The Best Scotch of 2020 Subverted Expectations
How expressions from Benriach and Aberlour both defied and embraced tradition
Our two favorite Scotch releases both hail from the northeast of Scotland, where roughly 60% of that country’s single malt whisky production takes place. No surprise there.
What is a surprise? Neither expression is what you would expect.
Our favorite Scotch this year is a tie this year between Benriach’s The Smoky Ten and Aberlour Single Malt Scotch A’bunadh Alba. Both fine distilleries, but what makes these two releases so special is how they went (pun intended) against the grain.
Benriach has been doing wonderful work under the direction of Master Blender Rachel Barrie, who’s helped the brand refine its core lineup (“It used to be like a box of chocolates; it was too confusing,” she told us). The Smoky Ten was part of four revamped and redesigned releases that also included The Smoky Twelve, The Original Ten and The Original Twelve.
The final results are great, but particularly in The Smoky Ten. “Sweetness with the smoke, can’t think of another one from Speyside,” Barrie told us, and she’s right; as we noted in our review earlier this year, “Matured in bourbon, pot-still Jamaican Rum and medium-toasted virgin oak casks and coming in at 46% ABV, [it’s] an unusual process for a peated whiskey. It’s sweet — you’ll get hints of vanilla. There’s a fruity creaminess here as well, and then you have a modest smoke. Grilled pineapple is prevalent.”
It’s a sweet, smoky barbecue. And it’s delightful.
Meanwhile, Aberlour is a long-running Speyside single malt that usually lets its hooch double rest in Spanish sherry and American Oak casks for a minimum of a dozen years. I’m not always a fan of the sherry element — though the Aberlour 12 makes for an ideal Hot Toddy (more on this soon).
With its new, non-age statement Alba release, however, the sherry isn’t part of the formula. “We always knew our whisky only matured in American oak really stood up for itself,” as Master Distiller Graeme Cruickshank told us. Ergo, a Scotch with sweetness and spice, plus a lot of orchard fruits (apples, pears, peaches) and plenty of vanilla influence from the oak. It’s a Scotch that’ll snag a few bourbon fans without losing its Speyside character.
A few other Scotch developments in 2020 that I enjoyed …
Octomore Continues to Move Beyond the “World’s Most Heavily Peated Scotch” Label
Bruichladdich’s annual releases (they’re at 11 now) still bring the smoke but also land soft on the palate. The Islay distillery is also doing wonders showcasing terroir.
Blended Scotches Got Their Due
Blended variations account for the highest sales in the Scotch category; they’re a mix of malt and grain whiskies sourced from different distilleries. But they rarely offer the same whisky-nerd appeal as a single malt, which hails from a single distillery, utilizes pot-still distillation and is made from a mash of malted barley. So kudos to Dewar’s Double Double 32 Year Old, which won Whisky of the Year at the 2020 International Whisky Competition. It even bragged on the label it was “double double aged for ultimate smoothness” in a year when smooth became a dirty word (note: that article is great, though).
American Whiskey Makers Are Embracing Ideas from Scotland
“There’s such tremendous variety in Scotch between single malts, vatted malts, blends and the like. Between that and the regional differences, the multitude of finishes, and, of course, peat, there is endless exploration,” Pinhook’s Owner/Master Taster Sean Josephs told us earlier this year when we asked a bunch of bourbon and American whiskey pros to tell us their thoughts on Scotch. One craft distillery that’s embracing the ethos of Scotland but charting a uniquely American course? Virginia Distillery Co., which is making waves in the American Single Malt category but also has its Highland Whisky releases, which marry homegrown single malts with whisky sourced from Scotland — a hybrid then finished in an array of casks (port, cider, chardonnay, etc.). Speyside via stateside, I guess.
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