September 25, 2023 8:49 pm

Bourbon Drinkers Try Scotch – Single Cask Edition

A few months ago, I pulled in a few local bourbon drinkers to have them try out a collection of single malt scotch options. Each person had to complete a pre-drinking survey to gauge their familiarity with the spirit, and to see if they have any preconceived notions about the flavors they were about to experience. About half the crew mentioned avoiding Scotch because of the fear of peat, and most were expecting flavors ranging from fruitiness to vanilla. I like to think I picked good bottles, and the tasting panel got to try the 2007 Daftmill Winter Release, Compass Box’s Hedonism, Glen Livet 21, Macallan Harmony Cacao, Dalmore 12 year, and of course a little Lagavulin 16 year at the very end just to smash some taste buds with some smoke. You can read the full results in the past article, but at the end of the night there were a few folks that were interested in Hedonism (not surprising considering the creamy vanilla notes) and the Daftmill was another favorite. The others were just…. Ok.

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So, I got to thinking about my own drinking preferences and realized that maybe if I went about this whole “get bourbon drinkers to try single malt” thing a little differently they might be a bit more impressed. After all, if I’m trying to impress someone with a bourbon’s rich flavor, I’m probably not going to grab a mid-shelf low abv product. I’m going to reach for a bottle I got from a barrel pick program, like our own WBSE Rickhouse, that’s higher ABV and packed with flavor. Seems like if I really want to make an impression with a single malt, I should take the same approach. Thankfully, there are a lot of really amazing single cask options out there that pack a punch, and in a reasonable budget range.

Armed with my new plan, I set out to drag a few guinea pigs to my place for a whiskey tasting. Unfortunately, I was only able to get two suckers… err… volunteers… for this project so I’d be working with a limited data set. I figure we’ll call this a trial run, and I can corrupt people into the world of single malts at scale later if this experiment shows promise. No one likes a heavy wallet anyways right?

Like before, I gave both volunteers a quick questionnaire to see what their favorite bourbon was, whether they enjoyed single casks, and a few questions about their Single Malt/Scotch knowledge. On a scale of 1-10 they averaged a 2.5 as to self-professed knowledge/experience with Scotch and favorite bourbons came in as Stagg Jr., Old Forester and Weller 107. One promising bit of feedback was that both preferred proofs north of 110. Also, without seeing each other’s answers, they both put favorite flavor profiles that included vanilla, caramel and fruit/citrus. When asked about what flavors they associated with Scotch they included smoke, earthy, cereal, and fruit. (When someone says cereal and fruit, I KNOW they’ve had at least one dram of Scotch in their life!)

The Tasting

With answers in hand, I’m already thinking I’m on the right path now with the line up I’ve chosen. The lowest ABV of the evening is 56.3% ABV and the highest is a nice warm 63%, right in that sweet spot of cask strength both prefer. Normally I pour blind, but since neither of my guests have experience with any of the brands I’ve chosen for the evening, I just made sure they didn’t see the tasting notes on the bottle prior to trying. Also, I decided to play nice and none of the evenings offerings were peated.

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Bottle #1 – Selkie Queen (Clynelish 14 year, Hogshead, 57.1% ABV)

Located on the northern Highlands coast, Clynelish is one of the core distilleries that produce single malt that’s blended to become Johnnie Walker branded whisky. It’s often referred to as waxy with hints of honey and tropical fruits
Nose: Both of our guest bourbon drinkers noted that it was floral with hints of fruit and grain
Palate: At first they said citrus, but eventually agreed it might be more crisp apple. Some herbal notes and a hint of cinnamon
Finish: One noted that it was a clean crisp finish and the other mentioned warm and minty

Bottle #2 – Bimber 2020 USA Edition Ex-Bourbon, (59.1% ABV)

If you’ve not heard of Bimber, it’s time to research them. Located in the heart of London, they’re turning out some absolutely amazing whisky in a variety of finishes. I chose an Ex-bourbon finish to bring in some of those vanilla notes I know bourbon drinkers love. Official notes on this one are “Rich, sweet, and fruit forward”
Nose: Both immediately noticed caramel notes, one mentioned marshmallow
Palate: Again a unanimous “VANILLA!” with notes of cherry and some citrus
Finish: One mentioned a bit of a hot finish with maybe a little pepper, and the other described it as rye spice with a hint of cereal

