Which is the best Whisky?

The one you like the most. That’s it. End of post…..

But, let’s go into a bit of details for those of you who need a hand in getting into Whisky drinking. This is data which most whisky lovers already know but let’s give a chance to our newbie friends and make it a bit easier for them to sail this magic world.

Scotch or other Countries Whisky can be often found having been aged in different kinds of wooden casks, each kind of cask gives the whisky a different flavor, character and complexity. By kind of cask we mean that each had previously contained something else before hosting the whisky. It is rather rare to see a whisky which has been aged in a virgin cask, this is because the oak influence would be so strong it would risk ruining the whisky completely. Tasting the “barrique” in a wine is a good thing, in a whisky, not so much. Tannins and high alcohol % do not go well together.

So the most used cask types are one which previously contained american Bourbon Whisky, these and all kinds of casks can be used more than once, this operation is called “refill” and in my humble opinion it is the best since the second time you fill a cask with Scotch lessens the influence of the previous host even more leaving you the chance to taste the whisky almost as it was when poured, just “aged”.


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Aged in Bourbon Cask


The most sought after kind of cask (and most expensive, sometimes 5x or more compared to a Bourbon cask) is the Sherry Cask. A large cask (aka butt) previously used in a Solera system (or single) in Jerez Spain where Sherry, a fortified wine, is produced. Many different kinds of Sherry exist and they go from the very sweet, dark and “thick”  Pedro Ximenez to white dry sherry of the Fino type. The color of the Sherry will influence the final color of the whisky as well.

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Aged in Sherry cask.

Somehow whisky plus sherry, and, (if done well and very few can) peat, go really well together, so much so that some Distilleries like Macallan and Glendronach have built their reputation out of this combination, Ardbeg has released some fantastic peated sherry single cask bottlings distilled in the 70’s. The very fortunate marriage Sherry/whisky was not born out of the need for a better whisky, it was born out of the need to save money, “used” casks cost less!

A few words about strength: Whisky when poured in a cask for the first time can reach over 70% in alcohol, time and weather conditions lessens this volume, this is called “the Angel’s Share” and depending on time and many other factors, when a whisky is finally bottled it could have lost a large percentage of alcohol and straight liquid. Most distilleries at this point add water to bring the alcohol volume down to 40% or 43% to make it drinkable for most. Of course connoisseurs prefer whisky which has not been watered down, this is called “cask strength”.

OK so these were some very easy info for newbies, apologies if it was boring for most of you but it was due.

NAS NVS NFL (not for long)

I’m going to rant today, (already? After just four days Diego??) after tasting a very expensive beautifully packaged NoAgeStatementNoVintageStatementWithaFancyName bottle from a very reputable distillery….

Most of us know by now, distilleries are crazy about NAS lately, No Age Statement, meaning we do not know how old the whisky is inside, it could be 3 years old, it could be 30 (right). This has ben the norm for a while, the huge increase in demand for whisky has pushed our Scottish friends and (more likely) “the dudes, who know nothing about whisky, sitting in a skyscraper’s International Headquarters office thousands of miles from Whiskyland” and barking orders on Skype to the Distillery Manager of that “new company we just bought”, produce! Faster! More! Run the still hotter! Shorten fermentation time!

Whisky is born with patience, repeat after me handsome suit and tie executives, “whisky takes patience”, it takes time to become Whisky. It takes many winter storms, and snow and sea gusts, it takes good old wood which has hosted before, it takes a long fermentation and quality yeast, and strong men who can weather all kinds of conditions, then it has to rest for a very long time. That’s how you make good whisky, and this coming from an Italian who knows absolutely nothing about REALLY making whisky, so maybe a new and young exec will point this out in some meeting and suggest to prepare for the future, to do things well.

Inexpensive, easy to find, 70’s distillation malts.

So this being an “advice” blog, why do I tell you all this, you already know it, I advise you to HOLD ON to some of the old bottles you have, to buy the still inexpensive OB 10 and 12yo that most distilleries had issued in the 80’s, with 70’s distillation, the Glen Gariochs, the Linkwoods, the Tormores, the Dalmores etc, you can still get them at auction for less than 150 euro, there’s decent stuff in there, at least its more complex than anything out right now. Keep in mind that 10 years ago we got spoiled by all those great bottles we could buy for a dime, so when we first tasted these, back then, it was no big deal, but NOW, well, taste a new NAS and then one of these and see what you think. They at least have that “old whisky style” complexity that is non-existent now. I will try in the near future to post here an extensive list of them.

