Just ’cause you asked…
Now…I know I’m gonna get lambasted for posting NAS malts here, but the question was related to bang for your buck malts and, as this is a retrospective sorta listing, it would be disingenuous to play politics here. As I did with the last Top Ten, I simply sorted through my offline spreadsheet of scored whiskies and did a descending sort. From there I peeled out all limited releases – be they long gone vintages, single casks, special releases, etc – and left just standard readily available expressions (albeit some are batch releases, as stated below in notes). The list would have been bullshit if I left out the NAS malts. It wouldn’t have answered the question. That being said…sometimes you have to hurt the ones you love and I still say I’d buy an age-stated malt with a slightly lower score than support any corporate entity that expects my blind allegiance to their marketing department.
Enough from the soapbox already, right? For those looking to find some good value malts at affordable prices (I suppose that is all relative, aye?), here are my top ten so far…
No limited releases, or stuff I know was only special in one batch or so, were considered for this list (i.e. Airigh Nam Beist, the Port Charlotte PCs, etc)
1 Talisker 18 (45.8% abv) (93/100) – Arguably the best standard 18 year old malt I’ve tried. And tried again. And again. The perfect balancing act of soft fruits and very mild peat. Revisited this stuff just two days back and yep…still shines bright. Hard to find nowadays, but worth seeking out. Note: Talisker 18 is not available in Canada for some reason. The bottles I’ve tried (and have) are all older releases. Hopefully the newer editions are as rock solid.
2 Ardbeg Corryvreckan (57.1% abv) (92.5/100) – A malt that suffers very little from batch variation as far as I’ve seen. When people speak of the might of Ardbeg this is the kind of whisky they’re referring to. Massive and bombastic. The smoke and maritime notes combine to perfect effect. Like nearly drowning in the ocean, then drying out by a beach bonfire. Always a treat to engage a bottle of this malt, especially when you can introduce someone to Ardbeg with it.
3 Kavalan Solist Sherry (59.4% abv*) (92.5/100) – A wildly inconsistent series by Taiwan’s Kavalan distillery. I have tried the Solist Sherry at a score of as low as 75 or so and recently finished a bottle that would have outshone even this one I’m referencing here that came in at 92.5. I would suggest trying before you buy wherever possible, but when Kavalan is firing on all cylinders it is a beaut! Never ceases to amaze what these guys are able to accomplish in their short periods of maturation. Semi-tropical conditions work wonders on this spirit. (Score shown is for cask #S060710026)
4 Ardbeg Uigeadail (54.2% abv) (92.5/100) – Neck and neck with the Corryvreckan, and typically depending on my mood as to which I prefer on any given day. But while the Corry has been quite consistent throughout its batches, this one has seen a marked shift in terms of profile over the years. Here’s the thing, though: it may be different now, but I don’t see any decline. One of the most successful marriages of heavy peat and sherry ever bottled. I’d argue this, moreso than the Ten, is the true face of the brand. A classic.
5 Amrut Intermediate Sherry (57.1% abv) (92/100) – Amrut may have built its name on the Fusion (and Jim Murray’s somewhat ridiculous score given to it for that matter), but the distillery’s Intermediate Sherry and Portonova are bigger, better malts in my opinion. The intermediate sherry is a stunning whisky. Earlier batches were a little better, but all I’ve tried have been great. The exotic spices, creamy chocolate and jammy fruits are to die for. Young whisky has no business tasting this good.
6 Amrut Portonova (62.1% abv) (92/100) – I’d be hard pressed to tell you which I prefer (this or the Intermediate Sherry), as both are stunning in their own right. Additionally, both bring such mouth-wateringly fruity and concentrated jam-like notes to the fore while backing them with subtle and singular nuances particular to Amrut I simply can’t choose. The distillery’s make works well with the influence of these well-seasoned barrels. The hot climes of Bangalore really allow those casks to breathe.
7 Lagavulin 16 (43% abv) (92/100) – I keep reading about Lagavulin 16 suffering from decline and in some sort of tailspin, but as a guy who nearly always has a bottle of this mainstay open I gotta say – much like with the Uigeadail – there may be a some slight change from time to time, but by no means have I seen this one falter. I know Serge of Whiskyfun mentioned a while back that he feels the same as I do. Not that we’re looking for vailidation, mind. Truly a quintessential malt.
8 Aberlour a’bunadh (59.7% abv*) (92/100) – I struggled mightily to include this one, but in the end early biases won out. As did hopes that we’ll see a slight upturn again someday. This is an expression renowned for batch variance, and that’s part of the reason we love it. However, it can and does swing from highest of highest to…well…just ok. I don’t think I’ve found an outright bad a’bunadh, but I have been disappointed on occasion. (*The score I’m showing here was from Batch 28, in case you were curious.) We’re seeing a creeping of price on this one, so be careful where you buy, but generally even the worst a’bunadh is better than most of its contemporaries in terms of price point.
9 Bowmore Laimrig (54.4% abv*) (91.5/100) – One of my absolute favorite malts of recent years. I admit I do have some personal bias from lingering memories of a Feis Ile edition tried on Islay, but make no mistake this is a killer malt. Huge sherry and middling peat. Such a beautiful combination of sweet and smoky. Again, this is a very jammy malt; thick and oily and one that lingers for a long time after tasting. This is Bowmore’s phoenix malt in my eyes. (*Score shown is for Batch 1)
10 Laphroaig 18 (48% abv) (91.5/100) – This is quite possibly the new ‘classic’ 18 year old on the market, outshining Highland Park’s 18 by miles and really only seeing competition from Talisker 18 or Caol Ila 18 (older editions, that is, and incidentally also not available in Canada). Laphroaig gets really pretty with age. The peat fades and the soft fruity notes that step forward are breathtaking. Up until recently we could get this for about $90. I think it’s about $110 now, but still a relative bargain for a malt like this.
…and finally… I really wanted to give Bunnahabhain 18 an honorable mention. It should have been included here, but the most recent bottle I tried (and am still sipping from) has a very predominant sulphuric thread through it. A deal-breaker, for sure. Unfortunately this is not the first time I’ve found it in Bunna 18. When you get a clean batch though…wow. One of my favorite 18s of all time.
There you have it. Contestable and debatable. I’d love to hear your own thoughts on the subject. Feel free to put your own top ten in the comments below.