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“You can have a single malt in America, Japan, Taiwan or elsewhere, but to be scotch, it has to be made in Scotland,” says Tommy Tardie, owner of New York's The Flatiron Room and Fine and Rare. But that’s just a starting point—there’s plenty of diversity to the nation’s signature spirit, including single malts, which are made with malted barley, and blended scotches, whose mash bills include other grains.
The world of scotch is also evolving, with restless distillers nowadays playing around with various categories of the whisky, from heavily-peated smoke bombs to sherry-cask whiskies. “There’s been a blurring of the lines in terms of flavor profiles, and there’s more experimentation going on,” says Pedro Shanahan, spirits guide for Los Angeles bar group Pouring with Heart. “It’s exciting—it makes it more of an adventure for a novice who wants to start exploring scotch.” From the Highlands to the isle of Islay, here are the best scotch whiskies to get you started.
Best Overall: The GlenDronach Revival
With notes of cedar, chocolate-covered cherries, pecans and honey, The GlenDronach Revival 15-year-old scotch “evolves in layers and layers of new flavors and keeps on delivering,” according to Tardie, following through with its seemingly miles-long finish. Aged in the Highlands in Pedro Ximénez and Oloroso sherry casks, it starts off with a spiced fruit nose that Tardie calls “brilliant.” Drink it neat with milk chocolate or aged cheeses, or, as he suggests, "drop an ice cube in and let it sit for a few seconds and see what happens."
Best Under $50: Aberfeldy 12 Year Old
For a reasonably-priced option, look no further than this whisky from Aberfeldy, a Central Highlands distillery that started operating in 1898. The facility is situated along the Pitilie Burn, a lively stream whose churning, fresh water results in a clean, brisk scotch. An everyday pour, this whisky offers cherry Cola aromas with a mouth-coating, mid-palate sweetness that finishes in bittersweet, woody tannins. Easy to drink neat, on the rocks, with a splash of water, or mixed into warming cocktails, it’s light enough at 40 percent ABV for a midday tipple, yet flavorful for post-work happy hour.
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Best Under $100: Bowmore Darkest 15 Year Old
Bringing together the best of Scotland’s opposing traditions, this cherrywood-colored scotch from Bowmore, Islay’s oldest distillery, is made with heavily-peated malt from island-grown barley. It’s aged primarily in bourbon barrels, but its final three years are spent in Oloroso casks, where the scotch takes on its sherrylike layers. “I love that it captures both,” says Tardie. “It’s the perfect balance: salty but sweet.” Toffee, dried fruit and swarthy smoke are finished with ocean-water salinity for what Tardie calls a multidimensional treat. “I’m not big on dessert, but if I were to have a dessert, this would be it," he says.
Best Aged: Glenfarclas 25 Year Old
Glenfarclas, a sixth-generation, family-owned distillery, makes "super-affordable, super-balanced scotch," says Shanahan. Their 25-year-old scotch whisky is a citrusy, chocolatey libation, made with spring water that runs down the Speyside heather-covered hills—giving Glenfarclas its name, which means “the valley of green grass.” The distillate is aged in Oloroso casks for a nutty, sherry finish that is perfect for sipping after dinner. At less than $10 per year of aging, Shanahan points out, “you can’t beat the price.”
Best Single Malt: Lagavulin Distillers Edition
Made in Islay, Lagavulin's Distillers Edition scotch whisky has a distinctive, terroir-driven character: “beautiful, tarry rope and iodine and seaweed and peat,” describes Shanahan. “Smoked, phenolic earth and brine.” But the distiller threw a curveball for this special edition, transferring the scotch near the end of its 16 years of aging into barrels that once held Pedro Ximénez, “so you start to see this wonderful, new balance created in the arcing nuance of the sherry,” says Shanahan. “It’s a challenge for your palate—the peaty notes come across strongly in the nose, but once you sip it, you’re taken aback by the fruitiness. It’s one of my favorites.”
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Best Cask-Strength: Laphroaig 10 Year Old
As more and more cask-strength whiskies enter the market, everyday tipples are muscling up. Undiluted for extra potency at Laphroaig, an Islay distillery, this decade-old scotch whisky has a proof of around 112 (may vary with each bottle). Aged in old bourbon barrels, barrier-filtered, and bottled straight out of the cask, it’s as smoky, grassy and earthy as its lighter 10-year counterpart, but with a bit of island brine and an extra burst of fire. "It’s absolutely phenomenal,” says Shanahan.
