The 12 Best Single Malt Scotch Brands to Drink Right Now
There are a lot of preconceived notions in the whisky world. For example, single malt scotch might get the critical accolades, and still seems like a rarified, serious drink to many people. But when it comes down to popularity, blended scotch is the clear winner with sales far surpassing those of single malt. Price certainly plays a part here, as your average blend is generally a lot less expensive than a single malt, but that’s not always the case. Both styles have their merits, but many people prefer single malt whisky, which really showcases the characteristics of the particular distillery at which it’s made.
A quick primer on the differences between these different styles: "Single malt" means that the whisky comes from one distillery and is made from 100-percent malted barley. So a bottle of Glenfiddich 12, for example, may be a blend of a few hundred barrels, but all of them come from the Glenfiddich distillery, and the 12-year-old age statement refers to the youngest whisky in the mix. Blended scotch, on the other hand, is a combination of malt and grain whisky that usually comes from many different distilleries. And blended malt is a blend of malt whiskies, with no grain whisky included.
There are five or six different whisky regions in Scotland, depending on who you ask, each with its own character—Lowlands, Speyside, Highlands, Campbeltown, Islay, and (sometimes) Islands. While Islay in particular is known for using peat in the malting process, which gives its whisky that smoky flavor, the majority of scotch is not smoky at all. (Peat is measured in ppm, or parts per million; the higher the ppm, the smokier the whisky will be.) Legally, a small amount of caramel coloring can be used for color consistency in single malts. Some people are staunchly against this, believing it affects the character of the whisky, while others argue that it makes no noticeable difference. Regardless, the distilleries that don't use coloring at all in their whiskies will proudly and loudly let this be known.
Whatever type of whisky you choose to drink, remember that there’s no right or wrong way to enjoy it. Whisky is supposed to be fun, so don’t listen to anyone who says you shouldn’t add ice or you have to add water to enjoy your dram properly. Hell, if you want to mix a $300 bottle of whisky with Diet Dr. Pepper, go for it (but maybe also give the whisky a try on its own as well).
There are so many to choose from (over 130 and counting), but here are 12 of the best single malt scotch distilleries making whisky right now.
BenRiach isn’t the best known scotch distillery out there, but it is really quite interesting and produces some fantastic whisky. It’s also one of the few distilleries that still does its own floor maltings, albeit occasionally, in which the barley is soaked to germinate and then dried onsite before distillation (this is usually done by malting houses nowadays). BenRiach was acquired by drinks conglomerate Brown Forman, owner of Jack Daniel’s and Woodford Reserve, a few years ago as mentioned before, and the core lineup was relaunched with new bottle designs, names, and expressions. The most accessible and affordable whiskies are simply and directly named: The Original Ten and The Smoky Ten, The Twelve and the Smoky Twelve. As you can guess, one of each is peated, the other is not. But there’s a lot more that goes into these excellent single malts as well as far as the range of casks used for maturation, including ex-bourbon, sherry, port, virgin oak, and rum. Most recently, Malting Season was released, the first whisky to be made using barley malted inhouse at BenRiach in a century, along with Smoke Season, the distillery’s most heavily peated whisky to date. No color is added to these delicate and flavorful whiskies, which are complex enough for seasoned drinkers but simultaneously suitable for newcomers to scotch.
Highland Park is known for a few things that are unique within the scotch whisky industry—namely, its fixation on all things Viking, and its remote Orkney location, which makes it Scotland’s northernmost distillery (it beats Scapa by about a mile). The whisky is generally moderately peaty and matured mostly in sherry-seasoned casks, with bourbon barrels used for a few expressions as well. The core range here in the U.S. consists of 10-, 12- and 18-year-old whiskies, all of which do a nice job balancing smoke with rich dried fruit flavors. A 15-year-old expression joined the lineup last year called Viking Heart, housed in an eye-catching ceramic bottle, with the whisky aged in a combination of first-fill European and American sherry-seasoned oak casks and a small number of refill casks. Another new and really flavorful addition to the family is the Cask Strength expression. The second batch of this NAS, non-chill filtered whisky was released last fall, bottled at 63.9% ABV with big notes of smoke, vanilla, and honey on the palate. There are many other Norse-themed bottles from Highland Park to explore, with age statements ranging up to 50 years. Highland Park does not add coloring to its whisky.
This diminutive distillery located on the west coast of Scotland in the tiny port town of the same name is sometimes overlooked by whisky fans, but the liquid being made there is deserving of attention. There are just two stills at work, and the resulting whisky is rich, fruity, and has some smoke on the palate but nothing as pronounced as its neighbors to the south on Islay. There are just a few bottles anchoring the core lineup: a 14-year-old, 18-year-old, and Little Bay, a NAS (non-age-statement) whisky matured in various cask types. There’s also the annual Distillers Edition, which is part of a collection of limited-edition double-matured whiskies compiled by parent company Diageo from its many distilleries. The 2021 release took the core 14-year-old single malt and finished it in Montilla Fino casks. There’s a bit of brine and a puff of smoke on the palate, but the sherry cask finish really infuses the liquid with striking dried fruit and candied orange notes. If you see one of these in the wild, go ahead and grab it.
