As the weather across much of North America turns autumnal, it’s time to begin thinking whisky, liqueurs and brandy. This month’s Spirits & Beer Buying Guide toasts single malts and blended whiskies from Scotland as well as liqueurs, Cognacs and Armagnacs.

Some items herein deserve special mention. Glenfiddich 1937 Rare Collection Single Malt Whisky is, to my knowledge, the oldest single-malt Scotch on the market, as well as the most expensive at $14,000 per bottle. The catch is that there are only 61 bottles available. I’ve already twice been asked the question, "Since you’ve sampled it, is it worth it?" From a critic’s standpoint, the whisky is in fine form. Considering its age, it’s actually something of a wonder. Would I shell out that kind of money for a single bottle of whisky? Even if I had a money tree out back, I’d say no. But then, I don’t believe in museum trophies when it comes to spirits. I espouse the "I could be run over tomorrow, so let’s crack it open today" philosophy. I’m not a collector.

The splendid Armagnacs of Château de Laubade can possess an almost mystical quality, an elemental power that captures one’s taste buds like no other variety of brandy. Yes, Cognacs are svelte, world-class and sophisticated. And California’s surging alambic brandies may well be the future of grape brandy. But rustic, no-holds-barred Armagnac can still stimulate the imagination and enchant the palate more sensuously than any other brandy. Armagnac is earthier and grittier than other categories—other brandies make you ponder, while Armagnac makes you feel.

Johnnie Walker Gold blended Scotch, which retails for $60 per bottle, consistently outperforms Johnnie Walker Blue ($180). More expensive doesn’t always mean better. I’ve sampled these whiskies side-by-side four times and the result is always the same: The Gold, at one-third the price of the Blue, is superior. You tell me what you think if you get the chance to taste them against each other. I think I’ll go rake some leaves.

—F. Paul Pacult


Superb (90-95)/Highly Recommended

Glenfiddich 1937 Rare Collection Speyside Single Malt Whisky Cask 843 (Scotland; William Grant & Sons, Edison, NJ); 44% abv, $14,000. Attractive medium amber color. Initial nosing passes detect muffled scents of marzipan, dark caramel and cheese; aeration serves to broaden the existing aromas that suggest the presence of resiny, cheese-like rancio. Palate entry is dry to off-dry and mildly peaty and smoky; at midpalate, there’s an explosion of sweet oak, resiny, woody, tobacco leaf and malty tastes. Finishes sweet, intense, woody and smoky. For collectors with very deep pockets.

Johnnie Walker Gold 18 Year Old Blended Whisky (Scotland; Schieffelin & Somerset, New York, NY); 40% abv, $60. Light amber orange color. The malty bouquet emits mature, evolved scents of cocoa, buttered nuts, soft fruit and paraffin. The oily mouth presence is exceptionally velvety at entry; at midpalate, sweet, estery flavors of ripe pears, grain mash and oak enchant the taste buds. Aftertaste is peppery and candied. What makes this whisky so sublime is the backbone malt whisky from the Clynelish Distillery. The finest Johnnie Walker in the marketplace.

Springbank 12 Year Old Rum Cask Campbeltown Single Malt Whisky (Scotland; Preiss Imports, Ramona, CA); 46% abv, $65. Early inhalations find piquant, spirity aromas that possess a hint of sea breeze; nine more minutes stirs up sassy, herbal scents of anise, licorice, wet grass and molasses. Palate entry is hot, searing the tongue at first, then the whisky calms down and turns toasty and malty sweet; by midpalate, flavors of marshmallow, light peat, sweet malt and toasty oak emerge. Finishes sweet and oaky.

Very Good (85-89)/Recommended
Glen Garioch 10 Year Old Eastern Highlands Single Malt Whisky (Scotland; White Rock Distilleries, Lewiston, ME); 40% abv, $20. Sauternes gold/amber hue. Nose is greeted by fresh, hay-like, malty aromas; aeration brings out deeper scents of honey, nougat, roasted almond and heather. Palate entry is off-dry, clean and resiny/ oaky; midpalate turns bittersweet as tastes of honey, brown sugar and oak dominate the flavor phase. Aftertaste is semisweet, candied and honeyed, almost like candied walnuts. A superb before-dinner dram.

