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There are around 120 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 to do, 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.
Can a bar even be called a bar without a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label? Celebrating its 200th anniversary this year, not only is the striding man an icon of Scotch whisky and a global juggernaut brand, 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.
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.
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.
Distilled in the tallest stills in Scotland by the men and women of Tain, Glenmorangie Original is a great go-to single malt. The Highland maker’s spirit is aged 10 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 for well under $50.
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.
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 used 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 give you the opportunity to check out the ingredients, from barley origin to 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.
Serious peat fans likely know and have enjoyed the Lagavulin’s 16-Year-Old 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.
For those who like their whisky well-aged in ex-sherry casks, The GlenDronach Parliament 21-year-old 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.
This year, Balvenie Caribbean Cask celebrates its 10th birthday. A decade on, and it still wows our palate. This expression from the Speyside stalwart spends its first 14 years aging in traditional whisky casks, and 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.
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Nicholas McClelland is a passionate whisk(e)y drinker who has written about spirits for Men’s Journal, Fatherly, and Inside Hook. 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.