Friday, September 10, 2010

Review: Strathisla 12 years old Pure Highland Malt Scotch Whisky

Remember when you were a kid and you played "red light / green light" with your friends?  You were on your friend's front lawn.  There was a line of children and a few yards in front of them was a lone kid with her back to you guys who shouted "Green light!" and you barrel towards her until she spun around yelling "Red light!"  You froze or if still moving got eliminated from the game.  Remember? 

Scotch appreciation runs along the same lines.  Ohh!  Those aromas wafting upwards towards the heavens are a big green light!  I take a sip, I am befuddled, unsure, big yellow light as the honey and limes turns to wasabi . . . lime . . . lye and by the finish, I am hitting the brakes as I skid through the red lights and expect to be t-boned by the freight train of bad taste!

So, let's play 'red light / green light' with Strathisla 12 years old Pure Highland Malt Scotch Whisky.  This single malt is owned by Chivas Brothers and not surprisingly is the core single malt found in the various Chivas Regal blended scotch whiskies. 

I like the Chivas Regal 12 years, a good blended scotch whisky.  I do not like Chivas Regal 18 years, not so good when you factor in the outrageous price point.  I am really impressed with the 21 year old Royal Salute by Chivas Brothers.  So, what's the core single malt found in all of these offerings like?

Nose (undiluted)
Sweet, perfumed, malty, not offensive but not overly attractive . . . Green light . . .

Palate (undiluted)
Initial sip delivers sweet malt, cereal and honey.  We're still 'green.'  Mid-palate you have some unmistakable oak and moderate spices of nutmeg and off-putting thyme?  Huh?  Green light is flickering . . .

Finish (undiluted)
Salted dark chocolate leaves the palate somewhat dry, but kinda like chewing a packet of Nutrasweet.  You got some chemical flavor almost.  Hit the brakes!  Freeze cause she's hollerin' "Red Light!"  What is that on the finish?  Oak?  Yeah, but spoiled oak or barrels that should not be used for aging whisky but rather for furniture!  The oak flavor on the finish is stale, old and somehow flawed.

General Impressions
When I first tried this malt, I liked it.  But upon subsequent tastings I found the flavors all kinda melded together like a blended scotch.  It lost clarity of flavor that is a key characteristic of single malt scotch whisky flavor profiles.  The more I drank this malt, the less I liked it till it became a chore to do.  Why?  Sweet.  This single malt starts out very sweet and mid-palate the malt struggles to rein in the sweetness with some dry flavor of oak, but that is a half hearted attempt as the oak tastes old and stale.  By the time of the finish, there is an unpleasant final note.  Only slightly unpleasant though.  So, over all, it's ok but nothing to write home to Mom about.

I personally would not buy this again.  I actually prefer the Chivas Regal 12 year old blended scotch to this single malt.  That being said, Strathisla 12 years delivers a flavor profile that is superior to the Chivas Regal 18 years blended scotch.  It is also substantially cheaper too. 

I can understand how some people would make this a repeat buy.  The reasons are:  (1) very reasonable price for a 12 year old single malt; (2) sweet and smooth flavor profile with the slightest of spice; (3) very mainstream, girl-next-door style dram.  Nothing exotic or interesting here.  Newcomers to scotch will like this malt because there is no bite, not a lot of peat and smoke in the tradition of Islay whiskies, and generally sweet and smooth.  Matter of fact, I gave away the remaining half bottle of this to a co-worker who is 60 yrs old.  I asked him what he thought of it and he considered it to be great.  He really enjoyed it and repeated over and over how smooth it was.  I also gave him the Chivas Regal 18 and he also was very pleased with it.  The lesson here is that the casual whisky drinker will be more than satisified with this whisky.  What you have to ask yourself is what category you fall within:  casual or serious?  For me, I am in the latter category so I demand more from a whisky.

Oh yeah, returning to the game, I personally would give this neither a green nor a red light but rather yellow!  Proceed with caution as this has got to be one of the most mediocre drams I have had in a while.  A tremendous snore fest.