Johnnie Walker Blue Blended Whisky (Scotland; Schieffelin & Somerset, New York, NY); 40% abv, $180. Amber, with harvest gold highlights. The forward nose shows peaches and dried apricots in the first minutes; exposure to air sees black pepper, wood smoke, glycerine and a light peatiness. Palate entry is oaky and sweet; the midpalate features flavors of peat smoke, tobacco leaf and vanilla bean. Aftertaste is extended and oily. Seamless and very good.

Classic (96-100)/Highest Recommendation

Château de Laubade 1952 Bas Armagnac (France; Baron Francois, Ltd., New York, NY), 40% abv, $300. First sniffings are treated to burning embers, marzipan and black pepper aromas; the aroma grows marginally to include old oak, mild butterscotch and nutmeg. It’s in the mouth that this fantastic Armagnac earns its spurs. Luscious tastes of buttercream chocolate, cocoa, tea leaves, dark caramel, molasses and honey provide a semisweet-to-sweet tour de force.

Superb (90-95)/Highly Recommended
Château de Laubade XO Bas Armagnac (France; Baron Francois, Ltd., New York, NY), 40% abv, $52. Gentle but firm scents of black pepper, lychee nut, smoke and burnt toast; the smokiness accelerates into tobacco leaf and charred oak aromas, buttressed by an underlying bacon fat-old oak smell. Concentrated flavors of almond butter and nougat make for lip-smacking tasting. Aftertaste is brief, semisweet, tart and a touch smoky. Best Buy.

Château de Laubade 1962 Bas Armagnac (France; Baron Francois, Ltd., New York, NY), 40% abv, $165. Vibrant aromas of cigar smoke, oak, tar and fireplace ashes. Palate entry is tight, integrated, dry to off-dry and oily in texture; midpalate flavor profile includes baked apple, toasted almonds, bacon fat, old oak and a dash of rancio. Aftertaste offers luxurious flavors of ash, cigar tobacco and bacon fat.

Very Good (85-89)/Recommended
Château de Laubade VSOP Bas Armagnac (France; Baron Francois, Ltd., New York, NY), 40% abv, $32. In the initial nosings, delicate aromas of sautéed butter and almonds are detected; aeration deepens the already buttery fragrance into bacon fat. Palate entry is round, moderately rich and semisweet; by midpalate, the taste profile adds flavors of bittersweet chocolate and nougat. Finishes medium-long, bittersweet and spicy. Best Buy.

Very Good (85-89)/Recommended
Alizé VSOP Cognac (France; Kobrand Corporation, New York, NY); 40% abv, $53. Fruity aromas of banana, papaya and nectarine in first nosing pass; air contact opens up further off-dry scents of light toffee, tea leaves and marshmallow. Palate opening is very sweet and round yet a touch acidic; midpalate highlights flavors of cocoa butter, toasted almond, dark caramel and molasses. Finishes long, brown-sugar sweet and tea-like.

Marceille XO Petite Fine Champagne (France; Emily Enterprises, Highland Ranch, CO); 40% abv, $35. The aroma simply can’t seem to gather itself even after eight minutes of aeration. In the mouth, there’s a tangy caramel, toffee or nougat quality that by midpalate is very appealing and lasts well into the pleasingly sweet, honeyed aftertaste.

Superb (90-95)/Highly Recommended
Alizé Wild Passion Liqueur (France; Kobrand Corporation, New York, NY); 16% abv, $23/L. Bouquet is fetchingly tropical, exotic and tart in the first two minutes; time in the glass brings out the grapefruit and mango. The citrusy palate entry is followed by a midpalate laden with grapefruit juice and mango flavors. Finishes refreshingly tart, citrusy, light and delicious. The best Alizé flavored liqueur. Best Buy.

