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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
Region: Speyside | ABV: 43% | Tasting Notes: Caramel, Oak, Spice
Aberlour is often overlooked by whisky drinkers here in the US, but undeservedly so. This Speyside distillery has an excellent lineup, with the 16-year-old landing right in the sweet spot of maturation between the 12 and 18, the other two age statement bottles in the range. The whisky is matured in both bourbon and sherry casks for 16 years before being married together and bottled. This provides it with the best of both words—a rich, oaky structure with some sweet vanilla notes from the lengthy time in bourbon barrels, and ripe fruits and spices from the sherry casks.
Best Under $100: Bruichladdich The Classic Laddie
Region: Islay | ABV: 50% | Tasting Notes: Green Apple, Brown Sugar, Grass
Bruichladdich is known for releasing some intensely smoky whisky, a signature flavor profile of the Islay region of Scotland. This includes the Port Charlotte and annual Octomore releases, which at times reaches some of the highest levels of peat in any whisky out there. But the core bottling is actually this lovely unpeated whisky.
“The team at Bruichladdich has been hard at work establishing themselves in the field, and this rare unpeated whisky from Islay absolutely brings some modern, forward-thinking, and transparency to the region,” said 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 notes of citrus, sweet malted barley, vanilla, and honey. This is a good value at under $100, a great whisky to sip neat but also elevates a simple highball cocktail to new heights.
Best Under $50: The Glenlivet 12 Year Old
Region: Speyside | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Apple, Citrus, Vanilla
The Glenlivet’s 12-year-old expression is extremely popular, and for good reason. It’s priced affordably and has a really approachable palate, according to Chris Dempsey, bartender at Xaman in Dallas. “It’s not too peaty, and it’s really the best everyday drinking whisky for a great price,” he says. The whisky was matured in a combination of American and European oak and is a good entry-level bottle for those who don’t want to spend too much but are looking for something with complexity of flavor.
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Best Value: Aberfeldy 12 Year Old
Region: Highlands | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Vanilla, Almond, Baking Spice
This is a classic Highlands whisky and is an interesting look at one of the whiskies that makes up the much better-known Dewar’s White Label.
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 is a great value single malt, usually available for somewhere between $30 and $40. For that relatively low price, you get an enormous amount of flavor-rich, syrupy notes of honey matched with bursts of vanilla and a gentle spice undercurrent.
Best for Cocktails: Auchentoshan American Oak
Region: Lowlands | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Nuts, Pepper, Vanilla
Single malt scotch is an underrecognized cocktail component. And while you might want to think twice about using that $300 bottle of 25-year-old whisky to make a Manhattan, there are certainly some excellent single malts to consider. One comes from Auchentoshan, a distillery located in the Lowlands just outside of Glasgow.
“Auchentoshan is one of the few Lowland distilleries making single malt,” said Lynnette Marrero, co-founder of Speed Rack, bar director at Llama Inn, and beverage director for Wonderbar. “These whiskies are traditionally very light and grassy. 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 to use in a Manhattan, Old Fashioned, Boulevardier, or any other whiskey cocktail you can think of.
Best 12-Year-Old: The GlenDronach Original
Region: Highlands | ABV: 43% | Tasting Notes: Raisin, Caramel, Cinnamon
12 years is the benchmark for many distilleries, most of which have an entry-level whisky aged for this amount of time. There are so many to choose from, but one of the best comes from The GlenDronach. This distillery is located in the Highlands and focuses on sherry-cask matured whisky.
“This is absolutely one of my favorite 12-year aged Scottish whiskies,” said Kurpinsky. “Unlike some of the larger houses, this stuff is full of flavor, and not watered down to the legal minimum. 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. Indeed none is needed, as the whisky picks up its dark golden hue from the casks alone.
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Best 18-Year-Old: Highland Park
Region: Islands | ABV: 43% | Tasting Notes: Espresso, Prune, Smoke
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
Region: Speyside | ABV: 43% | Tasting Notes: Sherry, Cinnamon, Vanilla
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
Region: Islay | ABV: 54.2% | Tasting Notes: Peat, Spice, Oak
“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
Region: Islay | ABV: 43% | Tasting Notes: Vanilla, Black Tea, Smoke
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
Region: Speyside | ABV: 43% | Tasting Notes: Brown Sugar, Caramel, Spice
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
Region: Highlands | ABV: 46.5% | Tasting Notes: Berry, Mocha, Ginger
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 10 Year Old: Jura 10 Year Old
Region: Islands | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Vanilla, Orange, Cherry
“This scotch is rested in bourbon barrels and then finished in Oloroso sherry casks,” says Adam Morgan, head bartender at Husk Nashville. “This unique finish lends a balanced yet sweet finish that dances between spice and oak. The smoke on this particular scotch is soft and intriguing for any first-time scotch drinker.”
Best No-Age Statement: Glenmorangie Signet
Region: Highlands | ABV: 46% | Tasting Notes: Espresso, Tobacco, Orange
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
Region: Highlands | ABV: 46% | Tasting Notes: Espresso, Tobacco, Orange
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.”
The best overall single malt scotch, in a very competitive field, is Aberlour 16. This whisky combines the best flavors of bourbon and sherry cask maturation and provides the best complexity of flavor and palate for its price range.
What is single malt scotch?
Single malt scotch is defined as whisky that is made in Scotland at one distillery from a mash bill of 100 percent malted barley. It must be aged for a minimum of three years in oak barrels.
How is it made?
Barley is malted and then dried to stop the process, sometimes using peat as a heat source to infuse the grain with a smoky flavor. The barley is then milled and combined with water and cooked to release the sugars. Yeast is then added to the liquid, now called wash, and it is put into wash backs to ferment. Next, the wash is distilled in pot stills at least twice, which heats the alcohol and turns it into vapor. This vapor is captured and cooled so it returns to a liquid form with an increasingly higher ABV. Finally, the new make spirit is put into oak barrels and stored in warehouses for a minimum of three years, but usually much longer than that. The whisky is then cut with water (unless it’s bottled at cask strength) before bottling. Sometimes caramel color is added to maintain consistency.
What's the best way to serve it?
The best way to serve scotch is however you enjoy it, as there’s really no wrong way to drink whisky. But experts recommend trying it neat first, perhaps with a few drops of water to open up the palate. After that, go ahead and add ice if you like, or even use it in a cocktail if you prefer.
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Jonah Flicker is an experienced writer who has been covering spirits and traveling the world visiting distilleries to taste and discover for 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.