I’m not going to sit here and tell you that 2020 was anything to write home about. But I will say that at least we had a bevy of noteworthy scotch releases to help us slog through the setbacks. Even ongoing tariffs couldn’t stop some sensational single malts and blends from finding success on American shelves. And for one of the most traditional booze categories on the planet, this year saw a surprising degree of innovation in the bottle. A recent relaxation on barrel-aging rules by the Scotch Whisky Association allowed for malts and grains aged in everything from ex-mezcal to calvados cooperage.
As we pass through the gift-giving season, it’s also an ideal time to remember that scotch doesn’t have to be the elitist liquid that some make it out to be. In fact, in recounting the best new releases of the year, many come to mind that were safely priced in the double digits. Of course, if you require something that costs more than a new sports car, we wouldn’t want you to feel left out—there’s a bottle on this list just for you. Scroll down and see. Snag any of these and your spirits will be quite bright, indeed. Happy holidays!
The sixth and final release in The Macallan’s Edition Series celebrates the natural beauty of the brand’s estate—abutting the River Spey in the highlands of Scotland. The copper-hued, 97.2-proof malt emanates notes of nutmeg, ginger, and freshly-picked fruit. But its flavor delivers elements of toasted oak and oat, riding a medium body. Outside, the liquid comes boxed and labeled in an alluring shade of turquoise.
Dr. Bill Lumsden conceived this one-off as the encapsulation of a lifetime of joyful memories surrounding cake. By tinkering with casks formerly filled with Tokaji, the legendary master distiller landed on a finished malt replete with layers of honey and candied fruit. It pairs particularly well with actual dessert, which is why the distillery teamed up with renowned pastry chef Dominique Ansel (inventor of the cronut) to create an actual pineapple cake inspired by the whisky.
So, you thought Blue Label was a big deal? Wait until you get a load of this limited, 28-year-old offering, released to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the brand’s initial founding. The profile is inspired by a list of flavors found on an inventory form at the original John Walker’s store in the small village of Kilmarnock, Scotland. It incorporates ultra rare malts from storied stills that have long since shuttered, including Pittyvaich, Cambus, and Port Ellen. There’s an irresistible softness to the sip, but what truly separates this bottle—the only blended scotch on our list—are its tropical fruit undertones.
This Highland producer is universally revered by scotch enthusiasts for its sherry cask allegiances. But in the latest addition to the core lineup, master blender Rachel Barrie weaves another layer of cooperage into the fray. Port pipes from the Douro Valley of Portugal were imported into the dunnage warehouse and allowed to finish off robust malts, which had already matured in PX and Oloroso sherry butts. The secondary aging imparts a cherrywood hue upon the juice, which sings with sultana, shortbread, and blackberry fruit.
Bladnoch isn’t exactly new, technically. With over 200 years of history, it’s actually the oldest working distillery in the Lowlands region. But the brand only came back online in 2017 and has worked hard to revitalize its stature since then, launching a modern bottle design and recently poaching Dr. Nick Savage—the former master distiller of The Macallan. That ‘rebirth’ is especially celebrated through Samsara, a robust and savory malt which benefits from a partial maturation in red wine casks from Northern California.
In Scotland, Balblair enjoys a cultish following among whisky enthusiasts. Here in the states, the brand remains criminally overlooked. A recent revamping of the portfolio might change all that. Gone are the vintage releases, and in there place a series of 4 age statement offerings ranging from 12 to 25 years in maturity. Each has its own distinct character to offer, it is that eldest variety which has me most excited. Initially entered into ex-bourbon casks, the malt is “reshaped” in Oloroso Spanish oak. Pouring into the dram is an oily liquid; it coats the mouth with supple notes of toffee, tobacco and grapefruit pith.
For the peat freaks out there, Octomore needs no introduction. This annual series is a study in extremes; taking terroir and smoke to the outer limits of imagination. Not only is this one a single vintage, single harvest expression—it’s all sourced from a single field. The barley was grown just two miles from the stillhouse back in 2013. It’s then peated to unprecedented levels during malting, with the ensuing liquid bottled at barrel strength—over 123-proof. Underneath a bouquet of Atlantic brine, a subtle sweetness somehow emerges. A sip that certainly won’t quit.
The Glenrothes Distillery is one of the most storied in all of Speyside. And they’ve never released a malt this old; a half a century worth of maturation in the glass—well, individually-numbered handmade faceted crystal, to be exact. Distilled in November of 1968, the liquid was laid down in a combination of sherry and bourbon casks and left to solemnly slumber. Fifty years later, enough liquid converged to fill just 50 bottles at 96-proof. It yields a curious array of culinary spice on the tongue—cardamom, paprika, pink peppercorn. So that’s what history tastes like, I suppose.
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