Bottle #3 – Kavalan Soloist Port Finish (Barrel pick from EU. Bottled 2018, 56.3% ABV)

This is similar to Bimber in that, if you’ve not had it. Go out and find a bottle of Solist in your preferred finish and you can thank me later. I’ve got several Soloist (single cask) expressions from Kavalan and I’ll fight anyone that tells me it’s not some of the best whisk(e)y in the world right now. These folks in Taiwan are turning out AMAZING drams. Official notes on the port finish: “Satisfying fruitiness blended with quality chocolate aromas that melt delicately on your palate. A wonderful and long lasting after taste for your unique sampling pleasure. “
Nose: There’s no hiding the port in this one, both had that as their first thing they noticed. Deeper down they noted some creaminess and fruit
Palate: “Smooth” (I hate that one) And when pressed I got them to define that as “fruit for days” and cream with hint of raisins.
Finish: “Oh man that’s smooth” (At this point I’m just staring at him… daring him to say the S word one more time.) Also, “vanilla and it’s super complex I can’t really decipher the back end”

Bottle #4 – GlenAllachie PX Finish 12 year (WBSE Barrel Pick by Billy Walker, 57% ABV)

I’m not usually a PX guy, but I wanted a really good PX finish to offer up to my guests, and this is one of the best PX finished single malts I have in my collection. It was a barrel pick from a couple years ago, and is simply outstanding. I don’t have the official tasting notes, but this puncheon was a beautiful blend of the classic Speyside GlenAllachie with just enough Pedro Jimenez sweetness. It’s well balanced and avoids the overly sweet notes you can sometimes get with PX (at least by my palate). Lots of chocolate and treacle on this one.
Nose: Dark chocolate, chocolate, and one noted a hint of apple/fruit (I tell ya what… these two bourbon guys are getting pretty good at nosing this scotch stuff at this point!)
Palate: “BIG chocolate”, syrup (I’m going to assume that’s molasses/treacle), molasses (For folks not familiar with Scotland, they’re going to call that treacle in their notes), and “almost fig newtons”.
Finish: “Smooth chocolaty finish” (At this point I was making threats of bodily harm if anyone used the S word again), “honey roasted peanut butter”

Bottle #5 – SMWS Speyside Celebration Distillery 24

“Massive Oak Extraction” (It’s a single cask Macallan folks, and it’s a whopping 63% ABV)
In case you’re not familiar with them, SMWS is basically THE single cask, cask strength barrel pick group for Single Malt and Scotch enthusiasts. They dabble in other spirits as well (Bourbon, Armagnac, Rye, and even Rum occasionally) but the core of their offerings are their single cask expressions from distilleries all over the world. Distillery 24 happens to be Macallan and when these cask strength offerings show up, they never last. It’s a REALLY fun way to experience an exceptional cask just like you sampled it from the barrel. Official tasting notes on this one are: “The nose offered sherry, spiced wine and charcuterie; crème brûlée and chocolate raisin sweetness bumped into peppercorns, oak tannins and musk. Any sweetness on the palate (dark cherries in chocolate, peaches in syrup, cola, brown sugar, crêpes) was beaten into submission by massive hammerbeam oak, burnt heather, old cognac, espresso, cough medicine, cinnamon, ginger and chilli.” Key words in that wonderfully written description are “beaten into submission.” This one is a sherry bomb that is delivered to your taste buds by getting hit in the face with an oak stave. It’s bold, it’s so dark you can’t see through it, and it’s one of my favorite bottles this year. At 63% ABV, it grabs your attention.
Nose: Taster #1 said “ethanol, oak, maybe hot cocoa” while Taster #2 said “Spicy with tons of oak.” (Guess they noticed the oak… )
Palate: Taster #1 made a face that told me this was NOT his thing, it was followed by a little gagging and then “Cough medicine, hot sherry bomb” Taster #2 smiled and started eyeballing my bottle for more. His notes say: “Me likey! Nougat, oak, sherry, and after a drop of water some chocolate” (Couldn’t help but notice no one said smooth with this one…)
Finish: Taster #1 was still recovering and managed to scribble “sweeter finish for as hot as it is” while Taster #2 mentioned it was “fudgy and maybe just a little herbal”

