Sometimes it takes a glaringly imbalanced comparison to really provide perspective on what you’re drinking. I was afforded this opportunity when a couple of my buddies busted out their bottles of The Singleton of Glendullan 12 yr. Single Malt Scotch and Cutty Sark Blended Scotch. The Singleton was a Christmas gift, the Cutty Sark a ‘get the job done’ purchase. It was the perfect chance to pit a bottom-shelf budget scotch against a more refined opponent and note the differences.

On the surface, it would be hard to find two Scotches much farther apart. The Cutty Sark is a blended whisky, while the Singleton is a single malt. Cutty is aged in American oak barrels, while Singleton is primarily in European sherry oak. But it’s the price that really separates them: Singleton retails for the respectable price of $56.95, while Cutty Sark can be bought for incredibly cheap, at $24.95. What they do have in common, however, is their region — both are made in Speyside (although Cutty is a blend), and have the classic Speyside subtlety.

SI Glendullan-12

Upon smelling them, it became immediately clear which was the superior scotch, and why. Cutty Sark had heavy alcohol fumes and evoked chemicals — there wasn’t much to it beyond that. While similarly subtle, Singleton had pleasant floral notes, a sweet wood scent, and even a touch of something akin to organic honey. It even looked more substantial, with a rich, darker golden colour compared with Cutty Sark’s light urine-yellow.

Unsurprisingly, it all falls apart for Cutty Sark in tasting. It has a harsh, almost bitter taste that detracts from its simple, fairly pleasant graininess. But that’s it. No depth, no complexity, a bit of sweetness unfortunately overwhelmed by a weird synthetic essence. On top of that, Cutty Sark is incredibly light bodied, and has the mouthfeel of alcoholic water. It just seems to lack substance in every category. Singleton, on the other hand, has a soft oiliness to its feel, which gives the impression of a more organic beverage. The taste isn’t loud, with only background notes of spring garden, clover honey, a bit of wood, and just the faintest hint of a spice akin to nutmeg. It’s quite sweet and incredibly easy-drinking. Definitely not the best scotch I’ve ever had, but relative to the Cutty Sark, it might’ve well been.

Listen, this wasn’t a fair comparison. Pairing a bottom-shelf blend against a midrange single malt was bound to produce predictable results. However, what it did reaffirm for me is there is a reason scotch usually costs a lot. If you buy cheap, it’ll taste cheap, and nowhere is this more apparent than Cutty Sark. If you just want a decent whisky buzz, by all means, bend for that bottom shelf. But if you’re a scotch enthusiast, looking for a real drinking experience don’t skimp. Buy a scotch worth sipping slow.