Peaty scotch can be a very divisive issue for whisky drinkers. Some people love the earthy, smoky rush that envelops them from nose to finish, while others think it tastes like an acrid tire fire. There are different levels of peat, of course. Laphroaig, from the Islay region of Scotland known for its smoky scotch, falls around 45 ppm, which makes this a decidedly peat-forward whisky. The 10-year-old is a staple you can find at most bars and liquor stores, and it’s a solid choice, full of seaweed, vanilla, and grill smoke flavors. If you’re looking for something quite a bit stronger, try Batch 12 of the cask-strength version of this classic, which you can proof down as you like. If you have the money to spend, the extra-aged expressions are where the whisky really starts to take on new dimensions. When it reaches a quarter century of maturation, Laphroaig still brings smoke to the party, but a host of other elements come into play that aren’t immediately evident in some of the younger expressions. The Ian Hunter Story is a newer series of whiskies highlighting the life and contributions of the former Laphroaig owner. Book 3, the most recent release, was aged for 33 years in ex-bourbon barrels, and is a delicious, if expensive, dram. For something a bit more accessible, try the 10-Year-Old Sherry Oak, which gives a sherry finish to the core expression with fantastic results.
The Lowland is not a region that many single malt drinkers think of when perusing the many different distilleries of Scotland, but there are some to look out for. Glenkinchie and Auchentoshan are two names that might be familiar to some, while Bladnoch is only just gaining ground here in the US. This distillery was founded in 1817, so there’s a great deal of history there, although it’s experienced many ownership changes and even been silent for a period of time. Dr. Nick Savage is now master distiller, and has a long background in the whisky industry. There are currently a few key bottlings available: Vinaya, NAS whisky aged in bourbon and sherry casks; Samsara, also NAS whisky aged in bourbon and California red wine casks; 15-year-old aged in Oloroso sherry casks; and 25-year-old finished in virgin oak and bottled at cask strength. If you’re looking to explore something new in the world of single malt scotch, try sampling a few of these expressions.
Bowmore is an Islay distillery owned by Beam Suntory, which also owns Laphroaig, but the whisky it produces is quite different. The No. 1 Vaults are supposedly the oldest maturation warehouses in the world, or so goes the line from the distillery. Regardless, this is layered, textured whisky that stays with you for quite a while. The 15-year-old spends its last three years maturing in Oloroso sherry casks, while the liquid in the 18-year-old (a standout bottle) spends its life in both bourbon and sherry casks before being blended together. The peat is about half the ppm of Laphroaig, so while it’s still noticeable, the fruit, caramel, and spice flavors create a whisky potpourri that unravels as you drink. In recent years, Bowmore has collaborated with British automaker Aston Martin, and the most recent release is Masters’ Selection 21 Year Old. This whisky was inspired by the concept of the golden ratio, a mathematical proportion that often appears in nature and is an inspiration for architecture and design. This whisky is a marriage of liquid aged in different types of sherry casks, and includes some up to 35 years old.
The Glenrothes is owned by the same parent company as The Macallan, Scottish company Edrington, which acquired it again after nearly a decade under ownership of Berry Bros & Rudd. But it is often overlooked in favor of its much more popular Speyside sister distillery. The Glenrothes also uses sherry-seasoned casks for the majority of its maturation, and has an in-house cooperage to repair and refurbish these casks that come from Jerez, Spain. Also like The Macallan, the whisky has natural color. The core range consists of whisky aged for 10, 12, 15, 25 years, as well as a 50-year-old that retails for $35,000. If you only have a few thousand dollars to spend instead of a few tens of thousands, consider the new 36-year-old expression. This single cask release comes with an NFT, if you care about such things, with artwork from The New Yorker illustrator Maddie Dai.