Jason Debly

Photo credits:   "Stop" - Stop light with bird in New London Connecticut circa May 2007 by Tom Kaszuba;
Bottles of Strathisla on deck by Jason Debly;
Yellow traffic light by womble10791
Copyright © Jason Debly, 2009-2010. All rights reserved. Except for the above noted photos.  All rights reserved by photographers and their permission must be obtained with regard to any use photos.


  1. That was a fun review.

    The entire Chivas line has me playing Red Light Green Light whenever I try some of their drams. I think perhaps at times they over think the process and add too many confusing elements. (Or perhaps that is under thinking the process.)

  2. I like the Strathisla 12 mostly for its sweet character, inoffensive nose and subtle grassy/honeyed taste. I'll agree it's a yellow light to the serious whisky drinker, but it's a good single malt for the price...and you don't have to think much about it when you have a dram or two. Your insufferable analyses should be saved for the 'finer' scotches, not the bargain bin. For what it is, Strathisla 12 gives you the green light to come home, relax and get by with a good, basic, not overly sweet, malt. There are few items in its class that could claim the same result.

  3. "I personally would give this neither a green nor a red light but rather yellow! Proceed with caution as this has got to be one of the most mediocre drams I have had in a while." - Bang on Jason!! I've been following your blog for a while and find our tastes are similar. I had a bottle sitting around and finally got around to opening it and was disappointed. Think I'm going to put all the "single malts I don't fancy" into a bottle and make my own vatted malt!

  4. Making your own vatted malt of all the boring single malts is an intriguing concept!

  5. GODFATHER of Single malt whisky hidden in aisles of Dan Murphys stores Australia must be revealed soon-except price and recognition.This is my first whisky to start as single malt from Blends and then I was exploring Glenmorangie, Glen Moray & Dalwhinnie.
    I recommended this product to couple of people in QV none of the customers are known to this wonderful product , they mentioned me about the price.
    An example and a class of Peaty whisky which is not harsh. It's a delicacy for a get together-BBQ,Indian food & with spicy popcorn and a solo single malt whisky collector.
    Strong Nose like Burnt Black coffee, liquorice whisky.
    Tastes like sweetened honey blended with Vanilla.
    A whisky takes you to Scotland every sip and its my 3rd bottle from Dan Murphys QV and Coburg.
    Needs a drop of cold spring water or a spoon of crushed ice in very small quantity(half a coffee spoon) just air the whisky
    If you love single malt and want the feel of Chivas regal with Black label in a proper single malt version here is it.

  6. I actually found this one to be enjoyable, albeit very "safe". That being said, I cannot see buying it again at USD 47. At around 35 to 40 bucks, sure. But it is just a bit over priced in my opinion.

  7. Aaaaah. 'Are you casual or serious'... I think you mean 'are you casual or pretentious'. Let people like what they like.

  8. G'day Jason. I wonder if you might have had a bottle that differs from mine. I kind of know what you mean - this malt is not that interesting. But I am kind of enjoying its intensity up front and although the oak on mine isn't that distinctive - it is decent kind of natural wood shaving oak coming through with the some lovely malt character on the finish. It has hints of Dalwhinnie and Aberfeldy 21 on the nose (orange peel) that I don't prefer so it's odd that overall I like it.

    1. Obviously I was not a huge fan of this malt. A couple of years since writing it, I did encounter it again and it seemed still to be slightly better, in the sense that the finish was not as bad as initially reviewed.

      I think Strathisla is your middle of the road, smooth, non-challenging single malt that has its place, like while barbecuing, watching a game or something. And there is a place for such malts. Whisky tasting does not need to be an intellectual endeavour or so complex that we start speculating about a correlation with string theory. If it meets your needs and budget, you have succeeded!

  9. As it is one of the oldest destilleries still in business it is "the most" whiskey You can buy. THAT is what real Whiskey is supposed to taste like, unlike newer variants as Ardbeg etc. If You like it you are a real traditional whiskey-lover! :-) /Par