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There’s no shortage of brown liquor drinkers out there who appreciate both a nice glass of bourbon, and a dram of fine scotch whisky. Indeed, the two are historically connected, and always have been, ever since the distilling techniques and know-how of Scottish and Irish immigrants to the U.S.A. gave rise to the first truly American styles of whiskey: bourbon and rye. As a result, bourbon and scotch will always be spiritual cousins to one another, and the industries feed off one another to this day, with the majority of scotch whiskies being aged inside former American whiskey casks.
And yet, there’s also a very large and vocal contingent of American bourbon drinkers who simply can’t seem to appreciate scotch, or have latched on to several of the lingering misconceptions that are always associated with scotch whisky. This has only become more apparent in the last few years, as bourbon mania has led to many neophytes flooding the whiskey sphere, often in the pursuit of rare or limited edition bottles of whiskey. Too many of these younger drinkers in particular have cast scotch whisky aside, without ever really giving it a chance.
I know, because at one point I was one of those bourbon drinkers. American whiskey was my personal gateway into appreciating neat spirits, and from there I developed a fondness for neat drams of rye, or rum, or tequila. But for a long time, I was resistant to scotch whisky, especially because I happen to have a palate that is particularly sensitive to the smoke-and-tar profile found in many famous Scottish single malt whiskies.
Suffice to say: I was a foolish, 20-something whiskey geek. Today, I love scotch whisky, and I can recognize just how incredibly varied and eclectic this style is capable of being. Yes, there are absolutely some smoke-and-peat monsters from Islay and a few of the other classic scotch regions—check out our guide to all the regions for more of a primer—but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Scotch runs the gamut, from rich and fruity, to sweet and treacly, to delicate and grassy, spicy or smoky. In other words, if you’re a bourbon lover who has only tried scotch a few times without finding something you like, it’s entirely likely that you just haven’t had the right scotch yet.
With that said, here are five picks that should appeal to bourbon drinkers, for a variety of reasons.
We’ll start out with a solid, basic single malt—you can consider this a fair approximation of a classic single malt scotch whisky profile, at an excellent price. Glenmorangie The Original is often just referred to as Glenmorangie 10, for the fact that it’s aged 10 years in re-used American bourbon casks, as is standard for the scotch whisky industry. This is Glenmorangie’s flagship brand, one of the best-selling single malts in the world, and consistently regarded as one of the best pure values in all of scotch whisky. Certainly, it’s much more available and a better value than the likes of Macallan, which is often overpriced in comparison. This is an excellent place to taste a “standard” malt whisky profile, with no other gimmicks or additional barrel finishes.
Glenmorangie 10 is an inviting, easy-drinking dram with a nose that is heavy on citrus, stone fruit and light vanilla. The palate brings more fruit—orange and peach—along with vanilla bean, honey and florals. Overall, this is a light, fruity and moderately sweet dram that is very easy to drink, and an excellent way to see what scotch whisky is all about without breaking the bank. You have absolutely nothing to lose—go ahead and try this one today. It’s a scotch that has converted many people, and it will convert many more.
This pick is very on the nose, and most lists of “best scotches for bourbon drinkers” will probably have it on there, but for a very good reason—this is a scotch that is literally calculated specifically to appeal to bourbon drinkers, and a good one at that. It’s also a lesson in a bottle when it comes to how the scotch whisky industry is changing in recent years, because it makes use of newly charred, “virgin” oak—something that was once considered a total scotch industry taboo, but is now becoming more common.
Specifically, this is Glenfiddich’s 14-year-old single malt whisky, at a slightly stronger 43% ABV (86 proof), which is of course aged in used bourbon barrels, before being finished with a shorter period of aging in newly charred American white oak barrels to give the whisky some of those same caramel/vanilla/char notes that are classic in bourbon. The brand achieves exactly what it intends to do, giving Glenfiddich 14 a more resolutely oaky presence that imparts hints of bourbon barrel char, along with notes of dark fruit, cinnamon and nutmeg. This is an excellent halfway point between corn-based bourbon and malt-based scotch whisky; an olive branch from one industry to another. It’s an obvious bottle for bourbon drinkers curious about scotch to visit.