Ardbeg is a robust Islay whisky, which at about 50 ppm is slightly peatier than its neighbor Laphroaig. Ardbeg, the sister distillery to Glenmorangie in the Highlands, generally appeals to hardcore fans of the smoky stuff, and for many years was sort of a cult whisky. But there’s a lot of nuance underneath all of that salty, ripe, bold, burnt vanilla flavor. The whisky is predominantly aged in first- and second-fill bourbon barrels, with some liquid going into sherry butts and French oak as well. The 10-year-old anchors the range, with some hard-to-pronounce, Gaelic-named expressions to round it out. Uigeadail brings sherry cask whisky into the mix, with dried cherry and prune notes complementing the peat, while Corryvreckan ups the ABV to 57.1 percent. Each June, the distillery celebrates Ardbeg Day with a special release, and this year that whisky is called Ardcore (which is available now). Ardcore is supposedly influenced by the spirit of punk rock, and Islay’s main town, Port Ellen, was allegedly referred to as Punk Ellen back in the ‘70s. Ardcore was made with roasted black malt, a first for the distillery. Head of distilling and whisky creation Dr. Bill Lumsden describes the whisky as tasting “like biting on a spiky ball,” which may be enticing or disturbing depending on your preference, but no judgment. Another new release is Fermutation, a 13-year-old whisky that was fermented for three weeks instead of three days, creating a unique, floral, and citrus-forward flavor profile. Ardbeg does not add coloring to its whisky.
The GlenDronach might not be as well known as fellow sherry cask whisky maturation giant The Macallan, but that is changing, and for good reason. In 2016, The GlenDronach was acquired by Brown-Forman (along with BenRiach and Glenglassaugh), increasing its profile in the competitive world of single malts. Like The Macallan, its focus is on sherry cask maturation, but the whisky produced here is entirely different. It’s aged in a combination of PX and Oloroso sherry casks, giving it a range of flavor from sweet to baking spices. The core lineup ranges in age from 12 to 21 years, and there have been some excellent new limited editions as well. The most recent is the 19th batch of the Cask Bottling collection, a series of single cask whiskies selected by master blender Rachel Barrie. This year’s collection comes from just 12 casks, and while expensive is still not as pricey as other similarly aged single malts. There are three releases: 1992 Cask 217 (29 years old, aged in an Oloroso sherry butt), 1992 Cask 6052 (28 years old, aged in a Pedro Ximinez puncheon), and 1994 Cask 5080 (27 years old, aged in an Oloroso puncheon). Each is available in different markets in the US. The GlenDronach does not add coloring to its whisky.
Bruichladdich is a study in creative contradictions. The Islay distillery produces some of the most heavily peated whisky available. Literally—the Octomore range ventures into the hundreds of ppm, which is extremely, seriously, not-fucking-around smoky (the 08.3 release clocked in at 309.1 ppm!). Then there’s the Classic Laddie, a light, un-peated whisky full of citrus and green fruit notes that could not be more different. Recent expressions have focused on the concept of terroir in whisky, an idea that Bruichladdich is trying to convince the doubters really exists. While some people think the cask plays the biggest part in flavor, overriding barley varieties and even peat source, Bruichladdich is intent on proving otherwise. The most recent Octomore series (the 12th) includes some interesting experiments, and proves that age really isn’t an indicator of quality in whisky. Bruichladdich also released the first biodynamic scotch whisky (Waterford released a biodynamic Irish single malt prior to this), and new vintages of its unpeated Islay Barley expressions which are made from barley grown only on the island.
The Macallan is an extremely popular distillery that is known for making whisky almost entirely aged in sherry-seasoned casks sourced from Spain, giving it a creamy, fruity mouthfeel with a hint of dry spice and cocoa. There are several different ranges to try, from Sherry Oak to Double Cask to Triple Cask Matured. Two new age statements were added to the Double Cask lineup a few years ago, 15- and 18-year-old expressions that are matured in both American and European oak Oloroso sherry-seasoned casks, both exceptional whiskies that are spicy and fruity with notes of chocolate and vanilla. The Macallan is also famous for its incredibly expensive, extra-aged whisky, some of which approaches three-quarters of a century of maturation. Last winter, the oldest bottling to date was released, an 81-year-old whisky called The Reach which was distilled in 1940 and had a price tag of $125,000. More recently, the New York entry in the Distil Your World series launched, a limited-edition bottle produced in collaboration with the famed Spanish chefs the Roca Brothers that is an attempt to capture the essence of the Big Apple. No coloring is added to any of the whisky.
William Grant & Sons has two neighboring distilleries just outside of Dufftown in Speyside: the larger Glenfiddich and the smaller Balvenie. The Balvenie is arguably the more delicate and unique of the two in terms of flavor, although Glenfiddich is much more popular. Balvenie malt master David Stewart has worked in the industry for more than half a century and is still coming up with new creations. One of his crowning achievements was DoubleWood 12, which launched in 1993. The whisky is aged for 12 years in ex-bourbon barrels and hogsheads, finished for nine months in Oloroso sherry casks, and then transferred into large "tuns" to allow the liquid to mingle. The whisky in the 14-year-old Caribbean Cask is finished in rum barrels, where it picks up molasses and fruit notes. In recent years, the distillery has come up with more new whiskies, some under the auspices of apprentice malt master Kelsey McKechnie. Batch 8 of the Tun 1509 whisky series launched last fall, the final release in this series of specially selected casks that are married together in the distillery’s special wooden vat.
From: Esquire US