Let’s say that you’re a first-timer to Bandon Dunes Golf Resort and almost as new to single-malt scotches. Clearly, things soon will be looking up. If there’s a more conducive place in the United States to get up to speed on single malts, or simply take a refreshing refresher course, it doesn’t leap to mind. Bandon may be geographically about as far from Scotland as you can get in America, but in terms of the look and feel, about the only things missing are the kilts and the accent.
The resort’s sommelier, Phil Sabol, is also its resident whisky scholar. He has been with the resort since its 1999 opening and oversees the thorough but manageable Scotch list: 20 single malts as well as five blended whiskies. Sabol notes that these offerings in large sense owe to the guests themselves: He stocks what visitors have been shown to drink. Still, he and his trained staff are often asked to help navigate the waters (and the malted barley).
If a guest isn’t a Scotch drinker, Sabol typically will begin his education with a blended Scotch, which is easier on the novice palate than the more intense single malts. “It’s like starting a new wine drinker with a white Zinfindel before moving on to the big Italian Barolos,” Sabol says. “We could give him a great big Oban, but he might never have another single-malt Scotch again.”
The question then becomes what you like about the blended – the smoke or the peat, which to Sabol’s mind are the only flavors you get from most single malts – and the intensity you prefer.
Some bars group their single malts by the six Scotch-producing regions (Campbeltown, Highlands, Island, Islay, Lowlands and Speyside). Sabol has developed a unique and perhaps more useful system, according to his own taste: A left-to-right, 1-20 scale from the lightest (The Dalmore 12) to the most intense (Lagavulin 18-year-old).
“It goes from, ‘Here’s the one we could stick an umbrella in,’ ” Sabol says, “to ‘Here’s the big boy at the other end.’ ”
The Macallan 12 is the No. 1 single malt resort-wide; indeed, it’s more than three times as popular as every other Scotch on the board. But there are more general distinctions and lessons to be drawn from Bandon’s singular experience, says Sabol. To wit:
“At our downstairs Bunker Bar, where guests probably will be lighting up a big cigar, we guide them into a more masculine Scotch, or they do so on their own. That’s why the same people who drink Dewar’s as their blended Scotch at our main restaurant switch to (the richer) Johnnie Walker Blue in the bar, even though they’re the same price. In single malts, with cigars we recommend something generally in our 15-20 range. This will cool the smoke from the cigar and make it taste better by getting onto your palate before the smoke gets into your mouth.”
Age matters (part 1)
“What we’ve seen is that the Highlands – the Glenmorangies and Dalmores – are preferred by the older gentlemen. The younger crowd is drinking Scotches from the Speyside region: the Glenlivets and Macallans. It’s a generational thing at the moment. The regions tend to be very similar internally in taste and flavor, based largely on the local water and other factors such as the climate.”
Age matters (part 2)
“The Macallans, for example, are far superior the older you get, and you get what you pay for. (At Bandon, The Macallan 12-year-old is $12; the 25 is $75.) The 25-year-old is smooth, with no bite, like a Rémy Martin Louis XIII cognac. But while Scotch gets more expensive as it gets older – you’re paying for the amount of time the company has to sit on the product – it’s not always true that Scotch gets better with age. For example, in my opinion the Oban 12 is brighter and has a better ‘mouth feel’ than the Oban 18; I think it loses something in those six years. Experience is the best teacher.”
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Phil’s Top Choices
We asked Bandon’s single-malt savant to share his three favorites on the resort’s menu.
1.) Glenmorangie 18 Years Old. “Not too heavily peated, not too heavily smoked – it lets you enjoy the wood and the water. It’s complex but, as they say in wines, very well balanced.”
2.) Laphroaig 10 Years Old.
“I find Laphroaig has the biggest peat taste of
anything I carry. When I’m smoking a cigar downstairs in the Bunker Bar, which I do frequently, I enjoy a Laphroaig because that peat is much mellower on the cigar smoke.”
3.) Dalwhinnie Double Wood. “It’s aged in a sherry cask. If I just want a nice sipping scotch, something soft and easy-sipping, this is where I turn.”