Sweet Sixteen – The Speyside Twelves

A great Saturday night. Another blind test between sixteen whiskies. This time it was a battle between sixteen different Speyside twelve-year olds. Here comes the recap of what turned out to be the most difficult blind test to date.

So, when it comes to scotch, and especially Speyside scotches, it can be hard to choose which bottle to buy because of the similarity in character. The nuances in taste and smell between different distilleries and variations can sometimes be hard to distinguish when you taste them at separate times. By doing these blind test shoot-outs, we find out what we really like when all confounders (such as price, brand and bias to perceived personal favourites) are removed.

THE LINE-UP

We tried to gather as many readily available standard expressions as we could. The line-up we ended up with contained fifteen whiskies from the distillery core ranges, and one twelve-year old that is a “standard” expression in the travel retail range (Balvenie 12 YO – Triple Cask). This means that no special editions were included in the line-up and most of the whiskies are the distilleries’ “flagship” expressions. All whiskies are aged in ex-bourbon barrels and/or ex-sherry casks. There’s no expression aged/finished in speciality casks.

Disclaimer: We know that AnCnoc (Knockdhu) isn’t presented as a Speyside on the bottles. About half of the information about it on the internet refers to it as being within the Speyside region, and others state that it’s located just outside. But for the sake of this exercise we count it as a Speysider.

THE FAVOURITES AND THE DISLIKES

The only one I hadn’t tasted prior to the shoot-out was the Macallan 12 YO – Triple Cask. So, going in to this exercise, I had no opinion on that specific whisky. But when it comes to the other 15 expressions, I really have to say that I generally like all of those. My favourite by far has been Cragganmore 12 YO, which I always thought had a complexity, and a fantastic white wine aura over the standard nuances of a fruity Speyside whisky. My other favourite was the AnCnoc 12 YO, which to me always felt dusty and “antiquey”, like it’s much older than its 12 years of maturation.

When it comes to my friend, he had tasted about half of the whiskies, but not in such a way that he could separate most of them by recollection. He also had the Cragganmore 12 YO as one of the favourites and it was one of the expressions he had familiarity with. The one recent acquaintance was the one I hadn’t tried before (he had the Macallan 12 YO – Triple Cask, I brought the others).

So, besides the shoot-out, he set out on a side quest; To try to identify that whisky amongst the others. My side quest would be to try to find The Cragganmore 12 YO, since I thought that I should recognize my favourite whisky amongst the others.

Lastly, we always choose which whisky we think is the worst of the entire shoot-out before we reveal the results. Those are revealed within the bracket reflections.

THE METHOD AND THE PREPARATIONS

If you are interested in how we prepare, and which method we use to make this a truly random test, the full rundown can be found in paragraphs two and three in [this article]. We did the same thing this time. The short version is that we randomize sixteen samples into four brackets. The four winners of those move on to a final bracket, and then the best whiskey is chosen. The four whiskies in the final aren’t necessarily the four best ones, but the winner will be the one that stands out.


BRACKET 1

Glenfarclas 12 YO
Macallan 12 YO – Sherry Cask
GlenGrant 12 YO
Macallan 12 YO – Triple Cask

Reflections
The obvious thing about the first bracket is that two of the Macallans ended up against each other. The Macallan expressions are the most expensive ones included in the shoot-out with a good margin (at least in Sweden). Looking at these two is the most interesting part of the first bracket, because both of us picked GlenGrant 12 YO as a clear winner, with some great cask influence and a nice steady journey from nose to finish. We both had Glenfarclas 12 YO as our third picks, offering less cask influence than most of its rivals. The base flavours in all these are by the way very close to each other (and that is a common thread for all the brackets).

