By Richard Thomas
A whisky can be overlooked for a variety of reasons. Many look askance at the lack of an age statement or if the age statement is below 12 years, the point which serves as the lowest age rung in many whisky lines. The brand may be overshadowed by a more famous neighbor or simply be obscure in general. Some whisky drinkers eschew anything that isn’t a single malt altogether.
The following seven whiskies are, for these reasons and more, underrated. None of them are famous and underrated, as in the case of Glenfiddich 12 Year Old, but all deserve more attention from Scotch lovers and drinkers at large than they get. These are the kinds of whiskies that I’m left scratching my head at how a bar can say they have a decent Scotch selection when they have only one or (worse) none of them on their shelves.
Aberfeldy 12 Year Old ($40/£35)
Aberfeldy lies at the core of Dewars, as the only distillery the Dewars brothers ever built themselves. It is also found in the place often described as the geographic “heart of Scotland.” Yet it is probably because of that connection to Dewars—a brand better known in the U.S. than anywhere else—that limits its appreciation among Scotch fans. Yet if you are looking for a heather-honey sweet single malt at a reasonable price, you aren’t going to find much of a better bargain than Aberfeldy 12 Year Old.
Caol Ila 12 Year Old ($60/£40)
This single malt is the entry level whisky for one of the distilleries of that fabled and smoky Scotch region, the isle of Islay. Yet among the Islay whiskies, so well known for their peat and sea spray, Caol Ila has a surprisingly hum drum reputation. This may because it’s medium-bodied flavor isn’t what diehard peat heads are looking for or it may be because Caol Ila is associated with (and consequently dismissed because of) its role as a prime supplier of blending stock to Johnnie Walker.
People buy Caol Ila whiskies, but they don’t rave about them they way they do Ardbeg or Laphroaig, or even Diageo stablemate Lagavulin. Couple this to a very reasonable price point, and Caol Ila 12 is a solidly underrated Islay single malt.
Glenfarclas 105 (£45)
High octane whiskies are not nearly as common in Scotch circles as they are among American whiskeys. While Glenfarclas 105 has a cult following among Scotch drinkers, that simple fact begs the question of why this very drinkable, very potent single malt isn’t more popular than it is, since using the word “cult” implies narrow reach. Add to that it’s very reasonable price tag (in the UK and Europe anyway; in the U.S. it’s a pricey, special import item), and the question doubles over. Simply put, Glenfarclas 105 should be as popular as anything The Macallan does at $100 or less, and until it is the stuff is just plain underrated.
Kilchoman Machir Bay ($60/£43)
This single malt gets overlooked for two reasons. First, hardly anyone who isn’t a true Scotch whisky diehard has heard of Kilchoman, arguably the least well-known of Islay’s distilleries. Machir Bay is released in annual batches, with the 2016 installment having aged in ex-bourbon barrels for six years before getting a finish in Oloroso Sherry casks. Many consider this one of the best youngish single malts around, and knowing how small the batch run actually is, I’m always left shaking my head whenever I actually see bottles sitting on store shelves.
Monkey Shoulder ($32/£25)
Whenever I see an article or bartending pamphlet that rates this top notch triple malt as something merely for mixing or use in cocktails, I’m flabbergasted. It’s a solid, easy going sipper, drawing on stock from Balvenie, Glenfiddich and Kininvie. It is popular, but nowhere as popular as it ought to be. For its price point and quality, Monkey Shoulder ought to be a go-to whisky for anyone who likes Scotch. That it’s not and that some misrate it as a mixer makes it at least somewhat underrated.
Speyburn 10 Year Old ($25/£28)
Although it’s nothing special, this imminently drinkable single malt is cheap, especially in the U.S. It’s a give-and-take, “what do you like?” argument as to whether you should get Speyburn, Glenfiddich or Glenlivet based on the taste, but based on the price Speyburn is always a little cheaper. It gets overlooked because it is not as well known and the age statement is two years less. That is good luck, because while most people put too much stock in age numbers and stick with the familiar, that leaves bargains like this for the rest of us!
Springbank 10 Year Old ($50/£36)
Springbank is an old fashioned distillery using a variety of traditional production methods, things whisky-lovers adore, so the only explanation for why it sometimes seems as if Springbank is overshadowed somehow is that it is in the not as glamorous Campbeltown Scotch Region. Another reason this whisky gets less attention than it should is the 10 year age statement, as 12 is most often fixed upon as a “minimum” of those who know just enough about Scotch to do themselves harm. Even so, this single malt is bottled at a stiff (for Scotch) 46% ABV and is simply delicious stuff.