Malt has been a very important part of my whisky journey. The musings of the writers past and present has influenced my experience and helped me zero in on what I like to drink. I have learned so much about distilleries, their processes, and met some fantastic people along the way. Recent feedback from Patreon supporters prompted me to reflect on these earlier stages of my own experience and try to offer more articles that I would have found enlightening a few years ago.
A valuable lesson I have learned – but need to keep reminding myself of – is to seek out the opinions of others and to listen to advice from a variety of sources. Aside from reading whisky review sites, the very best source of advice are brick and mortar whisky shops. Staff are always willing to pass the time with customers and hear about the whisky they enjoy before offering some targeted advice on any purchase.
I got in touch with Nick and his team at Aberdeen Whisky Shop. Based in the lovely Granite City in the Northeast of Scotland, AWS has a reach around Europe due to the success of the online shop. It’s a small team that includes Bryan, who manages most of the online social media, does in house tastings and takes the great bottle photos you see in Instagram. You are likely to meet Natasha in the shop with her Spaniel Ash, on Saturdays; Kelly is in the shop during the week, and you might chat with Maria on Twitter.
The store itself is charmingly small and any visit involves finding a spare spot to stand between all the incoming and outgoing deliveries. Any more than two customers in the shop brings the whole place to a complete stop. The staff never appear to mind stopping in the midst of a busy day to chat about their passion for whisky.
I initially enquired about their best-selling mainstream whisky and was quickly rebuffed with the challenge “What is mainstream whisky?” A valid point and taken hard as I recently railed about the unhelpful categorisation of whisky. It’s a particularly daft question to ask the team at AWS, as they really specialise in the independent bottler market. Getting stocked in AWS is a huge boost for many of the new entrants to that market including Concept8, Auld Goonsey, Little Brown Dog, and more recently Dràm Mòr.
Where AWS – or indeed any good whisky store – will help most is aiding their customers in discovering new things. When asking at Royal Mile Whisky’s store in Edinburgh for something different to Springbank, I remember my introduction to Ben Nevis via their MacDonald’s Glencoe 8 Year Old Blended Malt Whisky. For anyone that has not had that expression: it is a rough dirty punch of flavour in the face, a bareknuckle boxer of a dram. But, from the discussions with AWS, we formatted a slightly more gentle combination.
Most whisky buyers begin tasting whisky with friends, tasting at cocktail bars, or visiting distilleries. Their whisky bottles are picked up at general off-licences in the same way as most gin, vodka etc. Supermarkets naturally get a lot of business from these early enthusiasts and, now more than ever, Amazon is making a play into the market. As much as I am guilty of decrying the quality of some of the whisky available in that market, all whisky fans start off there. Many of us will still pick up bottles from these retail outlets. Specialist shops of any kind can be daunting. They really ought not be.
Getting to the crux of the story here: I asked AWS what they would recommend to somebody that was a fan of Glenlivet 12 year old. A respectable dram, including an age statement which is widely available in off licences, supermarkets and of course Amazon. I’ve bought a bottle from Amazon for this review and got it for just £24.65.
I suggested a budget around £40, which I think is a fair step up in price for any Glenlivet 12 drinker looking for something a little more special and interesting. They came back with the suggestion of Arran 10 year old. I was immediately delighted. It’s a dram that has been lauded widely as one of the best value-for-money drams, it was awarded Best “Entry Level” Scotch and best overall Scotch Whisky in the inaugural Online Scotch Whisky Awards last year. It has scored well here on Malt, too. In terms of the style of presentation we whisky fans seek out: it is not chill filtered, without artificial colouring, at a more robust 46% ABV, and available from AWS for just £38.99. I ordered a bottle of this, too, and the article was set.
Here is one of the many reasons why whisky shop advice is so useful: they constantly speak with other customers like yourself, always are considering the breadth of Scotch available to fill their shelves, and will always prefer to make a lifelong customer through giving good advice than lose one by over-selling or pointing towards bad whisky. As whisky fans, we can support our local whisky shops by directing purchases towards them whenever possible. I like to drop in whisky samples of interesting things they don’t currently stock too and so are less likely to have sampled. It’s nice to be nice.
Let’s try to scrutinise these drams with one eye on the relative newcomer to whisky and one eye on someone more experienced and see how they stack-up against each other.
Glenlivet 12 Year Old – Review
A blend of American and European Oak. 40% ABV. £24.65 from Amazon.
On the nose: Sweet but more balanced, golden caster sugar, Millionaires Shortbread, pear drops, peach schnapps, buttered white toast, citrus marmalade.
In the mouth: A strange experience; sweet, very sweet, and indistinct. It’s smooth but mostly due to a lack of character than any inherent quality. With more time, low-cocoa milk chocolate, caramel, Maltesers, indistinct fruit, then a deeper more complex toasted slightly nutty note towards the finish. Costa Coffee Almond Croissant, cold milky instant coffee, hazelnut skin, Brûlée tops.
There is nothing inherently wrong with this whisky; its lack of character makes it difficult to dislike, yet it is not at all exciting. If your whisky budget is only £25 a bottle, you’ll do ok with this, and you should not be ashamed to drink it. It’s fine. For more character in the same price bracket, I would recommend Tomatin Legacy or Chivas 13 for a change.
Arran 10 Year Old – Review
A blend of bourbon and sherry casks. 46% ABV. £38.99 from the Aberdeen Whisky Shop.
Colour: Natural amber.
On the nose: Biscoff spread, cinnamon, cocoa nibs, big Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit Gum, freshly pressed apple juice, vanilla, a peach note, freshly sliced pineapple, dry baking spice and some oak sawdust.
In the mouth: Buttery texture, juicy from the off, tinned fruit salad syrup, yeasty apple cider, grapefruit peel, sliced green apple, honey and vanilla sponge, a slightly peppery spirit balanced by wood spices which give a decent medium length finish. With time the dram opens to give some overripe fruit and bruised pear notes taking the dram in an interesting direction. A lot to enjoy here.
I got in touch with Arran to find out if virgin oak had been used in the cask bill for this dram as it’s juicy like other virgin oak whiskies I have tried, but Arran confirmed that it only has bourbon and sherry casks in the mix, with more bourbon than sherry (the exact ratio is not revealed). These bourbon casks are doing a lot of work to soften and develop the fruitiness of the spirit here.
This is balanced, interesting. A great pick from the team at Aberdeen Whisky Shop and I’m sure that Glenlivet 12 drinkers would be comfortable the additional £14.34 had been well spent. The benefit of going for a smaller independent producer such as Arran is that they are very much still in the “craft” mode rather than Glenlivet’s “volume” when it comes to the whisky. The nature of this whisky speaks to considerate cask management being used to get the very best from the spirit, whereas it’s easy to imagine barcodes, huge batches of casks, and a focus on efficiency from the famous distillery ten times the size of Arran. Great Whisky
Whether you are a newcomer to whisky looking to upgrade or a veritable connoisseur seeking a surprise, a whisky shop can give you some great advice, sell you some unexpected new whisky, and offer greater value in the round than the supermarket and internet volume retailers. Time to take a wander down to your local shop.
For newcomers, this is our scoring grid.