Bourbon may be centered in the whiskey spotlight right now, but single malt scotch is no mere supporting actor. The category has grown by over 200% in the last 20 years, topping 2.5 million cases in 2021, according to the Distilled Spirits Council. Despite the stresses of the pandemic and Brexit, single malt scotch remains robust, the standard-bearer for luxury whisky, and the latest releases show it building on that strength.
Notably, single malt is still competitive at a variety of premium-and-above price tiers. While ultra-luxury offerings, though allocated in volume, are always available for those with a mortgage’s worth of cash to spend, there are plenty of bottles to fill the $100 to $200 range. These are often limited editions, like Laphroaig Càirdeas, GlenDronach Cask Strength, Benriach Malting Season, and Glenmorangie A Tale of the Forest. Such special releases offer a sense of scarcity, and often unique production methods, to merit the three-figure asking price.
But top-selling brands with a strong reputation are making a play for permanent SKUs at this pricing level. For example, the new Balvenie 16-year-old French Oak builds on the Speyside distillery’s established stable of cask-finished whiskies with a tag more often seen on 18- or 21-year-old bottles, confident that the market will bear it.
Not every brand is taking this approach, however; many are setting their new, age-stated releases well under $100—all the better to compete with bourbon, where many bottles of unknown age are commanding similar or even higher prices. Dalmore and Craigellachie have both launched new whiskies, aged over 12 years, at this level, and each has some special added value: Dalmore’s 14-year-old is exclusive to the U.S. market, while Craigellachie’s new 13-year-old features an unusual armagnac finish.
Young scotch distilleries are stepping into the game with totally fresh offerings, ready to build their reputations. Like many craft American whiskeys, they’re starting with a premium price and hoping consumers are curious enough to pony up. Lochlea Distillery, helmed by ex-Laphroaig master distiller John Campbell, is the latest to make this foray; time will tell whether it translates into long-term success.
There’s much to discover even in a category as established as single malt scotch, as evidenced by these recent releases.
The OG of cask finishing, Balvenie epitomizes skillful secondary maturation—and the rewards of patience. This 16-year-old is the first cask-finished whisky to join the core range in a decade. The choice of barrel is unusual: pineau des Charentes, an aged spirit made of grape juice fortified with cognac eau-de-vie. The new whisky, which joins sherry-finished DoubleWood 12-year-old, rum-finished Caribbean Cask 14-year-old, and port-finished Portwood 21-year-old in Balvenie’s lineup, highlights citrus and subtle spice notes atop the distillery’s usual honeyed sweetness.
Once in wide use across the scotch industry, floor-malted barley is now scarce; just eight distilleries still make it, including Benriach. While the Speyside distillery can’t supply all of its needs in-house, it does distill and mature the floor-malted barley separately, releasing it annually as Malting Season. The 2022 iteration was made with Concerto barley and bottled at 48.9% ABV, offering a robust and creamy profile and a rare taste of the impact of this artisanal process.
While rum, port, and sherry have all served as popular scotch finishes for years, brandy has been notably less common. There are a handful of cognac cask-finished whiskies, and even fewer whose secondary maturation takes place in armagnac barrels. Add Craigellachie to that rarefied list, as the Speyside distillery complements its muscular malt, aged 12 years in ex-bourbon barrels, with the soft fruitiness of the Gascon spirit. This launch marks the first in the distillery’s Cask Collection, with more releases to come.
Luxury-minded Dalmore has trailed in the shadow of Macallan for years, but that shouldn’t be seen as a sign of its inferiority: The Highland distillery is less than one-fifth the size of its Speyside peer, meaning there’s simply less of its whisky to go around. This new 14-year-old shouldn’t be hard to find, though, at least in the U.S., where it has been exclusively released. Maturation in PX sherry casks sets it apart from the brand’s usual oloroso sherry aging, though it’s still well within the expected flavor profile for Dalmore.
Released regularly but in limited amounts, GlenDronach’s cask-strength expression is always a rich, chewy mouthful of the distillery’s signature sherried profile, featuring everything from dark chocolate-covered cherries to ginger-studded fruitcake. Batch 10 tops out at 58.6% ABV and benefits from a few drops of water. Like all GlenDronach whiskies, it has no added color: Everything you see, smell, and taste comes from the distillery’s production process and the oloroso and PX sherry casks used for maturation.
The trend of non-peaty scotch distilleries experimenting with smoke continues with this new limited edition from Glenmorangie—though peat isn’t the only flavor in the mix. Inspired by the botanicals of the Highland forest, director of whisky creation Dr. Bill Lumsden dried malted barley with juniper, birch bark, and heather, in addition to peat, creating a strongly smoky whisky with distinct herbal and pine notes. The technique wasn’t without precedent: Glenmorangie’s archivist found historical documents showing that such fuel sources were used to make malted barley in the past, which was helpful support when convincing the Scotch Whisky Association to allow an otherwise unorthodox production method.
Released annually for Feìs Ìle, Islay’s whisky festival, Càirdeas showcases all manner of maturation and finishing variations and is usually bottled at either cask strength or a higher-than-normal proof. This year, the 52.2% ABV expression is made from whisky that was wholly matured in Laphroaig’s Warehouse 1, a stone structure hugging the sea and battered by salt spray and wind. It’s the first Càirdeas after the departure of master distiller John Campbell, and was overseen by Laphroaig veteran and distillery manager Barry MacAffer.
This new single malt distillery popped up seemingly out of nowhere with its inaugural release in early 2022, though it had been quietly making whisky for several years. Located in Ayrshire, near where famous Scottish poet Robert Burns was born, the farm distillery poached master distiller John Campbell from Laphroaig and boasts a strong team of other industry veterans. The First Release was matured in first-fill ex-bourbon barrels and finished in PX sherry butts, bottled at 46% ABV with no chill filtration, and will be followed up by the flagship Our Barley ($70) this fall.