If you’re a bourbon drinker curious about scotch whisky, you’re going to end up exploring sherry-finished single malts sooner rather than later. Often referred to simply as “sherried” malts, these are single malt whiskies that see additional finishing time in European or American oak barrels that formerly matured sherry wine, or they may be entirely matured in sherry barrels. The level of sherry influence in these brands can vary wildly, from delicate enhancements to the underlying malt, to bottles that are massive sherry bombs, full of vinous dark fruit/nutty flavors. They exist on a spectrum, therefore. An obvious place to start would be flagship entries such as Balvenie DoubleWood, Aberlour 12, GlenDronach 12 or Glenrothes 10 or 12, all of which can be found in roughly the $50-60 range. I, however, am going to recommend a bit bolder dram, in the form of Glenrothes Whisky Maker’s Cut.
This is a non-age-stated, but somewhat burlier scotch whisky at 48.8% (97.4 proof) that is entirely matured in first-fill sherry casks, making it very sherry forward and extremely flavorful. From the moment I first tasted it, the thought that this was a “bourbon-drinker’s scotch” resonated with me, and I wrote as much in our initial review:
Caramel, vanilla, cinnamon and stewed apples explode on the nose, along with buttered toast and roasted nuts. The palate is likewise intense, flavorful and memorable: Caramel-heavy, but still with a touch of dark honey, sweeter, with a long, lingering spice finish of cinnamon, nutmeg and orange essential oil. There’s also a much more pronounced “char” here as well—you’d almost think that some newly charred oak was involved, but I guess it’s just those fresher casks. I’ve often heard various single malt bottles of scotch described as being “the bourbon drinker’s scotch,” but I’ve never had one that so fit the bill as The Glenrothes Whisky Maker’s Cut. The richness, caramelization and spice profile form an extremely inviting bridge toward American whiskey drinkers.
Another good selection: Aberlour A’bunadh, which is a good deal at $80 for a cask-strength, heavily sherried whisky. Cask-strength malts are significantly harder to come by than barrel-proof bourbons, so if cask strength is your thing, A’bunadh is another to seek out.
Now we’re taking the nation of cask finishes and additional richness to the next level, with this expression of The Balvenie that is first matured in ex-bourbon barrels for 14 years, before being finished in Caribbean rum casks. These rum barrels impart exactly the sort of richer, more deeply caramelized and vanilla-driven profile that bourbon geeks are accustomed to in their spirit of choice, making this another natural bridge over to scotch.
Caribbean Cask 14 packs some more decadent notes of toffee and deeply caramelized sugars on the nose, segueing on the palate into sweet oak, tropical fruit and vanilla, along with hints of molasses cookie and dark fruits. Both sweeter and more heady in its profile than core Balvenie expressions, it should fit right into the flavor wheelhouse of many bourbon drinkers.
The Dalmore range of single malts are not exactly cheap or affordable, and you could hardly be blamed for balking at a $150 whisky without an age statement, but The Cigar Malt is also the most wonderfully idiosyncratic in the Dalmore core lineup, which we tasted our way through recently. Specifically, this malt was crafted with cigar aficionados in mind, and is aged in both sherry barrels and cabernet sauvignon casks before being bottled at a slightly higher strength of 44% ABV (88 proof). On the nose and palate, however, this scotch proves to be wonderfully distinctive, with a chocolate and coffee-driven flavor profile you really have to taste to believe. As I wrote when tasting it:
Initially, the nose totally threw me for a loop—it was hitting me as funky, more earthy and almost musty/moldy in a way that I wasn’t particularly enjoying. After some time in the glass, however it was as if my brain reorganized itself, suddenly recognizing these flavors as more barrel char-forward, revealing a nose that is heavily influenced by dark chocolate and coffee in particular. Deeply nutty and cocoa-laden on the palate, Cigar Malt proved to be one of the most “mocha”-forward malts I have ever tasted, supported by blackberry fruitiness and rich toffee. I don’t know if it was aeration/time in the glass that unlocked this change, or if I simply approached this one incorrectly on the first pass, but with every sip I find myself falling more in love with this mocha profile. Cigar or no cigar, this one is wonderfully distinctive.
It’s a splurgy pickup, but one with a unique flavor profile that I now find myself craving. And if you’re a bourbon geek, you might find yourself falling in love with it too.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.