So, back to the Macallans. Whereas I had the 12 YO – Sherry Cask as runner up and the 12 YO – Triple Cask dead last, it was the other way around for my friend. To me, there was a clear line between the two on top and the last two. The reason the Macallan 12 YO – Sherry Cask lost to the GlenGrant 12 YO was that it felt like it had a big hole in the middle part. It has a very pleasant sherry driven nose and a nice spicy finish, but in between there’s just a big dip in flavour. The Macallan 12 YO – Triple Cask was to me a bit bland throughout. We never really discussed why my friend chose to put them the way he did, but in retrospective one can imagine that the 12 YO – Triple Cask was the one whisky he had a bottle of at home, so he liked it because of familiarity. But remember the side quest? No, he didn’t choose this one.

My result
1. GlenGrant 12 YO
2. Macallan 12 YO – Sherry Cask
3. Glenfarclas 12 YO
4. Macallan 12 YO – Triple Cask

My friend’s result
1. GlenGrant 12 YO
2. Macallan 12 YO – Triple Cask
3. Glenfarclas 12 YO
4. Macallan 12 YO – Sherry Cask


BRACKET 2

Glenlivet 12 YO
Macallan 12 YO – Double Cask
Glenfiddich 12 YO
Singleton of Dufftown 12 YO

Reflections
This one was the hardest of the four brackets. In my opinion, it was very close between all of them and subtleties was the deciding factor. There are some interesting things about it though. If we look at my result, the Singleton of Dufftown 12 YO won over the most expensive one and two of the bestselling single malts in the world. It just seemed a little more vibrant than the other ones and offered a nicer finish. At the other end, The Glenlivet 12 YO had a bad day to say the least. Both of us put it last and my friend picked it as the worst whisky in the shoot-out. But remember, there were really no bad whiskies in the entire line-up.

The difference between our top three places in this bracket testifies to the difficulty of this shoot-out and how subjective the results are when it comes to taste and smell. Both of us are pretty far down the paths of our whisky journeys. There’s differences of course; My approach is way more theoretical than my friend’s, and yet we often agree on the broader perspectives. With that said, the margins between the top three in this bracket were so small, that the winner almost felt like a random pick (it was that close). But there are no shared places in a shoot-out.

My result
1. Singleton of Dufftown 12 YO
2. Glenfiddich 12 YO
3. Macallan 12 YO – Double Cask
4. Glenlivet 12 YO

My friend’s result
1. Macallan 12 YO – Double Cask
2. Singleton of Dufftown 12 YO
3. Glenfiddich 12 YO
4. Glenlivet 12 YO


BRACKET 3

Aberlour 12 YODouble Cask
Cragganmore 12 YO
Strathisla 12 YO
Balvenie 12 YO – DoubleWood

Reflections
Here we have the easiest of the brackets, at least according to me. The Cragganmore 12 YO just stood out as the best both in smell and taste. I also picked this as my side quest whisky, and I was thankfully completely correct in my choice. It just offers way more in complexity, cask influence and consistency than all the other ones in the bracket. Another interesting point is that I felt like the runner up, The Balvenie 12 YO – DoubleWood, was better than all the whiskies tasted in the first two brackets. But since it’s a shoot-out, it’s just one of those things that is left for the imagination. The Aberlour 12 YO – Double Cask was very thin and lacked the density of a good sherried whisky and the Strathisla 12 YO tasted a bit “seeweedy” in A/B comparison with the others.

Now here’s the interesting part. My friend put Cragganmore 12 YO last. Otherwise we agreed on the others. Maybe the complexity threw him off in the mix of all the others. Sometimes comparing whiskies accents different flavours than if tasted separately, but there was something in the smell and taste that didn’t agree with him. Translated quote from after the shoot-out, when it was revealed: “Oh, I’ve got to stop recommending this to other people!”. I heartily disagreed.

Remember my friend’s side quest? He chose Aberlour 12 YO – Double Cask as the side quest whisky. Quest failed!

