There are over 130 distilleries in Scotland producing whisky of all kinds: grain spirit, blends, and single malts, matured in all sorts of wood. With so much uisge beatha (water of life), as the ancient Celts called it, to choose from, it can be a bit tough to pick a Scotch from your local liquor store shelf. So, what makes a great Scotch whisky?
“The world of Scotch whisky is so diverse and nuanced that there is no one answer, and it often comes down to personal preference and taste,” says Rachel Barrie, master blender for The GlenDronach, BenRiach, and Glenglassaugh distilleries. “To my nose, the greatest Scotch whiskies have an integration of balance and complexity, with expectations always exceeded on taste.”
We couldn’t agree more. So, without further ado, here are the best Scotch whiskies that will spark up your taste buds, put a fire in your belly, and just plain knock your socks off.
Johnnie Walker Black Label
Can a bar even be called a bar without a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label? In production for over 200 years, since Johnnie Walker's son blended his first whisky in 1820, the brand is now a global juggernaut. Not only is the striding man an icon of Scotch whisky, but it also serves as a benchmark for the style. A 12-year-old blend of malt and grain varieties, it’s a creamy glass with pops of toasted oak and char that balance a caramel toffee sweetness. A good dose of smoke and citrus on the finish gives it a dynamic quality worth stocking a large format bottle.
Best Blended Grain
Compass Box Hedonism Whisky
Some Scotch snobs eschew blends entirely. That’s their choice, to be sure, but it’s always a good idea to keep your mind as open as your palate when you’re searching for truly excellent whisky. Otherwise, you’re apt to miss out on some quality hooch. Hedonism from London-based blender Compass Box is one such expression. The recipe is 100 percent grain whisky from a trio of distilleries using first-fill ex-bourbon barrels and re-charred American oak casks. The result is a beautiful dram, fruity, and chock-full of vanilla notes and a touch of coconut on the finish that will leave you clamoring for another glass.
Best Under $100
Aberlour 16 Year Old Scotch Whisky
One of the storied Speyside producers, Aberlour makes a number of delicious expressions mostly using two types of casks to season the spirit. The brand's 16-Year-Old is no exception; it does its aging in both Spanish sherry butts and American oak. The result is money. Creamy and floral, this whisky boasts excellently balanced notes of plum and oak that play against honey and spice. This finish is one to ponder as the spice and fruit rally for an encore long enough to pour another glass.
Best Under $50
Glenmorangie The Original
Distilled in the tallest stills in Scotland by the men and women of Tain, Glenmorangie's The Original is a great go-to single malt. The Highland maker’s spirit is aged ten years in ex-bourbon barrels, as well as a few custom Missouri-made, air-dried casks. Crisp and fruity, this whisky both starts and finishes strong. An initial wave of vanilla reverberates into flowing fruity notes with a hint of spice. It’s a hard bottle to beat.
Best Under $500
Ardbeg Traigh Bhan 19 Year Old Whisky
Ardbeg Traigh Bhan is a magical dram well worth its hefty price tag. It’s the kind that can change your entire perception of what whisky can taste like. This 19-year-old single malt is a melange of spirit aged in American oak and Spanish Oloroso sherry casks. True to its Islay roots, the smoke is thick and powerful, but through that veil emerges a cascade of pineapple, chocolate, and spice that will shock your taste buds and leave you wondering why you didn’t score a second bottle.
Bruichladdich Scottish Barley, Classic Laddie
The progressive Hebridean distillers of Bruichladdich make some fine whisky. The island of Islay, on which the brand is based, is traditionally known for the smoky flavor imparted by the peat fires to dry the barley before fermentation. While Bruichladdich does make some extremely peaty whiskies, this Islay maker also makes some non-peated expressions, including The Classic Laddie.
A stellar daily drinker, the folks at Bruichladdich allow you to check out the ingredients, from barley origin to the cask types used, of your bottle, since each vatting is different and the flavor profile varies from batch to batch. That gives the drinker a better idea of where the flavors, such as fruit, vanilla, and malt, are coming from and just how subtle an art form whisky-making is.
Best for Peat Fans
Lagavulin 16 Year Scotch
Serious peat fans likely know and have enjoyed the Lagavulin’s 16-Year Islay Single Malt. It’s a classic, and for them, this is a reminder to revisit this familiar favorite. For the uninitiated, this is a great place to start your journey. The opening salvo is, as you’d expect, an explosion of peat smoke, but in its wake, your palate will discover awesomely sweet notes of vanilla, caramel, and fruit against hints of iodine, brine, and tea. It’s a beautifully layered whisky and a stellar choice for smoke aficionados, new and old.
