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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
Region: Lowlands | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Smoke, Orange, Chocolate
“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 bestselling 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 Cocktails: Bowmore 12-Year-Old Single Malt
Region: Islay | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Tropical fruit, Black pepper, Vanilla
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 of,” 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.
Best Single Malt: The Balvenie 12-Year-Old DoubleWood
Region: Speyside| ABV: 43% | Tasting Notes: Vanilla, Cinnamon, Raisins
As with a lot of spirits, the lower-priced expression exemplifies a brand, according to Chasse. 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, Chasse says, yet it’s balanced enough that it’s not overly sweet. All in all, it’s a lot of scotch for the price.
Related: The Best Whiskey Glasses
Best Smoky: Laphroaig 10-Year-Old Islay Single Malt
Region: Islay | ABV: 43% | Tasting Notes: Vanilla, Oak, Smoke
“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 Speyside: Glenfiddich 12-Year-Old Single Malt
Region: Speyside | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Apple, Asian pear, Oak
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.
Related: The Best Whiskey Decanters
Best Islay: Ardbeg 10-Year-Old Single Malt
Region: Islay | ABV: 46% | Tasting Notes: Smoke, Brine, Menthol
"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."
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Best for Sipping: Speyburn Bradan Orach Single Malt
Region: Speyside | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Flowers, Walnuts, Honey
Light, easy and imminently sippable, this Speyside scotch is aged in former bourbon barrels, so it doesn’t have the excessively sweet sherry profile of many of its neighbors. That makes it great for an afternoon dram when you want something reasonable to enjoy before going on with your evening.
Tommy Tardie, owner of New York's The Flatiron Room and Fine and Rare, is a fan. “It’s light, floral; it’s approachable,” he says, and though it also makes great cocktails, “it’s diverse enough to throw a cube in or sip neat.”
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Best Blended: Mossburn Speyside
Region: Speyside | ABV: 46% | Tasting Notes: Flowers, Vanilla, Pineapple
Made from a blend of mature scotches transferred into former oloroso sherry and American bourbon casks (with the addition of first-fill sherry staves and heavily charred American cask heads), this blended whisky has a luxurious texture from its additional 9 to 18 months of oak aging.
Its flavor mingles vanilla with brûléed pineapple flavor. You can still experience the Scottish heather, though, in its floral nose. At 46% ABV, it’s big, but goes down easy.
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Best Reserve: The Glenlivet Founder’s Reserve
Region: Highlands | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Sweet orange, Pear, Apple
Smooth and creamy with an orchard fruit sweetness and an edge of zesty citrus, this special reserve bottle pays tribute to the 1822 founder of The Glenlivet, George Smith, who designed the distillery’s distinctive, genie’s lamp–shaped copper stills.
Back when Smith was first distilling, age statements were not a part of the scotch game, so Smith blended barrels of all sorts of ages. The Founder’s Reserve continues that tradition, with the addition of first-fill American oak casks for honeyed caramel undertones.
Related: The Best Whiskey Stones
If peat is your jam, you can’t get much more smoky than Laphroaig 10-Year-Old Single Malt (view at Drizly). It epitomizes that bog-and-sea Islay style. But if you’re more a fan of the fruity Highlands style, Glenfiddich 12-Year-Old Single Malt (view at Drizly) is an excellent choice.
What to Look for in a Cheap Scotch
When you hear “cheap scotch,” you probably think of something that burns your throat. But that’s not the case with a well-made scotch. It might be young, but it will go down with a silky, not harsh, texture.
One of the great charms of scotch is its complexity and depth of flavor. This is true whether the whisky is a smoky, briny island style; a floral, fruity Highland bottle; or a vanilla-and-citrus blend. The layers will unfold as you sip. If the scotch seems one-note to you, move on.
Most low-cost Scotch whiskies will not be very old. But a good one should clock in at least around 10 years old. That length of aging gives the whisky time to develop complexity. Furthermore, a distillery should be transparent about its aging.
What differentiates scotch from other whiskeys?
Quite simply put, scotch is whisky made in Scotland. Nowadays, with the diversity of Scotch styles produced, and the many single-malt whiskeys on the market from other regions, its national origin is the major difference between scotch and other whiskeys.
Is cheaper scotch made differently? What makes it less expensive?
A good, low-cost scotch is not necessarily made differently from other scotches, but it might be younger. Barrel aging is an expensive process. The distiller has to tie up space in its rickhouse or dunnage house (the building in which it stores the whisky) for years on end to produce the type of scotch that fetches top dollar.
Will I get more of a hangover with cheaper scotch vs. more expensive?
You won’t get a worse hangover from any of the scotches in this article. They are well-made, pure expressions of the spirit. Of course, the higher the ABV, the more powerful the alcohol in the bottle, so take particular care with those over 40% ABV. And, as with any spirit, drink in moderation.
Why Trust Liquor.com?
Betsy Andrews has been writing about wine and spirits for two decades. She has a soft spot for sherry-cask Speyside scotches, but she’s not beyond a smoky Islay. The most intriguing scotch drinking she’s ever done was at a vertical tasting of Macallans from the 1940s. Normally dried using wood fire, Macallan’s 1940s malt was peated because wood was scarce during World War II. It was a true taste of history.