Bottle #6 – SMWS “Amped-Up!” 13.89 (Dalmore Single Cask, 57% ABV)

This single cask Dalmore is one of my absolute favorites from the distillery. With only 80 bottles available in the US, they went fast and if you’re lucky enough to have one, you know what I’m talking about. It’s VERY different from their standard affair and in a good way. I probably DID make a mistake though, trying this one after Massive Oak Extraction. Next time, we’ll save the sherry oak bomb for last. In any case, here are the rather poetic yet dead on accurate tasting notes from SMWS: “Have you ever met a person in a cowboy’s tasselled jacket wearing a fragrance of cedarwood, leather accord and tobacco lifted by a hint of grapefruit? On the palate plenty of leather, red wine and tobacco entwined with cocoa nibs, cinnamon raisin bagels and blackberry brownies. Diluted cranberry orange granola bars made from oats, honey, nuts, dried cranberries and orange zest. Deliciously soft and chewy like toffee, Jaffa cakes, chocolate cherry fondant candies and a seemingly never-ending finish of roasted figs with pomegranate molasses and orange zest. After eleven years in an ex-bourbon hogshead, we transferred this whisky into a 1st fill charred with toasted heads, wine barrique.”
Nose: Cologne (They didn’t even read the tasting notes first!), tree fruit
Palate: Super fruity, chocolate, molasses, ceareal
Finish: Chocolate, dried fruits, sweet with a little spice

The Post Tasting Poll

I’ll admit, I was pretty happy that we only had one instance of eyes bugging out and a little gagging across the entire line up. Getting smacked in the face with a 63% ABV combination of oak and sherry can do that though! Once the dust settled, I polled our two volunteers to see what their thoughts were about single malts and scotch after they’d had a chance to try some they probably wouldn’t normally see on the shelf.

Our first taster decided that the Kavalan Port finish was his favorite of the night and when I asked him if he’d consider buying a bottle he, without any hesitation, said he’d absolutely be happy to buy one and would love a bottle of the Glenallachie as well. His least favorite was the Massive Oak Extraction and he said it was because it was just too much oak. Even amongst my single malt drinking friends, that one is a polarizing bottle so I can’t fault him there.

Taster #2 may have been converted completely to a single malt drinker after the evening. His favorite of the night was the Massive Oak Extraction (My man… we’re totally drinking together again after this tasting!) and he said he’d be happy to buy a bottle of everything other than the Selkie Queen. He just didn’t get a lot out of that one and it was a little boring compared to the others. That’s not surprising from someone who fell in love with an over oaked Macallan. I believe I have a fellow sherry head to drink with now.

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Wrap Up

The point of the “Bourbon Drinkers try Scotch” series isn’t to convert all my bourbon drinking friends to single malt, but rather to see if I can overcome some preconceived notions about Scotch and maybe add to the list of whiskey my friends can enjoy. If you’re a big fan of barrel pick bourbons, you just might like barrel pick single malts as well. Like with bourbon, you can get choosy when you pick a barrel and pick one with unique flavors while getting a chance to taste it at cask strength. There may not be as many small groups out there doing picks, but there are several independent bottlers out there like SMWS, Signatory, Douglas Laing, Gordon and MacPhail, Cadenhead, Hunter Laing, and Berry Brothers just to name a few. So, if you’re curious, I encourage you to go out and explore and maybe try some of those higher ABV options to see if that fits your palate just a little better.

When we shook hands and called it a night, both my guests thanked me and mentioned that I’d completely changed their viewpoints on Scotch whisky. I’m going to go ahead and apologize in advance to their wallets, since they’ve got an entirely new world of flavor to explore now. We’ll probably end up getting together again soon to sample a bit more of my SMWS and Kavalan bottles, and that’s research worth doing.

"Whisky is liquid sunshine."

George Bernard Shaw

“The light music of whiskey falling into a glass – an agreeable interlude.”

James Joyce

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