Serious Eats: Drinks

Taste Test: Inexpensive Scotch Whisky From Trader Joe's

[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

There are a lot of things that Trader Joe's does right, or at least, a few things. On that list: chocolate pudding, Hawaiian shirts, and good marketing. The latter may be the most impressive: despite the fact that its store-brand products regularly place near the bottom in our blind taste tests, flavor alone doesn't seem to deter its legions of fans. Still, we've found the occasional winner. How would their house brand Scotch whisky stand up?

The Contenders

Trader Joe's is notoriously hush-hush about its product sourcing (entire websites are devoted to uncovering exactly which name brands have been repackaged under the Trader Joe's label), but their general strategy is to buy from brand-name producers in bulk, repackage under the TJ's brand, then undercut their prices on the supermarket shelf.

Here's what we do know. Trader Joe's currently carries two different bottles of Scotch: a 10-year old single malt Highland priced at $20 and a blended Scotch priced at $9. Until recently, an 18-year old single malt Speyside was available, but the limited run whisky has sold out in most regions already. A new one will be introduced to take its place in October, though there's no guarantee that it will be in any way similar to the previous offering.

According to a former Trader Joe's liquor team member I spoke with, that's part of the nature of Trader Joe's Scotch program: they keep their prices low buy picking up remnants and small bottlings from Scotch distilleries that, for some reason or another, are deemed unfit for bottling under a given brand name. The buy-ups often end up in the low tens of thousands of bottles range. 40,000 bottles serving Trader Joe's entire customer base is not a lot of whisky, hence the regular turnaround of new product.

The Highland and the blend seem to be the only ones that are guaranteed some degree of longevity, so we limited our tasting to those two bottles. To provide some context, we also tasted two brand-name whiskies alongside them. The 10-year old Macallan—another Highland single malt available at Trader Joe's for $35—was compared to the Trader Joe's Highland. For the blend, we chose Dewar's 12-Year Blended Scotch ($20), the bottle shelved directly next to the Trader Joe's house brand. The two bottles are very similar in appearance and in standard TJ's procedure, their side-by-side shelving is clearly designed to lure in customers with their competitive pricing strategy.

The Taste Test

As these are all relatively inexpensive whiskies aimed at the casual drinker, we decided to limit our tasting panel to enthusiastic amateur whisky drinkers—none of our eight person panel (excluding myself) is in the booze industry.

Tasters were served four samples of whisky and instructed to rate each one on a scale from 1 to 10 on its smoothness and its overall impression, and to describe its aroma in the glass, its flavor and texture, and finish (the aromas and flavors that linger after swallowing). Water and plain crackers were provided as palate cleansers.

I've occasionally had trouble in the past with tasters unused to the vocabulary of descriptors, so for this taste test, tasters were provided with a list of about 200 words for describing nose and palate, 20 words for describing body, and 70 words for describing the finish. Whiskies were tasted in random order by each taster, and tasters were not allowed to communicate during the tasting.

The Results

There's no two ways about it: In each given pair, the Trader Joe's bottles were almost unanimously ranked lower than their brand-name counterparts (in each case only a single taster preferred the Joe's bottle). That said, the bottles were also about half the price of the brand-name competitors, so I can imagine some situations in which you may well prefer the Trader Joe's bottle, particularly when it comes to the blended Scotch, which has a more rounded, sweeter flavor profile which lends itself to mixing.

Check out some more detailed tasting notes below.

10-Year Highland Single Malt

Trader Joe's 10-Year Highland Single Malt total score: 5.5/10

A pale yellow whisky with honey and apples on the nose with some pear and a touch of custard-y sweetness. It has a touch of burnt sugar and malt, along with a bit of white pepper. From scent alone, it's a vibrant and interesting Scotch, but things change once it's in the mouth. Quince and spices emerge on the palate with some harsher flavors that more generous tasters labeled as "peppery." The whisky is oily and harsh on the tongue with a finish that quickly dissipates—not necessarily a bad thing given its "burning" and "gasoline"-like aromas.

For $20 it's not bad, but we'd recommend spending the extra to pick up a bottle of its superior Trader Joe's-shelf competitor.

Macallan 10-Year Highland Single Malt total score: (7.25/10)

Like the Trader Joe's brand, there's a good deal of apple and honey on the nose, this time supported by a deeper vanilla flavor (one taster described it as "toasted marshmallows") and a hint of citrus. On the palate, a hint of charred wood and ash come forward along with richer raisin-y flavors. The toasted marshmallow develops into some full-blown butterscotch. This is one darn smooth whisky with a crisp, rounded texture and an velvety finish that lingers.

Blended Scotches

Trader Joe's Blended Scotch total score: (4.8/10)

The lowest scoring Scotch in our taste test comes on strong from the get-go with an alcoholic burn that tasters described as "like hot tequila," "sweet mesquite smoke," and "creosote." Once the burn faded away, a few more pleasant aromas emerged—sweet pineapple and spiced rum, a touch of figs. But those flavors quickly fade when you take a sip. The overwhelming impression is one of smoky wood and gasoline with just a hint of vanilla and black pepper. Big and oily on the tongue, this is not a whisky designed for easy sipping, though for $10 a bottle, it's a cheap way to get certain jobs done.

I could see stocking a bottle of it in my bar for parties or perhaps for mixing with Coke. Just stay away from the whisky-forward cocktails. Got a friend who likes to order Long Island Iced Tea? This should be their whisky of choice.

Dewar's 12 Year Old Blended Scotch total score: (6.4/10)

Coming in at a very reasonable $20, this bottle is one of the better deals on the Trader Joe's rack. Deep amber in color, it has plenty of vanilla with some mild, rounded spices on the nose along with a touch of sea air. Some tasters described it as closer to honey, while others detected the deeper, more bitter notes of molasses. Of the whiskies we tasted, it has the richest, most mouth-filling flavor with a light oiliness and an almost briny savoriness. The finish is mild and short-lived, but pleasing. It's a whisky we'd be happy to mix into our drinks or take with a bit of water as an inexpensive night-cap.

Our Tasting Methodology: All taste tests are conducted completely blind and without discussion. Tasters taste samples in random order. For example, taster A may taste sample 1 first, while taster B will taste sample 6 first. This is to prevent palate fatigue from unfairly giving any one sample an advantage. Tasters are asked to fill out tasting sheets ranking the samples for various criteria that vary from sample to sample. All data is tabulated and results are calculated with no editorial input in order to give us the most impartial representation of actual results possible.

About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.

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