Best Islay: Ardbeg An Oa
The first addition to Ardbeg’s foundational range of scotches in a decade, this 2017 introduction is named after the Mull of Oa, a rocky peninsula on the Kilodalton coast where the distillery is located. This affordable bottle is as approachable as Islay whisky gets, thanks to the balance that the former sherry barrels bring to the salty smoke. “They’re taking a super-peaty whisky and taming it with beautiful wine-cask,” says Shanahan. “There’s no age on it, but still, it’s brilliant.” It’s a great introduction to the island’s style.
Best Grain Scotch: Compass Box Hedonism
A century ago, many Scottish whiskies were made with grains, including corn and wheat, but declined in popularity as big producers started focusing on single malt whiskies. Maverick whisky maker John Glaser rehabilitated it, searching out old grain barrels and blending them together in making Compass Box Hedonism. H. Joseph Ehrmann, owner of San Francisco’s Elixir Saloon and co-founder of Fresh Victor, calls it “a head-turner that can open your eyes to the pleasures of grain whisky.” With its coconut and caramel notes, “it tastes fun,” says Tardie. “Glaser’s doing a wonderful service for blended scotch.”
Best Blended Scotch: Wemyss The Hive
From the Wemyss family in Speyside, this whisky is blended from 16 different single malts sourced throughout Scotland. Its name bespeaks its chewy, sweet honeycomb foundation, but as is the case with blended scotches, there’s a broadness to its flavor that comes from the malts. Sip The Hive and sense Islay smoke, the Highlands’ flowery heather, Speyside’s fruity sweetness and a finishing smack of island salt. If you thought of blended scotches as your grandfather’s drink, think again. This one delivers for the most modern of palates, and it’s sublime with soda water in a highball.
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Best Splurge: Glenmorangie Signet
“[Glenmorangie] did something innovative,” says Tardie. “They toasted the barley so much that they call it a chocolate malt.” Just as in beer making, where a chocolate malt adds mocha flavor to a porter or stout, this Highland scotch is rich in cocoa and espresso notes that only deepen over time. It’s made from the distillery’s oldest whisky—35- to 40-year-old scotch, aged in American white oak—which gives it a gravitas that Tardie appreciates. “As you sip it, and as the alcohol burns off,” he says, “there’s a strong characteristic of dark chocolate and coffee grinds.”
Best Peated: BenRiach Authenticus
The aroma enthralls on this scotch: black olives, burnt rubber, forest floor, dried cherries and roasted almonds. Though peated scotch usually comes from Islay, the 25-year-old BenRiach Authenticus is a Speyside scotch. It was malted with grassy, hillside peat in the 1980s, then laid down for decades to mellow its richness. The resulting amber elixir perfectly integrates the smoke with the casks’ sweetness. Drink it neat and revel in the balance. With master blender Rachel Barrie overseeing the barrels at BenRiach, more revelations are sure to come from this distillery.
Best for Rusty Nail: Glencadam 10 Year Old
Aged 10 years at the Glencadam distillery in the Highlands, this delicate, blonde-hued single malt remains non-chill filtered, so its pure flavor stays intact. Its honeyed-hay taste is graced with a bit of oaky spice and a touch of vanilla—just the flavor profile you want to amplify those same, delicious notes in the Drambuie this whisky is paired with for a seamless Rusty Nail. “I think that if you’re going to add mixers, you should put the Highland metal to the test,” says Shanahan. “See how the other ingredients in the cocktail balance out with the natural complexity of that Highland grass.”
Best Single Estate: Glenmorangie The Cadboll Estate
The whiskies from Glenmorangie pair so well with food, Tardie remarks, "I'm convinced that the distiller is more of a fan of wine than whisky.” Produced using estate-grown malted barley and matured 15 years in American oak ex-bourbon barrels, this lithe, floral scotch complements a variety of summertime meals. Open the whisky up with some water and try it with marinated grilled chicken, barbecued spare ribs, mint-laced salads or fresh berries for dessert. Its honey-blossom nose leads to vanilla and roasted nuts, a delightful herbaceous, and a hint of orange.
Best Non-Aged: Bruichladdich Islay Barley
From Bruichladdich, an Islay distillery that’s small yet innovative, this malty whisky is made with barley from six island farms and blended from ex-bourbon and French wine barrels filled in 2010. It has some of the Islay saltiness that will make you keep coming back for more sips. But unlike other scotches from the island, “It's not a peat bomb; it’s just very drinkable,” says Tardie. “It’s something that appeals to a broad audience.” Smooth and tame, this is an excellent bridge to Islay.
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Betsy Andrews has been writing about wine and spirits for two decades.