The 12 Best Single Malt Scotch Brands to Drink Now
Single malt scotch may get all the accolades, but the truth is that the best-selling whiskies coming out of Scotland are actually the blends. Still, single malts better speak to the character of a particular distillery from a specific region of Scotland, for obvious reasons. Everything from the water to the still size to the barley affects the distillate, and from there the barrel type and size, and the location of the warehouse, determine what the whisky will actually taste like once it’s mature and ready to be bottled. A blended scotch, however, diffuses the characteristics and flavor of the whisky by combining liquid from various distilleries, and often with grain whisky or neutral grain spirits.
A quick primer on single malt scotch: "Single malt" means that the whisky comes from one distillery and is made from 100-percent malted barley. So 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.
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 Islands. No, not all single malt scotch is smoky, although Islay in particular is known for using peat in the malting process, which gives its whisky that smoky flavor. (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 flavor, 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.
Ultimately, it’s up to you whether you care about things like added caramel color or peaty-ness; whisky fans can argue for days about these issues. What’s indisputable is that there are far too many excellent whisky distilleries making single malt scotch to include in one list. But here are 12 standouts that you should get to know better.
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 12- and 18-year-old whiskies, both of which do a nice job balancing smoke with rich dried fruit flavors, along with the newer, non-age statement Magnus (named after founder Magnus Eunson). This whisky comes from both first-fill and refill sherry casks and is bottled at a lower 80 proof, resulting in a lighter and less smoky flavor that works well in cocktails. There are many other Norse-themed bottles to explore, with age statements ranging up to 50 years, and releases like Full Volume, which is aged entirely in ex-bourbon barrels instead of sherry casks. Highland Park does not add coloring to its whisky.
Aberlour is an excellent but often overlooked single malt that is owned by French beverage company Pernod Ricard (also the owner of The Glenlivet, Chivas, and Royal Salute). This small Speyside distillery uses double cask maturation for most of its expressions, which means that the whisky that goes into its 12-, 16-, and 18-year-old bottles is matured in both bourbon and sherry casks before being blended and bottled. The sherry influence gets more intense with age, reaching its peak in the 18-year-old. But if you are really looking for a sherry bomb, try the excellent cask-strength A’Bunadh, which was most recently released as Batch 67. This non-age statement whisky is aged entirely in Oloroso sherry casks, resulting in an intense but always delicious dram. It’s rich in flavor and high in alcohol, but drinks easily despite its hefty proof.
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. There are others to try as well, including some peated expressions, a flavor profile not normally associated with the distillery. And PortWood, a 21-year-old whisky finished in port pipes that costs a few hundred bucks, may be one of the best bottles in the Balvenie range.
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. Lore is another tasty bottle, a blend of whisky aged from seven to 21 years in five different cask types, including sherry and quarter casks. If you have the money to spend, the extra-aged expressions are where the whisky really starts to take on new dimensions. At 27, 28, and 30 years old, Laphroaig still brings smoke to the party, but decades of maturation allows a host of other elements to come into play that aren’t immediately evident in some of the younger expressions.
Bowmore is an Islay distillery owned by Beam Suntory, which also owns Laphroaig, but the whisky it produces is very 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 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. Bowmore is also known for releasing half-century-old whiskies, like Black Bowmore 50 and 1966 Vintage, that cost tens of thousands of dollars. These are very unique and offer a taste of history, but stick with the affordable core range and you won’t be disappointed.
The Macallan is well known in the U.S. as a fairly easy-drinking whisky. It’s 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. The Macallan is also famous for its incredibly expensive, extra-aged whisky. For example, The Macallan 72 Years Old in Lalique, introduced earlier this year, goes for a cool $60,000 (this writer got to sample it, and it’s actually quite good, considering its age). The distillery seems to come out with new variations a few times a year, which some people view as overkill but others can’t seem to get enough of. The most recent release is The Macallan Estate, which contains a portion of malted barley grown at the Easter Elchies estate on which the distillery is located. The Macallan does not add coloring to its whisky.
Craigellachie has a whole “bad boy of Speyside” theme going on, but let’s put that aside for a minute. Yes, the whisky differs from others in the area—it’s a bit oilier, a little heavier, and it’s known for having more sulfur than its competitors. What all this amounts to is a whisky that’s light in appearance, but rich with flavor and texture. Up until a few years ago, it was mostly used as a component in Dewar’s blends. But there are now bottles ranging in age from 13 to 33 years in the core collection, each of which offers something just a little bit different. Recently, the distillery released a 51-year-old, which it decided to offer for free at special tastings instead of selling for thousands. This proved to be a smart marketing move that generated a lot of buzz for Craigellachie, which doesn’t have the name recognition of some of its peers. Craigellachie does not add color to its whisky.
Another robust Islay whisky comes from Ardbeg, which at about 50 ppm is slightly peatier than Laphroaig. Ardbeg, the sister distillery to Glenmorangie, 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. This year, it introduced Drum, a whisky finished in rum casks. Ardbeg does not add coloring to its whisky.
There are many distilleries that can be considered under-appreciated (we’ve already counted Aberlour as such in this list). The GlenDronach certainly stands among the under-recognized, at least here in the U.S. A few years ago, GlenDronach was acquired by Brown-Forman, the beverage giant that also owns Jack Daniel’s, so it’s very likely that this distillery will become more popular in the U.S.. And that’s a good thing. 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 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. Islay Barley 2011 was distilled using barley from six Islay farms, all of which Bruichladdich identified in an attempt to convey the flavors of its climate and region. Finally, there’s the Port Charlotte range, which infuses heavily peated barley into the mix, although it's nowhere near as punchy as the Octomore range. Bruichladdich does not add coloring to its whisky.
For a whisky that is not quite as smoky as those found on Islay but still packs an enjoyable peaty punch, Talisker is the way to go. This distillery, one of just two making whisky on the Isle of Skye, makes a balanced whisky with wisps of campfire smoke, a bit of butterscotch, and a dash of ripe berries. Talisker's core range consists of 10-, 18-, and 25-year-old expressions. The liquid is mostly aged in ex-bourbon casks, with some sherry-butt-matured whisky as well. Talisker Storm, a non-age statement whisky that is also part of the core range, uses liquid from various cask types (rejuvenated and refill) to create a blend that the distillery says employs a fuller range of available stock.
Glenmorangie Original, the distillery’s core 10-year-old expression, is an approachable and tasty whisky that will appeal to even the most hesitant scotch drinker. The liquid is pale gold, with a flavor that is slightly sweet and fruity, and a nose full of vanilla and spice. Drink this one neat or make a cocktail with it—it's is a versatile whisky that plays well with others. From there, the Glenmorangie range expands exponentially. There are barrel-finished bottles like Quinta Ruban (port) and Nectar d’Or (Sauternes). Other expressions play with bespoke oak barrels, wild yeast strains, or chocolate barley in the mash bill. And of course, Glenmorangie has its fair share of really expensive aged releases. The Macallan can’t be the only one doing this on the regular, after all.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com. * Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.