I am aware, in some sense, that I am probably doing this all wrong. It is traditional, I’ve heard, to wait to start opening the little doors of your advent calendar until the beginning of December, coinciding as they do in some kind of way with that Christian holiday known as “Christmas.” If I was a normal consumer, it’s likely that I should have waited.
I am, however, decidedly not a normal consumer, and this is decidedly not a normal advent calendar. Rather, it’s much better: It’s an advent calendar filled with scotch whisky, and I am here to partake.
Drinks by the Dram is a U.K. company that has stumbled onto a gold mine in recent years with its collection of alcohol-based advent calendars. Marketing them as premium early X-Mas gifts for the booze-inclined among us, they hit the ground running with a few varieties of whiskey-based advent calendars, but have since expanded the concept to fit an incredibly diverse and specific set of liquors. Shopping online, you can find advent calendars structured around everything from bourbon or gin to rum, tequila and even something as specific as Japanese whisky.
Diving headfirst into classic single-malt scotch whiskies as I have been this year, I thought this would likely be an excellent opportunity to try some new malts I’ve never sampled before, and thus reached out to secure one of the brand’s scotch whisky advent calendars. The result has a mix of everything: Core releases from classic Scottish distilleries, rarer one-offs, and a handful of contributions by independent bottler That Boutique-y Whisky Company as well, with representatives from all the major scotch regions. Each sample comes in an individually waxed (easy to remove, thankfully), 30 ml dram, which is a decent volume—enough to get a feel for that scotch, but certainly not enough to be overly intoxicating.
I’ve by no means consumed the entire advent calendar yet—far from it—but here’s a smattering of the malts I’ve sampled so far. For the purposes of this piece, I was focused on trying things I’ve never sampled in the past.
Glenfarclas 21 Year Old
The whisky selections in this advent calendar seem to feature quite a few sherried single malts, and the Glenfarclas 21 Year Old is a good example. This is a classic Speyside distillery, although perhaps not quite so well known as some of its larger competition. Oddly, despite being located in Speyside, they actually use the words “Highland Single Malt Scotch Whisky” on their labels, presumably implying that for some, regionality is more of a state of mind.
The nose of Glenfarclas 21 Year Old is decadently rich and nutty, with plenty of marzipan influence from the sherry and something that reminds me of marshmallow fluff. Buttery toffee is big on the palate, and mixed nuts, although it’s thinner of body than you might expect. The sherry influence is certainly there in a big way, but this isn’t as overtly sweet on the palate as I was expecting from the nose. Rather, as I return to it, I’m getting more elements of herbaceousness (like dried herbs de provence) and a bit of roast, like chicory coffee. More and more grassiness emerges from beneath the sherried richness over time. Compared to some of the others I later tasted (like the Glenglassaugh Revival), it’s significantly drier and more balanced—not in “dessert” dram territory necessarily, but a good fusion of Speyside “fresh” elements and the richness/fruitiness that the sherry finish brings to the table.
The Glenglassaugh Distillery, bordering both Speyside and the Highlands, is still pretty new on the scene in terms of its beginning operations again, despite the fact that it initially opened its doors in 1875. Like so many other notable malt makers, it has been open and closed during various points since, but was mothballed in 1986 and only started distilling again as recently as 2008. This non-age-statement malt, Revival, is the first house-distilled product from Glenglassaugh to make its way into bottles since that distillation and aging began again, and one gets the sense that the decision to finish it with six months in first-fill oloroso sherry butts was likely to add a little oomph to what would otherwise have been a younger whisky. The slightly higher strength (92 proof) also plays in here as well.