Ashbourne Irish Cream Liqueur (Ireland; Marie Brizard Wines & Spirits USA, Bardstown, KY); 17% abv, $12. In the first couple of whiffs there’s a pleasant, snappy spiciness that sits atop the cream base; aeration stimulates added scents of vanilla, cocoa and butter-cream. Palate entry is concentrated and creamy; at midpalate, the taste displays bittersweet flavors of cinnamon, vanilla bean and raisins. Aftertaste is long, zesty and semisweet. Best Buy.

Kahlua Especial Liqueur (USA); 35% abv, $20. Opening sniffings are greeted by deep roasted, bitter, black coffee scents. This liqueur earns its score in the taste. Palate entry is bitter and intensely black coffee-like; at midpalate, the deep-roasted flavor climbs to a whole new level of fresh asphalt and tar depth and semisweet intensity. Finishes bittersweet, smoky, tar-like and beany. Best Buy.

Very Good (85-89)/Recommended
Marie Brizard Mango Passion Liqueur (France; Marie Brizard Wines & Spirits USA, Bardstown, KY); 19.5% abv, $17. Bouquet is off-dry and shy, showing just a trace of tropical fruitiness—coconut in particular. Palate entry is semisweet, tropically fruity and not unctuous or cloying; the midpalate features mango and passion fruit. Aftertaste is medium-long, fresh and light.

Marie Brizard Parfait Amour Liqueur (France; Marie Brizard Wines & Spirits USA, Bardstown, KY); 25% abv, $19. Delectably candied initial bouquet is reminiscent of baseball-card bubble gum and powdered sugar; the berry fruit and bubble gum perfume intensifies with aeration. Palate entry is mildly sweet, sugary and light; concentrated and near-syrupy sweet and orangy at midpalate, but not cloying. Aftertaste is slightly bittersweet.

Marie Brizard Amaretto Liqueur (France; Marie Brizard Wines & Spirits USA, Bardstown, KY); 28% abv, $19. Gently fragrant, floral, herbal and nutty perfume; air contact releases more apricot scent than almond. Palate entry is succulent, sweet and smacks of toffee and marzipan; midpalate flavors remind me of almond pastry. Aftertaste is luxurious but not unctuous or cloying.

Classic (96-100)/Highest Recommendation
Ommegang Three Philosophers Belgian-Style Ale (Ommegang Brewery, Cooperstown, NY); $NA. Initial nosing passes encounter seductive scents of beef boullion, rose petals, soy sauce and sweet malt. Palate entry is almost wine-like in texture as dry to bitter tastes of coffee and soy sauce overtake the taste buds; by midpalate, a sweet maltiness, almost like cherry juice, takes command and carries through to the winey, grapy, fruity, malty and hoppy-bitter aftertaste.

Very Good (85-89)/Recommended
Club Colombia Pilsener (Columbia; Whitehall Imports, Norwood, MA); $NA. Nose is yeasty, dry, malty and flowery in the initial passes; nuttiness appears after a few minutes in the glass. Taste-texture combination comes off well both at entry and midpalate, giving off nutty, dry tastes.

MacTarnahan’s Scottish Style Highlander Pale Ale (MacTarnahan’s Brewing Co., Portland, OR); $NA. Nose after the pour is sweet. In the mouth, it tastes as sweet, floral and malty as the bouquet promises; midpalate offers dry cereal and red fruit flavors on light-to-medium-weight body. Good, off-dry, bitter aftertaste. More of a Scottish-style amber ale than a true pale ale.

MacTarnahan’s Uncle Otto’s Weiss Beer (MacTarnahan’s Brewing Co., Portland, OR); $NA. Opening nosings pick up strong scents of yeast and clove; air contact opens up concentrated fruit aromas, especially banana and lemon. Palate entry is sour and brisk; midpalate is fruity, clove-like, sour and green. Finish is brief, intensely spicy.

Published on August 29, 2005