There’s nothing like a well-aged Scotch whisky to chase winter’s chill from your bones. Fine single malts are our reward for toiling in the cold, and this season brings a fresh crop of old spirits that take the sting out of the deep freeze. Setting the standard is Highland Park 50, the oldest release from the most northerly distillery in Scotland. With a price tag of $17,500 per bottle, it’s a luxury only a fortunate few will taste, so here’s what you might be missing: an amazingly round, smoky, spicy whisky with hints of citrus and a flavor that lingers long on the palate and even longer in the mind. Whisky doesn’t get any better.
That said, for far less money you can savor several single malts that come quite close. At an affordable-by-comparison $1,000, the Macallan Sherry Oak 20 is an astonishingly well-balanced spirit with notes of fruit, spice, and oak, and each bottle comes with a portfolio of 10 prints by Scottish photographer Albert Watson, who was commissioned especially for the release. (The iconic Macallan 18, with a sophisticated mix of orange, chocolate, and spice, remains a perennial bargain at $150.) At 55.6% alcohol, the Glenlivet Founders Reserve 21 ($375) comes with an extra kick. The non-chill filtered whisky, released to celebrate a major expansion of the distillery, has traces of marmalade and toffee and a velvety mouthfeel. But for a third of the price, the Speyside distillery has an equally mature whisky that’s nine-tenths as good: the Glenlivet Archive 21 ($120), with an exquisite mélange of autumn spice, fruit, and vanilla. The gorgeous, golden Scapa 16 ($82), meanwhile, is designed to steel souls against the brutal North Sea winds that buffet the Orkney Islands with a playful mix of apple and honey.
The crisp Glenfiddich Snow Phoenix ($90) is a direct result of winter’s ferocity. In January 2010, an accumulation of heavy snow collapsed the roof of a remote part of the distillery warehouse, exposing Oloroso sherry and American oak casks containing whisky that Malt Master (yes, that’s actually a thing) Brian Kinsman used to create a brisk spirit of renewal. The result is a heavenly nectar of pear and honey. But perhaps the best bottle of them all, assuming you’d like to send your kids to college one day, is the Talisker 30 ($350). From the rocky shores of the Isle of Skye, it hits you right away with a refined sweetness, envelops you with notes of vanilla, sandalwood, and caramel, and imparts a warm peatiness that hints at its provenance without making you feel like you’re snorkeling in a bog. Even the air you exhale after taking a sip tastes delicious. Why can’t winter last all year?