The 6 Hottest Trends in Scotch
You can’t rush Scotch. It takes years—sometimes decades—to mature to perfection. And yet, the world of Scotch whisky is changing fast. Producers are adding wine-cask finishes, higher proofs and unusual blends to their lineups, all in the name of flavor. Here are six trends you’ll see in your glass this year.
Photos by Todd Huffman
Already common among blended Scotches, single malts are increasingly not listing ages on their labels. Laphroaig Quarter Cask, for example, mixes five- and 10-year-old whiskies to gloriously smoky effect. Similarly, The Macallan Rare Cask blends single malts of various ages in one bottle.
“Whisky obviously has an age, we just don’t publicize it here,” says Stuart MacPherson, Macallan’s “master of wood.” (Yes, that’s his actual job title—he’s a barrel expert.)
“We’re saying this isn’t about the age, it’s about what the consumer wants and the skills of the whisky maker.”
Some producers say this puts more emphasis on the flavor rather than age. Others take a more pragmatic approach, noting that as availability of casks shifts from year to year, this provides blenders with much-needed flexibility. The Glenlivet’s Nàdurra (“Natural” in Gaelic) range includes two Scotches—Oloroso and First Fill Selection—without specific age indications.
“It’s an umbrella name for small parcels of whiskies, and so it changes over time,” says Ian Logan, a representative for the brand. Can’t handle such ambiguity? Opt for the Nàdurra 16-year-old bottling.
In contrast to more elegant profiles like honey, heather and fresh fruit, some producers are experimenting with bigger, brawnier Scotches.
Peat lovers are in luck: Ardbeg announced that the forthcoming Supernova bottling is its peatiest Scotch yet. That’s a bold statement from a brand already known for its powerful, smoky profile. Tasting notes include licorice, chili pepper, crushed black pepper, cigar smoke, olive brine and tar.
Craigellachie means “fiery crag,” and that Dewar’s whisky lives up to its name, with rugged sulfur and even rubbery flavors roughing up its underlying baked-apple notes.
Venison, gamy and chocolate mole have all been used to describe Mortlach’s umami-like core. The unique profile is a result of traditional distilling techniques, including the use of squat copper pot stills and outdoor “worm tubs” to coax out more substantial viscosity and flavor.
“It’s a representation of what whisky was” in the pre-Industrial age, says Georgie Bell, Mortlach’s brand ambassador. “It’s thick, rich, robust and muscular.”
Wine-finished Scotches are on the rise. Although Sherry cask-finished whiskies have long been a spirits staple, adding notes of dried fruit and honey, expect to see more Scotches that have taken a turn in barrels used for Sauternes, Port, Bordeaux and Burgundy.
Glenmorangie is one of the leaders in the category, offering its signature 10-year-old expression finished in Port pipes (Quinta Ruban), oloroso and PX Sherry casks (Lasanta) and Sauternes barrels (the gorgeously honeyed Nectar d’Or).
The Glenmorangie Companta blends whiskies aged in barrels previously used for Clos de Tart Grand Cru (Burgundy) and a sweet fortified wine from the Rhône.
Love French wine? Keep an eye out for Bruichladdich. The formerly independent small producer, acquired by Cognac giant Rémy-Martin in 2012, has been aging Islay whiskies in barrels sourced from famous Bordeaux estates, including Châteaux d’Yquem, Petrus, Margaux and Haut-Brion.
“People told us we were crazy to do that,” says Allan Morgan, distillery manager at Bruichladdich. “But it’s catching on in the industry.”
While the limited-edition offerings can be nearly impossible to find, Bruichladdich’s Black Art 4.1 is still available. It’s an 18-year-old Scotch that spent another five years in first-growth Bordeaux casks.
Blended Scotches mix whiskies from different distilleries. Now, producers are taking the key single malts that make up their blends and are selling them as standalone brands.
If Dewar’s is your go-to Scotch, consider seeking out mellow Aberfeldy (12- or 21-year-old), the heart of the Dewar’s blend, according to Stephen Marshall, malts marketing manager for John Dewar & Sons.
Another component, the rugged, robust Craigellachie, was released to U.S. consumers in 2014 as 13- and 17-year-old bottlings. The grassy, fresh Royal Brackla will come out this year.
These malts are “the best-kept industry secret,” says Marshall. “Independent bottlers sometimes buy a cask and release it as a limited run,” he says, but “we will be releasing it continuously.”
If you favor Johnnie Walker, look for one of its component single malts, Mortlach. Prized in whisky geek circles for its complex, robust flavors, Mortlach often is described as meaty.
Mortlach Rare Old (sans age statement) pops with tropical fruit notes and a touch of umami, while Mortlach 18, aged in first-fill Sherry casks, is rich with spice and chocolate.
Also on the horizon: single-grain Scotches. Not made from one specific type of grain, these Scotches are from a single distillery (like single malts), but feature light-bodied grain whisky instead of malt whisky. This category includes Haig Club, a Diageo bottling backed by soccer celebrity David Beckham, and The Girvan from William Grant.
Compass Box, perhaps best known for its breakthrough The Peat Monster bottling, has long offered stories to accompany its blends. The same is true of the brand’s two newest offerings.
The Lost Blend takes its name from a 1907 book written by O. Henry, and it’s a re-creation of the former Eleuthera blend.
According to Compass Box, “after three years, we were no longer able to obtain one of the key whiskies required for the recipe,” so it was retired in 2004. Now, the company is reviving it.
A mix of two fruity highland malts and a peaty Islay single malt, it’s a limited-edition offering of just over 12,000 bottles. Even the label features items that are typically “lost” (keys, eyeglasses, the Lusitania…).
The Great King St. Glasgow Blend is a permanent addition to the Compass Box collection, a nod to a 1930 observation that Glaswegians preferred full-bodied, flavorful whiskies. This Scotch combines lemon cream and vanilla shadings with a smoky underpinning.
“Blending offers the potential for creativity,” says John Glaser, founder of Compass Box. “I confidently believe that we will see more blends coming to market.”
Hope you like a little water with your whisky, because you’re going to need it. Alcohol levels in Scotch, like in other types of whiskey, are climbing as producers chase flavor.
Talisker Storm is a hearty 45.8% abv, though the alcohol heat doesn’t outweigh the notes of caramel and campfire smoke. Laphroaig 10-Year-Old Original Cask Strength is bottled at 57.2%.
Topping the charts, Aberlour’s A’Bunadh is a whopping 60.4%, showing plenty of alcohol heat on the nose and palate alongside bold leather, cocoa and espresso flavors.
“It’s an animal,” says Ian Logan, a representative for the brand.
While these alcohol levels are indicative of a broader industry trend toward high-octane spirits, Scotch makers seem reluctant to dilute single malts. They assume that individual consumers will add water to taste.
Most blends are bottled at the standard 40% abv, but not all. Deliberately “rich and rugged” Cutty Sark Prohibition is bottled at a swaggering 50%. In part, that nods to what bootlegged whisky might have been like, but it’s also a boon to bartenders seeking higher-proof options for cocktail use.
- 1“Ageless” Scotches
- 2Ultrabold Flavors
- 3More Wine in Your Whisky
- 4“Secret Ingredient” Single Malts
- 5Quirky Blends, Colorful Backstories
- 6Sky-High Alcohol Levels