My result
1. Cragganmore 12 YO
2. Balvenie 12 YO – DoubleWood
3. Aberlour 12 YO – Double Cask
4. Strathisla 12 YO

My friend’s result
1. Balvenie 12 YO – DoubleWood
2. Aberlour 12 YO – Double Cask
3. Strathisla 12 YO
4. Cragganmore 12 YO


BRACKET 4

Balvenie 12 YO – Triple Cask
AnCnoc 12 YO
Cardhu 12 YO
Glen Moray 12 YO

Reflections
In this bracket there were two shining stars, The Balvenie 12 YO – Triple Cask and the AnCnoc 12 YO. Both this Balvenie and the 12 YO – DoubleWood from an earlier bracket really impressed me. I do think that the 12 YO – Triple Cask is slightly better of the two though (Just as a FYI: The Balvenie 16 YO – Tripe Cask was on my top 10 new whiskies tasted in 2018 [Link to article]). The AnCnoc 12 YO is a very consistent whisky, but a lot of the flavours I usually associate with it wasn’t shining through, and I couldn’t identify it in the shoot-out before the reveal. Still, my friend chose to send it to the final round and it was pretty close to the top on mine.

So, the Cardu 12 YO and the Glen Moray 12 YO. To me, there was a gap between these and I gave the Glen Moray the worst whisky in the shoot-out title. But at its price point, it’s not a bad whisky at all. The Cardu 12 YO felt like a “standard” Speyside whisky that just didn’t have what it took to compete with the top. My friend switched them around, which also testifies to the shoot-out being hard to judge and that there was a pretty narrow span between the top and the bottom.

My result
Balvenie 12 YO – Triple Cask
AnCnoc 12 YO
Cardhu 12 YO
Glen Moray 12 YO

My friend’s result
1. AnCnoc 12 YO
2. Balvenie 12 YO – Triple Cask
3. Glen Moray 12 YO
4. Cardhu 12 YO


GRAND FINALE

MY FINAL BRACKET

GlenGrant 12 YO
Singleton of Dufftown 12 YO
Cragganmore 12 YO
Balvenie 12 YO – Triple Cask

My result
1. Cragganmore 12 YO
2. Balvenie 12 YO – Triple Cask
3. GlenGrant 12 YO
4. Singleton of Dufftown 12 YO

MY FRIEND’S FINAL BRACKET

GlenGrant 12 YO
Macallan 12 YO – Double Cask
Balvenie 12 YO – DoubleWood
AnCnoc 12 YO

My friend’s result
1. AnCnoc 12 YO
2. GlenGrant 12 YO
3. Macallan 12 YO – Double Cask
4. Balvenie 12 YO – DoubleWood

FINAL REFLECTIONS AND CONCLUSIONS

The biggest conclusion is that the difference between these whiskies are way smaller than the price range. The Macallan expressions cost twice as much as the Glen Moray 12 YO. If you buy a Macallan, you buy into a luxury brand, but you get whiskies at about the same standard as the competitors. It makes sense though, because a distillery can only do so much within a certain maturation time. The biggest difference is whether the casks sourced are of good quality and how many times they are used before. That’s where the Glen Moray makes a good example because that’s where it falls a bit short. Sure, there are differences, but when you have a dram by itself, the quality difference is less obvious, and the “brand effects” and other confounders get bigger. That’s why these blind shoot-outs are so valuable as a learning experience.

Balvenie seem to have a character that really suits my palate and it’s the brand that, to me, shined brightest alongside my favourite whiskies. The 12 YO – Triple Cask even beat out the AnCnoc 12 YO, one of my favourites going in to this exercise. Otherwise, the final lists look about how I imagined it from the start. They are a bit varied because of how the brackets were drawn, but with well-known favourites high on top. A bit surprising is that the GlenGrant 12 YO was the only whisky both me and my friend sent to the finals. It’s quite delicious and well put together.

I also feel like I should comment on my last place in the finals, The Singleton of Dufftown 12 YO. It beat the bestselling brands and even a Macallan. It just goes to show that you can get a good dram at a reasonable price, and that popular brands aren’t always making the best products suited for you.

If you made it this far, thanks for reading and make sure to do this yourself.

William

Published 2019-06-18

For the love of all things whisky/whiskey

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