OK I promise never to complain about the state of Whisky again! (thanks)

This will not last, i foresee. A new (bad)Whisky Loch will spring out of this rush. Stills and more new stills are pissing out faster then ever, there will be more whisky than thirst, and so some day we will hear, “we produce a REAL 12 years old!” “yeah… but it will cost you!”.

High Strength?

Every once in a while you might need to know if a bottle is “actually” a high strength one. It could be you can’t see the ABV on the label anymore, it can be you’re not too sure of the contents for some reason, so I want to share with you, if you don’t already know this, a trick I have been taught many years ago.

Shake the bottle vigorously  and watch the bubbles that form in the neck, if they disappear very quickly it should be a low alcohol strength bottle, if they linger for a few seconds it should be a high alcohol strength one. It doesn’t always work for some reason, i really do not know why, but i can say 9 out of 10 times it does the trick. Hope it helps.

Shaken vigorously and photo taken after 5 seconds

Bottle on the left is a 56.9% ABV, bottle on the left is a 40% ABV. The bubbles on the latter have almost completely disappeared, while they still linger on the high strength one.

“For drink or for collect?”

Yes, this is the phrase us Italians get joked about by our whisky friends. What is the bottle for? Do you intend to drink it or to collect it? Like it makes a difference…. True, drinkers joke about collectors and their perfectly lined-up displays of trophies, and collectors tell them “well, if there were no collectors you would be forced to drink what the distilleries are releasing now…” ahem, bleah. It used to be that good whisky was available in such quantities where you could do both, buy two of them, drink one, put one away for the future, or even three, that’s how i built my collection, open one, put two away, and after value has gone up sell one for the price of two… that way the one you opened was paid for.

And why is Whisky a great investment? Well all the obvious answers apply here, but also keep in mind that if you buy a Patek watch it will be one more Patek available in the world, with whisky when a bottle of Samaroli Bowmore Bouquet gets drunk that means there is one less in the world, that makes the value of the remaining bottles increase.

Scotch Whisky Export Growth
Value growth of whisky 1980/2013 Courtesy divingforpearlsblog.com

So what to buy? Well the answer is easy if what you are looking for is drinking bottles, buy what you like to drink! But if you’re looking to invest in Whisky and to buy bottles that will hold or increase in value my advice is to buy the “Legends” when you find them no matter what the price is, if you can afford it, that is because there are less and less of them around and they keep increasing in value, if your budget is limited then the rule is “buy good whisky”, do not buy the latest fad, there will be a new one next week, buy whisky that has a good quality price ratio, Glendronach is still selling a 18yo and 21yo of excellent quality and decent strength, compared to its price and they use real sherry butts, same for Aberlour, of course the 12yo Lagavulin can ONLY increase in value because it is good, Scapa is in my opinion a still “undiscovered” great malt for a very reasonable price, many from the Rare Malts series are still affordable at auction even though they are distilled mostly in the 70’s. And of course Springbank in my opinion is maybe the last true boutique distillery releasing consistently high quality products at affordable rates.

In 2010 when i had my first Online Shop “Good Whisky” I listed the “Samaroli Bomb”, 4 bottles for 3450 euro and it went unsold for a year, price seemed too high, then, lucky me, it took it offline.  What would it be worth now?

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The “Samaroli Bomb” unsold in 2010.

But…. good times are over now, even in Italy, but it used to be, not too long ago, that my wife and I would just hop in the car on the weekend, drive around to places we had never been before and stop at every bar, every pastry shop, small grocery stores etc, and come home on Sunday with the car full of Laffies, Lagas, Samarolis, Macallans and so on, they were everywhere.

Why in Italy? Why not in Germany or Belgium or more likely in the UK? Well the story is a bit convoluted but it can be explained fairly easily: In the 70’s mr Giaccone started a “fad”, the Whiskyteque, a place where you could try different kinds of hard liquors, they sprang up everywhere, and Whiskyteques needed product, different labels, series, so the good old masters of selection like Samaroli, Mongiardino (Moon Import), Intertrade, Sestante, Co-Import, Bonfanti etc etc started asking the Distilleries and Independent Bottlers to have different labels, Cask Strength whisky, series of bottles from different Distilleries with beautiful labels, so to fill up the shelves at the Whiskyteca with an appealing and wide selection of goods. And people started buying full bottles in these places to start a collection.