On the nose, this smells very rich and nutty, in a way that is a bit one-note—you might call it slightly guileless in its delivery. Heavy American bourbon and sherry influence is being felt here. On the palate this comes across as viscous and oily, as well as very sweet and decadent. A true sherry bomb through and through, despite the lower amount of maturation time—those first-fill oloroso casks packed a punch. Honeycomb, sherry cream and candied almond flavors dominate, but there’s the faintest wisp of peat on the nose as I come back to it. Dark fruit nose of prune/raisin abound as well, with a residual sugar level that is quite high. This is definitely what you’d call dessert scotch. It can be a little much in terms of bombast, but if what you want is something very rich and sherried, it’s a pretty solid value. If you can’t get the likes of GlenDronach 15 Year, this is a decent budget replacement, although it is less complex.
Port Askaig 8 Year
Port Askaig is the name not of a distillery, but of a line of sourced Islay mystery malts from London-based Elixir Distillers, which acquires their whisky from one or more of the classic Islay distilleries and releases them under the Port Askaig banner, named for the most active port on the Scottish island. They produce a range of different age statements, including 8, 15, 19, 30 and 45-year, along with cask strength and NAS 100 proof whiskies.
Because my palate is a bit more sensitive to smoke than most, Islay malts tend to not be my favorite drams—I find them interesting, but have a hard time getting past the dominance of peat-smoked malt. Askaig 8 definitely was a challenge for me in that sense—the nose is extremely intense in terms of campfire impressions, with hints of burning rubber, seaweed and brine. It has a strongly medicinal tone, and a certain savory/meatiness as well. On the palate, however, it’s actually not quite as smoke dominate as the nose would suggest, and you can get at some buttery shortbread flavors underneath. As time passes, I get peach fruitiness and lots of rose petals, but there’s also a slightly bitter edge to this whisky as well; a roasty-type astringency that you might find in a beer with a lot of unmalted roasted barley. The finish is long, lingering, sour smoke—I can still taste this, five minutes after last taking a sip. All in all, this isn’t the style of scotch I gravitate toward, but I think I’m starting to become acclimated to it a bit more.
Tamdhu Batch Strength Batch 4
Another classic Speyside distillery, and another sherried single malt, albeit one that is quite a bit more burly than anything else I’ve sampled in this advent calendar, at a robust 115.6 proof. There’s no age statement, but the distillery notes it was “matured exclusively in European and American oak Oloroso casks.” Obviously, with those credentials I’m again expecting something pretty rich.
On the nose, this is only lightly sherried, but also grain forward in an interesting way. There’s a deep breadiness/yeastiness here, and a suggestion of wet earth to go along with the lightly nutty/viniferous sherry notes. On the palate, it’s slightly musty in an odd way, with deep honey impressions. The graininess reminds me of the “spent grain” dinner rolls you might have at a local brewpub, while the rest of the impression is predominantly sweet and strong (duh), with notes of marzipans and stewed dark fruit, culminating in along, sweet, lingering finish—although the sweetness certainly feels more earned here than in say, the Glenglassaugh Revival. Overall, this is an interesting malt, and I keep coming back to that combination of mustiness/honey/roasted nuts as its signature.
Highland Park 18-Year Viking Pride
This whisky’s label was redesigned back in 2017, along with many other design aspects of the brand, along with adding the words “Viking Pride,” but it’s still the same core expression from Orkney’s Highland Park that they were releasing before. As an island malt, Highland Park’s house style tends to fall somewhere between that of Islay and The Highlands, offering a balancing point between smoke, fruit and richness.
On the nose, I’m getting toffee, orange peel and apricot first, with a twist of vanilla bean. There’s a little bit of heather, and the slightest suggestion of earthiness, but very little smoke to speak of—certainly far less on the nose than the 16-Year-Old Highland Park Twisted Tattoo I recently reviewed for Paste. The body here is a bit lighter than expected, and it’s here that the smoke shows up, considerably more pronounced on the palate than it was on the nose. I’m getting pine and lots of peppery notes, along with campfire and a definite roastiness. Over time, this roasty character really stands out to me, evoking fresh ground coffee. It’s an interesting combination of flavors—smoke hits harder at first and then recedes on further sips, opening up more honeycomb and creamy vanilla. All in all, it’s more approachable for someone with my taste than the Askaig 8 was, but that’s a matter of smoke preference more than anything.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.