$30 Something: How Five Cheap Single Malt Scotch Whiskies Stack Up

It’s really easy to spend $100 or more for a single malt scotch, and I’ve been doing my share of spending. I recently dropped $115 including shipping for an 18 year old Bladnoch cask strength. I also spent about $70 (after discount) on an 8 year old Hazelburn, from the highly regarded Springbank distillery. And those are just mid-range prices, arguably cheap even.

I can’t really justify spending hundreds of dollars a month on Scotch. So I got to wondering: A 12 year old Glenfiddich costs about $23, including tax, at BevMo. This is the first single malt I ever ordered in college, somewhere back around 1983. I remember enjoying it, ice and all. It’s the best-selling single malt in the world. Exactly how shitty, really, can it be?

Ditto for the other under $30 contenders from the Speyside region stocked at the local BevMo: Speyburn ($18), Lismore ($30), The Glenlivet 12 ($26) and Tamdhu 10 ($29). There was also a Bowmore Legend ($23) and Auchentoshan 10 ($23) — I decided to focus on the Speysides.

What would a side-by-side tasting reveal of the cheapest singe malts reveal?

Going in, I figured buying 5 bottles of under $30 Scotch would 1) be a great learning experience; 2) point me at some great value plays; and 3) provide an alternative to pounding the good stuff, when I eventually get around to buying it.

The experiment worked out beautifully on all three marks. Bottom line: Even if you are looking to experience quality Scotch, there are some very drinkable under $30 single malts that are too good and too cheap to pass up. It is an effective and low cost way to start developing discrimination. Going cheap sets a floor, so to speak, so you can better understand what distinguishes the best.

The Tasting

If you’re going to test cheap Scotch it’s nice to have a foil. Thankfully Dramfun dropped by with some costlier varieties to compare against: A Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban, which is a special release that was finished in port casks (about $70); and a Glen Garioch 15 year old ($47). More on those later.

We started with the Lismore, and it was immediately obvious from the nose that this was not going to a favorite, despite the free tasting glass thrown in with the purchase. It was somewhat medicinal, and as with all of the under $30s of the night it had a very short and unsatisfying finish.

Next was the Speyburn 10, which at $18 was the ultimate bargain brand of the night. I found it prickly and indistinct, and even if price is a major concern I would not recommend it.

This wasn’t going so well.

But then, pay dirt: The Glenfiddich 12. This is the world’s best-selling single malt and it was instantly clear why. First there’s the price: at $21 you almost can’t afford not to try it at least once. Second is the drink. It has many noticeable characteristics of a classic Speyside (and why not — it arguably is the classic Speyside). Floral tones and oak predominate. It is smooth and compared to some of the others we tried in this tasting, almost delicate. The overall impression is pleasant and satisfying, with some complexity thrown in, but with the weaknesses you might expect in less mature bottle.

Next up was the Tamdhu 10: At $30, it was the most expensive purchase of the night. But it was not the best, in our opinion. It had a sharpness that was absent in the Glenfiddich 12, and some bitterness. But it was not a total write off. It had a greater complexity than the Glenfiddich. Depending on the drinker, might grow on you over time. A touch of coffee. Like all of the others, it dissipated quickly, leaving almost no finish to speak of.

Then came the winner of the five: The Glenlivet 12. At $26 it is priced to drink, and it carried clear hints of the greatness of its more mature cousin, The Glenlivet 18. It had the most color of all, a citrus nose and vanilla flavor and less oak than the Glenfiddich.

Of course, everything is relative.

With the Glenmorangie, the weakness of all of the under $30s was instantly obvious and undeniable. The nose here was infinitely more complex, dense and deep. A nice variation on sherry finishing with the port casks, but many of the classic flavors of a Highland shone through – toffee, caramel and vanilla. Great bottle.

The Glen Glarioch (pronounced “Glen Geery”) surprised with noticeable peat overtones, making a nice variation for the night. It too is a great bottle for the price, though outside our $30 ceiling.


So what did we learn? We didn’t find anything that couldn’t be surpassed by spending an extra $20. But there are decent under $30 Scotches. For my money, forget the Speyburn and Lismore. But seriously consider the Glenfiddich 12, The Glenlivet 12 and the Tamdhu 10; they are all pretty damn good considering the price.

Also, after this experiment, I would highly recommend conducting systematic price-based tastings. This is information you can take to the store. I’m definitely going to try this again, but raise the price point next time from under $30 to $30-$40.

We’ll keep you posted. In the meantime, if anyone is curious about the Speyburn 10, I have a nearly untouched bottle lying around. You’re welcome to it.

~ by whisky1 on August 31, 2008.

7 Responses to “$30 Something: How Five Cheap Single Malt Scotch Whiskies Stack Up”

  1. […] 750ml bottle. It was designed over the course of a decade by Bill Lumsden, a master distiller who is unafraid of experiments like port finishing (with smashing results). The Signet is made with roasted and chocolate barley, and according to Dowd, it is a great whisky: […]

  2. […] Scotchtalk recently tasted some under $30 single malts from Beverages & More: Linsmore, Glenlivet 12, Glenfiddich 12, Tamdhu 10 and Speyburn 10. I think the Glenlivet 12, $22, is actually a bargain, and also the Glenlivet 18, $55. […]

  3. Right on about the quality & price point of The Glenfiddich. I can’t say I feel any different. Here’s my personal review of the Glenfiddich 12 that I posted on my website.

    Glenfiddich 12yo

    Appearance: Used to be a screw top & now comes with a cork top. I don’t see a real reason for this because cork tops are usually more expensive.
    Alcohol: Bottled at 40%
    Country / Region: Scotland / Highlands
    Color: Light amber colored whisky Ideal for those just starting to get acquainted with single malt Scotch.
    Nose: Nice , soft , gentle and unassuming, a bit of floral grape / muscatel, touch of chardonnay without getting too winey. A hint of vanilla, green vanilla that is, soft green apple & green gage.
    Taste: After adding a wee bit of water before tasting, bitter sweet, grapy barley, mixed citrus, a touch of peat, soft woods, mainly cedar, gentle background spices.
    Finish: Slight metallic note but nothing to be too concerned with.
    Score: 83/100
    The Glenfiddich is a readily available single malt scotch likely to cross your path when you go into the liquor store. It’s one of the best selling single malts in the world, it won’t knock you over in any way, it will simply leave you with a gentle hug. This whisky is ideal for those who are just starting to get to know whisky simply because it’s a good single malt scotch whisky that is easily accessible in liquor stores.


  4. Glenlivet 12 yrs and Glenfiddich 12 yrs may lack the cachet of more expensive single malts, but they are without a doubt the best value plays around. Interesting post.

  5. […] http://scotchtalk.com/2008/08/31/30-something-how-five-cheap-single-malt-scotch-whiskies-stack-up/ […]

  6. […] http://scotchtalk.com/2008/08/31/30-something-how-five-cheap-single-malt-scotch-whiskies-stack-up/ […]

  7. Great post! I do have expensive scotch habits but still enjoy value buys like Glenfiddich 12yrs. A lot of high priced single malts are simply not worth the money in addition to being not affordable.

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