At the same time Italy was going through a serious financial depression, people started not trusting banks anymore and would rather put their money on collectables, watches, whisky, gold coins, stamps and so on. We estimate that there are about 3000 “undiscovered” collections still in Italy, but the internet served the purpose to let the collectors know that what they have in their hands could be worth a fortune, so it’s not that easy now to get them to sell it, especially when these rare bottles serve as a “come in” for the most searched online Whisky Shops and their prices are inflated beyond belief and so when we get an email from a seller asking if we are interested in purchasing a collection it is very likely that their asking price is way higher than what we would even sell it for in the shop.

And so the problem now is sourcing, not selling. But we have had some great years of fun and drams and we are thankful for that. So feel free to use this space as a “trade” venue, just please do not offer bottles for sale.

Knowhisky, another (useful) blog

Well here it is, another whisky blog. Let’s make it interesting then…. Let’s build a place where everyone can find and share information about the Whisky world, where one can find, on his journey to becoming a real “whisky Connoisseur “, bits of information, while having a dram, impress his friends with his anecdotes. So please feel free to share with all whisky friends what you have learned.

So first up… let’s see…. low level bottles.

There has been a trend lately, we can see it in our online shop, buyers are getting more and more choosey about “low level bottles”, where a bottle was considered low level when it was about a cm or more under the neck line in around 2007 now this has been taken to a whole new “level” and many customers complain of “low level” when the bottle is on or even above the neck line by almost a cm. The reason low level bottles are frowned upon is that alcohol has evaporated during the years of storage. This entails the risk that once Alcohol has reached a very low % level it will not conserve the whisky and the whisky will “rot”. With a level like the bottle on the right this risk is basically zero. Nevertheless as mentioned above many Connoisseurs will not buy it because of wrongly perceiving that the whisky will not be as good.

Left: A real “low level bottle” 

The bottle on the left should rightly be defined as “low level” because it has lost a significant amount of alcohol, the one on the right is not a low level bottle in my humble opinion, 50 years in glass will do that and evaporate 2cl of liquid, about 2.5% of total volume. This would bring the alcohol Vol % to maybe 44% if the initial Vol was 46% this being pessimistic in the evaluation. So do not be scared if the level has lowered about 2% in so many years it will take as many to make any more damage, and hopefully it will be “used” before then.

Another situation can exist when you see a bottle suddenly dropping in level, this could mean that the cork has dried up (even on metal cap bottles there is a cork disk sealing the top of the metal cap) and in that case if it is a metal cap bottle just gently tighten it, you will notice that you can turn it sometimes even by a third of a turn, this is because during the years the cork dries and becomes thinner, by tightening the metal cap you will once again seal the cap and give many more years of “Life” to your precious bottle.

Cork disk in metal caps

With cork cap bottles I usually tip the bottle every few months to “wet” the cap so that it has less chance of drying up. Just a few seconds will suffice. Parafilm is also an option although it has to be applied well making sure you warm it up with a hair drier or similar, Parafilm is essentially wax so if you warm it just a bit it will seal any opening, if you warm it too much it will melt and ruin your top.
VERY IMPORTANT: Sometimes we get an email from a customer complaining of a level being different than shown in the photo on the online shop. Understand that temperature has a huge impact on a liquid volume, especially on alcohol. If we have taken the photo of the bottle in August where the temperature in the warehouse was 30° celsius, and we sold the bottle in January with an outside temperature close to 0° the level will change by even 2 cm! Don’t believe me? Try this experiment: take a bottle to a temperature of 30° by warming it up with a hair drier or with a heater, or even by placing it in a sealed plastic bag and dipping it in warm water, mark the level on the bottle, now place it in the fridge first and even in the freezer afterwards and wait for the temperature to drop to almost 0°, now look at the mark, it could have gone from 3 cm inside the neck to just 1 cm! So keep in mind when purchasing a “low level” bottle, what is the temperature around it? Is it winter? If it is your bottle’s level could “grow” by lots in the summer.

STORAGE: Avoid storing your bottles in a “domestic Habitat”,what makes bottles evaporate is not the high temperature, it is the change in temperature. When alcohol heats up, as explained above, it will grow in volume, this will create a huge pressure inside the bottle and pressure means if there is even the tiniest escape route for alcohol it will be pushed through it by this pressure. So store if possible your bottles in a place where temperature changes minimally throughout the year. No pressure means no evaporation.

I hope this helps a bit, please feel free to share your experience and thought on this new blog, let’s all help each other know an enjoy this magic water of life better.