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To be considered a single malt scotch, the whisky must be distilled from a mash bill of 100 percent malted barley at one distillery and aged for a minimum of three years in wooden casks. Distillers are then allowed to get as creative as they’d like, from experimenting with the number of distillations to using a variety of cask finishes. There are more than 120 distilleries in Scotland making single malt whisky, much of which is also used as a component in blended whiskies. With a style out there for everyone, here are the best single malt scotch whiskies available in a range of categories.
Best Overall: Aberlour 16 Year Old
Aberlour is often overlooked by whiskey drinkers in the U.S., but undeservedly so. This Speyside distillery has an excellent lineup, with the 16-year-old landing in the sweet spot of maturation between the 12- and 18-year-old. The whisky is matured in both bourbon and sherry casks before being married together and bottled. This provides a range of flavors—a rich, oaky structure with some sweet vanilla notes from the lengthy time in bourbon barrels, as well as ripe fruits and spices from the sherry casks.
Best Under $100: Bruichladdich The Classic Laddie
Bruichladdich is known for releasing some intensely smoky whisky, a signature flavor profile of the Islay region in Scotland, and the core bottling is this rare, unpeated whisky. “[The whisky] absolutely brings some modern, forward-thinking and transparency to the region,” says Stephen Kurpinsky, U.S. brand ambassador for Mr. Black Cold Brew Coffee Liqueur. The Classic Laddie is a non-age statement single malt that is light and full of citrus, sweet malted barley, vanilla and honey notes. Sip this whisky neat or elevate a simple highball cocktail.
Best Under $50: Bowmore 12 Year Old
Islay distillery Bowmore claims to have the oldest whisky warehouse in all of Scotland: the No. 1 Vaults. In this warehouse, 12-year-old whiskies are matured in a combination of bourbon and sherry casks, resulting in a peated dram that is not overly aggressive. “There's certainly enough peat to hang with the rest of the Islay bottles, but it's not a smoke bomb and there are many other layered flavors to discover,” says consulting bartender Gates Otsuji. “[There are flavors of] light honey, ash-dusted tropical fruit, and touches of sherry and vanilla." He also adds, "the magic of the Bowmore 12 is that its flavor never settles into one place, but instead keeps dancing around the palate."
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Best Value: Aberfeldy 12 Year Old
A major malt component of the Dewar’s blend comes from Aberfeldy, a distillery that has been around since the beginning of the 20th century. The 12-year-old expression offers an enormous amount of flavor: rich, syrupy notes of honey matched with bursts of vanilla and a gentle spice undercurrent. This is a classic Highlands whisky at a great value.
Best for Cocktails: Auchentoshan American Oak
Single malt scotch is an underrecognized cocktail component, including this one from Auchentoshan, a distillery located in the Lowlands just outside of Glasgow. “These whiskies are traditionally very light and grassy," says Lynnette Marrero, bar director at Llama Inn and beverage director at Wonderbar. "The American Oak is matured in first-fill bourbon casks, giving it a vanilla fruity note; the grassy notes remain but under a lemon curd light citrusy and cream layer.” This triple-distilled whisky has an almost bourbon-like character, making it great in a Manhattan, Old Fashioned, Boulevardier or any other whiskey cocktail.
Best 12-Year-Old: The GlenDronach Original
Twelve years is the benchmark for many distilleries, most of which have an entry-level whisky aged for this amount of time. One of the best comes from The GlenDronach, a distillery located in the Highlands that focuses on sherry-cask matured whisky. Kurpinsky is a particular fan of their 12-year-old single malt: “Unlike some of the larger houses, this stuff is full of flavor and not watered down to the legal minimum." He adds, "The hook for me is it's time in both Oloroso and Pedro Ximenez sherry casks, creating a complex, incredibly enjoyable whisky with a burst of flavor notes such as dark fruits, raisins, chocolate, butter, baking spice and orange peels.” It’s also non-chill filtered with no color added, as the whisky picks up its dark golden hue from the casks alone.
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Best 18-Year-Old: Highland Park
Taking great pride in its Viking roots, Highland Park is situated in Orkney, a group of scarcely populated islands in the far north of Scotland. There are many whiskies included in their lineup, but the 18-year-old is one of the best for its age, which fills the gap between the entry-level 10-year-old and the luxury 21-year-old. “It’s super luxurious, smooth and well-balanced with smokey honey, wood, fruit notes and toffee,” says Kenneth McCoy, chief creative officer at The Rum House in New York. “You can’t get a better whisky in this range.”
