveal it’s a $50 TJ’s brand. Watch their expression change. That is what whisky is really about–tricking your friends!
Finlaggan Islay Single Malt – review
On the nose: Baby smoke and honeysuckle, pencil shavings.
In the mouth: Rich mouthfeel, tongue coating, fills your head with delicate geranium, iris, and lavender. There is a waxy chocolatey-ness to it that makes me drool. I wouldn’t recommend reducing this with water; it seems to flatten the smoke instead of enhance it. Keep in mind, I’m a smoke fiend, but it’s really the balance of light smoke and spring garden that makes Finlaggan so excellent–and the balance is delicate.
The only reason I love Finlaggan is because I have exquisite taste. Every time I sip this, it’s like robbing a bank. If you’re fussy about smoke, and claim you don’t enjoy it–Finlaggan will change your mind.