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It isn't necessary to dig deep in your pockets for a loveable whisky, says Flavien Desoblin, owner of New York’s Brandy Library and Cooper & Oak. “Sipping was once elevated to a much higher price tag, but distilleries have realized that they need to put forward affordable entry-level scotches.” Nowadays, there are so many good ones available that bottles with lower age statements—scotches aged 12, 10 or even less—are “good even though they’re young,” he says. Scotches like these, which generally clock in around $50, are great for both mixing and sipping neat, on the rocks, with a bit of water or soda, or any way you want. At these prices, such drams are “the perfect new standard for every day,” says Desoblin.
What should you look for in a great, everyday scotch? Layered nuance, says Crystal Chasse, beverage director of New York’s Talk Story Rooftop. “The beginning, mid-palate, and finish will all have their own expressions, taking you on some sort of journey.” Here are our expert picks of the best cheap scotches to drink right now.
Best Overall: Johnnie Walker Black Label 12 Year Old
“At the end of the day, there’s a reason why this whisky is number one,” says Desoblin. “People just seem to long for it.” Johnnie Walker Black Label is created using nearly 40 single malt and grain whiskies sourced from all over Scotland, each aged for at least 12 years. The world’s best-selling scotch whisky, first created by grocer John Walker in the 1820s, is “a solid blended dram and a sure value,” says Desoblin. It starts off round and soft, as he describes it, but it evolves into a richer, smoke-backed mid-palate with orange and bitter chocolate notes and a significantly long finish.
Best for Sipping: Glenfarclas 10 Year Old Single Malt
This scotch from Glenfarclas, a sixth-generation family distillery in Speyside, is “a benchmark for the entry-level sip,” says Desoblin. It’s aged exclusively in second- and third-fill oloroso sherry butts, so “its rich character is already showing at just 10 years old,” he notes.
A wonderful aperitif, it offers plenty of dried fruit flavors from the sherry casks, along with cake spices, vanilla and a pear-like sweetness. Its straw-like hue belies its depth, yet its richness is balanced by its silky body. A smoky scotch can overwhelm your palate, but this lithe dram will do just the opposite, whetting your appetite for the meal ahead.
Best for Cocktails: Bowmore 12 Year Old Single Malt
With scotch cocktails, says Chasse, you want to feel like you’re enhancing the spirit with other ingredients, but you don’t want those ingredients to overwhelm the whisky. “Bowmore has the right amount of smoke, with sweetness and layering, so whatever other flavors you’re pairing it with [will] have enough to bounce off,” she says. “Tropical fruit, vanilla, plenty of black pepper and other spices—all of these things it delivers are very easy to incorporate with other flavors in a cocktail.”
Nevertheless, it’s particularly great with a classic cocktail that’s not too fussy, like a “wintery and warm” Rob Roy. “You don’t need a lot of extra ingredients because you’re getting all that flavor from [the] spirit itself," says Chasse.
Read Next: The Best Scotch Whiskies
Best Single Malt: The Balvenie 12 Year Old DoubleWood
As with a lot of spirits, says Chasse, the lower-priced expression exemplifies a brand. This 12-year-old entry scotch speaks to “the heart and soul” of its distillery, she says. “The vanilla and cinnamon spice that come through are so indicative of Balvenie." But its special double-wood aging, first in former bourbon barrels made of American oak and then in first-fill oloroso sherry butts, add unique layers of flavor. Its roundness is abetted by “those nice, raisinated notes” from the fortified wine, yet it’s balanced enough that it’s not overly sweet. All in all, it’s a lot of scotch for the price.
Read Next: The Best Single Malt Scotch Whiskies
Best Blended: Dewar's 12 Year Old Blended
Age statements are somewhat of a rarity in blended scotches, and for those of us who’ve put single malts on a pedestal, the age statement on this one might seem presumptuous. “But this is a great example of a blended scotch that can stand up to a single malt,” says Chasse.
A blend of single malt and grain whiskies, Dewar's 12 Year Old Whisky is aged in both oak and sherry barrels, providing rich nuances of honey and vanilla. “It’s not on the smokey side,” says Chasse, “and that gives it an approachability that makes it a great scotch to get people into the category.”
Best Smoky: Laphroaig 10 Year Old Islay Single Malt
“I personally love peaty scotches,” says Chasse, “because they are so indicative of utilizing local ingredients and making a spirit in a specific place.” They speak of the terroir of the Scottish bogs, where the peat burns to make the fire that dries malted or sprouted grain.
In Laphroaig, peat flavor is at the forefront. “I can imagine being on a blustery field the moment I pick up the glass,” says Chasse. Although smoke is prominent, it’s not overpowering, and that’s what makes the scotch so good. “Anything that’s one note is not interesting,” she says. But from the peat to the vanilla and oak notes to the fruity backbone, “this takes the imbiber on a journey.”
Best Highlands: Glenmorangie Original 10 Year Old Single Malt
"It’s very difficult to put a regional taste difference on scotch whisky anymore,” says Desoblin. The distinctions were first codified through blenders, who used them to map out their range of choices when mixing malts from different places. But the truth is, “when it comes to their own single malts, distilleries do what they want,” explains Desoblin. So, he argues, it’s hard to say what a Highland scotch is nowadays.
Still, Desoblin has his favorites. For the Highlands, he says, “Whenever I’m presented with the original Glenmorangie 10-year-old scotch, I’m a happy camper.” Light and easy with some character and nothing harsh to it, this scotch goes down nicely with vanilla, caramel, butterscotch and citrus notes.
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Best Speyside: Glenfiddich 12 Year Old Single Malt
In 1886, founder William Grant, his seven sons, and two daughters built the stone edifice of Glenfiddich by hand. The distillery that opened on Christmas in 1887 has had a long run defining the particular style of its native Speyside: “fresh and fruity,” as Chasse describes it, “with orchard fruits—apple and Asian pear—and a touch of oak.”
It’s beautiful and approachable like a good Speyside should be, but that doesn’t mean it lacks oomph. Even for drinkers who like more fiery drams, this one has “enough of a backbone that if you do want to mix it in a cocktail, you definitely could,” and still have satisfying scotch flavors come through.
Best Islay: Ardbeg 10 Year Old Single Malt
"If you’re going Islay, go big or go home” is Chasse’s philosophy. So don’t be fooled by the light golden color of Ardbeg's 10-year-old single malt, a “great example of Islay scotch.” As soon as you get it near your nose, she says, you get “all the flavors of the island,” the menthol notes of the peat, the brine of the ocean, and the smoke that incorporates it all.
“It works so well though, in reality, it isn’t a heavy scotch,” says Chasse. “When you’re sipping on it, it’s light and easy to drink, so its body balances out to the boldness of the flavor in a really nice way that gets you going back sip after sip after sip."