Best 25-Year-Old: The Macallan Sherry Oak
The Macallan is a sherry cask single malt favorite, with a wide range of bottles aged in hand-selected sherry-seasoned oak from Jerez, Spain. Though it can be quite expensive, the 25-year-old is an excellent example of how good a whisky can taste when matured for nearly three decades. Sometimes that long duration in a barrel can alter the liquid’s flavor in ways that aren't always favorable, but not in this case. Rich notes of chocolate, spice, cherry syrup and ripened fig abound in every sip of this luxury single malt scotch.
Best Peated: Ardbeg Uigeadail
“If you like peated whisky, this is one of the best out there for sure,” says Kurpinsky. Ardbeg is something of an Islay cult favorite, particularly appealing to true lovers of smoky whisky. The flavor of this Scotch comes from burning peat to dry out the barley and stop the malting process, which infuses the grain with smoke. “This bottling, named after a local loch, has all the maritime salinity you come to expect from the distillery literally on the water, but also has one of the most satisfying finishes in Islay,” adds Kurpinsky. “You'll get plenty of smoke, dried fruits, fresh coffee, dark sugars and that bit of sea salt."
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Best Splurge: Lagavulin 16 Year Old
McCoy is a big fan of Lagavulin, an Islay distillery that produces some nicely peated scotch. The 16-year-old expression, aged in second-fill ex-bourbon barrels, might be a little pricey, but it’s well worth the splurge. “[It's] one of my all-time favorites from Islay,” says McCoy. “Big peat smoke, spice, sherry and notes of soft wood and black tea—delicious all by itself (no ice) while you're unwinding next to the fire.”
Best Rum Cask Finish: The Balvenie Caribbean Cask
Finishing whisky in a rum cask might not be as popular as sherry or wine casks within the single malt scotch category, but there are some benefits. A rum barrel brings new flavors to the mix, like banana, brown sugar and cocoa. The Balvenie’s Caribbean Cask 14-Year-Old Scotch is a stellar example. “Everything about this whisky draws you in,” says Otsuji. “The ex-rum barrel finish creates a sense of richness in the flavors, like toffee or caramel, toasted oak, or perhaps a bit of honey on fresh papaya; but rather than expressing itself as a sugary taste, it comes through as a luxurious textural element.”
Best Port Cask Finish: The Dalmore Port Wood Reserve
Many scotch distilleries use port pipe finishing, which provides a different way to enhance the flavor of a whisky. The Dalmore’s already intensely fruity and complex single malt offers striking notes of ripe plum, cherry and dried apricot in the Port Wood Reserve expression. This non-age statement whisky is initially aged in bourbon barrels before being finished in Tawny Port pipes from W & J Graham's winery in Portugal—exemplifying why port wood is a preferred cask finish.
Best Organic: Deanston 15 Year Old
One of the limited edition bottles from Deanston, a Highlands distillery, is an organic 15-year-old single malt made from certified organic barley—something that isn’t very prevalent in the whisky industry. “Although a newish distillery that started around 1966, it definitely has an old-world feel,” says Brendan Bartley, head bartender and bar manager at The 18th Room. “They've done something on their packaging that isn't really common in any spirits, which is stating their ingredients on the label—it's very refreshing to this kind of transparency from a distillery.” He describes the whisky as having vanilla and sweet cereal on the nose, apple and honeysuckle on the palate, along with a lingering milk caramel finish.
Best No-Age Statement: Glenmorangie Signet
Glenmorangie offers a wide selection of whiskies, from the 10-year-old core expression to some incredibly expensive vintages. Although the Signet single malt does not bear an age statement, it does not need one (and as expert whiskey drinkers know, age is not necessarily an indicator of quality). According to the distillery, roasted chocolate barley malt is used in the mash bill, and the spirit is aged in “designer” casks. “I love coffee and chocolate notes in both spirits and cocktails so this one sings to me,” says Meaghan Dorman, bar director at Dear Irving on Hudson. “Velvety and sophisticated—this is a unique spirit, worth the investment.”
Best Entry-Level: Glenfiddich 12 Year Old
This 12-year-old expression from Glenfiddich, one of the biggest names in scotch whisky, is both affordable and readily accessible. Distinctive notes of pear and green apple define this classic whisky, which has been matured in bourbon and sherry casks before being married together in a large tun. This approachable whisky is perfect for any novice to the category, as it also works well in cocktails. “As a neat pour or on the rocks, there's plenty of barrel to appreciate, but the pomaceous fruit notes sit well with gentle, earthy spices, and there's plenty of room in its long, creamy finish to add in tart, astringent or bitter elements,” says Otsuji. “Don't believe me? Try using the Glenfiddich 12-year in your Moscow Mule or Jungle Bird, and see for yourself.”
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Jonah Flicker is an experienced writer who has been covering spirits and traveling the world visiting distilleries for the past six years. His work has appeared in many different national outlets covering trends, new releases, and the stories and innovators behind the spirits. His first love remains whiskey, but he is partial to tequila, rum, gin, cognac and all things distilled.