Best for Sherry Bomb Lovers
GlenDronach Parliament 21 Year Old
For those who like their whisky well-aged in ex-sherry casks, The GlenDronach Parliament 21 Years is a righteous treat. Matured long enough to drink itself in Pedro Ximénez and Oloroso casks from Andalucía, the decades slumbering in the Spanish wood give the whisky luscious flavors of dried fruits, rich chocolate, and delectable spices. Named not for the governmental body but rather a flock of rooks that make their nest near the distillery, GlenDronach Parliament is a big, beautiful sherry bomb worth a place of honor on any home bar.
Best for Cocktails
Balvenie 14 Year Old Caribbean Cask
It's been more than 50 years since The Balvenie single malt's release in 1971, and decades later, it still wows our palate. This particular Caribbean Cask expression from the Speyside stalwart spends its first 14 years aging in traditional whisky casks. When it’s done, the spirit is transferred to barrels seasoned with rum from the Caribbean. The result is a well-balanced single malt with rich notes of vanilla, nuts, and tropical fruits. While this Balvenie is definitely a righteous sipper, thanks to the deeply luscious fruit notes, we also love it in a Scotch old-fashioned or a refreshing highball.
What to Look for in a Scotch Whisky
Single Malt or Blended
Scotch whisky falls into two main categories, single malt and blended. Single malt is made from water and malted barley, and blended Scotch whisky is malt whisky mixed with grain whisky. Single malt is the priciest and most sought-after Scotch whisky, but that does not necessarily mean that it's the best choice for you. The majority of Scotch whisky sold is blended Scotch. Single malt is smooth, but it also has a peaty, smoky flavor. A blended Scotch whisky is less strong, gentler, and a tad sweeter. It is also more affordable.
Alcohol by Volume (ABV)
The ABV (alcohol by volume) on the Scotch bottle indicates the alcohol contents. Scotch whisky ranges start at 40 percent ABV (which is the legally required minimum) and can go up to 57 percent. Higher ABV does not necessarily mean it’s a better choice. An ABV of 43 percent is a good middle-range choice.
Age is an important criterion when selecting a Scotch whisky because it determines the depth and richness of the flavor. By law, all Scotch whiskies must be aged for at least three years, but they are often aged much longer. The longer the Scotch ages, the stronger the flavors. In addition to the time length, the type of casks in which the Scotch ages—most Scotch matures in casks that were previously used in other industries, such as in sherry production—also influence the flavor profile. You can often find maturation information on the bottle. If you prefer a Scotch on the moderate to lighter side, a whisky that has aged for five years is a good place to start.
There are five Scotch whisky regions—Campbeltown, Highland, Islay, Lowland, and Speyside—and the region where the spirit is produced has a significant impact on the flavor. Campbeltown whisky is robust and rich, with notes of salt, smoke, vanilla, and toffee. There is no single set of characteristics for Highland whisky as both light and salty malts are produced here. Similarly, a wide range of whiskies is produced in Speyland, ranging from light to peaty whisky, with fruity notes of pear, apple, or honey. Lowland whisky is the softest and smoothest of all. Meanwhile, Islay whisky, strong and heavily peated, is at the other end of the spectrum.
How is Scotch different from whiskey?
Scotch is a type of whisky made in Scotland from barley and other grains, yeast, and water.
How do you drink Scotch whisky?
In Scotland and the U.K., Scotch whisky is often served neat, with a glass of cool, bottled water so you can cleanse your palate between sips. But there are many other ways to enjoy it.
Which whiskey is smoother, Scotch or bourbon?
American bourbon is usually aged in brand-new oak barrels, which impart more flavors and tannins to the whisky. In Scotland, distillers mature their spirit in barrels that are used multiple times, which produces a softer and smoother whisky.
Why is Scotch more expensive than bourbon?
Scotch is made from barley, and bourbon is made from corn, which is cheaper. That, and the different raw material prices in Scotland and the U.S. leads to the price difference between the two spirits.
How should I store my Scotch whisky?
Store the bottle out of direct sunlight and make sure the bottle is tightly closed to prevent evaporation.
Why Trust The Spruce Eats?
Nicholas McClelland is a passionate whisk(e)y drinker who has written about spirits for Men's Journal, Fatherly, and InsideHook. His bar is deep with rare single malts, hard-to-find bourbons, and ryes, but he doesn't believe there's anything too precious to share with friends.