12 Best Single Malt Scotch Whisky Brands to Buy in 2021
Are you looking to spend a couple hundred thousand dollars on whisky? In September, the oldest single malt scotch ever to be bottled and sold was released by Gordon & Macphail, marking a seismic event for scotch fans. I was lucky enough to try the 80-year-old whisky, which was distilled at The Glenlivet in 1940 and spent its lifetime in a sherry butt, and can report back that it aged rather gracefully—oaky, leathery, and musty on the nose, a hit of sharp tannin on the palate, followed by orange, sour cherry, grape hard candy, and just a hint of Honey Nut Cheerios. Its cost will surely be astronomical; the first of 250 decanters will be auctioned off in October by Sotheby’s for an estimated $100K to $200K, with proceeds going to charity.
But it’s worth reminding everyone that old whisky doesn’t necessarily equal good whisky. In fact, sometimes it results in shitty whisky that is overly oaky and completely devoid of character. There’s plenty of great whisky available for us regular folks who prefer to spend less than $100 on a bottle. Even so, some people still put single malt scotch into an elite, rarefied category, conjuring up images of serious men in tweed thoughtfully sniffing their Glencairn glasses around a roaring fire as they comment on notes of toasted nutmeg and candied fruit. This is nonsense, of course.
The concept that single malt whisky is too complicated for everyone to understand and should be tasted by following a series of ridiculous steps that remove all joy from the experience is crumbling. In recent years, pompous, sexist blowhards like Whisky Bible author Jim Murray have been called out for outdated, immature, and gender-biased tasting notes, a welcome shift in the whisky world. Yes, single malts are complex spirits built around flavor nuances derived from every step of production, from malting to fermentation to distillation to maturation. But while you can take whisky seriously if you choose, there is no reason anyone should feel intimidated by a bottle. Whisky is meant to be enjoyed, after all, so it should be fun, and it absolutely should be inclusive.
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A quick primer on single malt scotch: “Single malt” means that the whisky comes from one distillery and is made from 100 percent malted barley. So Glenfiddich 12, for example, may be a blend of a few hundred barrels, but all of them come from the Glenfiddich distillery, and the 12-year age statement refers to the youngest whisky in the mix. There are five or six different whisky regions in Scotland, depending on who you ask, each with its own character—Lowlands, Speyside, Highlands, Campbeltown, Islay, and (sometimes) Islands. While Islay is known for using peat in the malting process, which gives its whisky that smoky flavor, the majority of scotch is not smoky at all. (Peat is measured in ppm, or parts per million; the higher the ppm, the smokier the whisky will be.) Legally, a small amount of caramel coloring can be used for color consistency in single malts. Some people are staunchly against this, believing it affects the character of the whisky, while others argue that it makes no noticeable difference. Regardless, the distilleries that don’t use coloring at all will proudly and loudly let this be known.
There are so many to choose from (over 130 and counting), but here are 12 of the best single malt scotch distilleries making whisky right now.
Glenfiddich is neck and neck with its Speyside neighbor, The Glenlivet, in the race to be the number-one-selling single malt. But this distillery, founded by William Grant, whose name still anchors parent company William Grant and Sons, wins the title (although it prefers to be known as the “most awarded single malt”). The 12-year-old expression is a solid example of whisky from the region, defined by notes of crisp green apple and pear, along with vanilla and spice. The 15- and 18-year-olds are matured in a combination of American and European and Spanish sherry-seasoned oak, while the 21-year-old gets a finish in rum barrels that add tropical fruit flavors. Then there’s the Grand collection, a series of whiskies aged for more than two decades and finished in different types of casks—Grand Cru in French cuvée and Gran Reserva in Caribbean rum. The latest is Grande Couronne, a $600 bottle that is certainly worth trying if you can afford it. The whisky was aged for 26 years in American and European oak before being finished for up to two years in French cognac casks. It’s fruity and spicy, with notes of candied almond, butterscotch, and some raisin on the palate.
Highland Park is known for a few things that are unique within the scotch whisky industry—namely, its fixation on all things Viking, and its remote Orkney location, which makes it Scotland’s northernmost distillery (it beats Scapa by about a mile). The whisky is generally moderately peaty and matured mostly in sherry-seasoned casks, with bourbon barrels used for a few expressions as well. The core range here in the U.S. consists of 10-, 12- and 18-year-old whiskies, all of which do a nice job balancing smoke with rich dried fruit flavors. Last year, the distillery released Cask Strength Batch No. 1, a no-age-statement, non-chill filtered whisky bottled at 63.3 percent ABV with big notes of smoke, vanilla, and honey on the palate. In late October, the second batch will be released, and while we haven’t tasted it yet, the key details are as follows: It’s bottled at a slightly higher 63.9 percent ABV, it was aged mostly in sherry-seasoned American oak, and it will have notes of almond cake, toasted oak, licorice, and aromatic peat. There are many other Norse-themed bottles from Highland Park to explore, with age statements ranging up to 50 years. Highland Park does not add coloring to its whisky.
Deanston is a distillery located in the Highland region of Scotland that seems to be overlooked by many, but hopefully we can help change this. Although it can’t claim the centuries of whisky making that other scotch distilleries like to brag about, some truly excellent whisky has been made at this former cotton mill since the late ‘60s. The core range consists of just two expressions, a 12-year-old, and a no-age-statement bottling aged in virgin oak (as opposed to used barrels). But the limited releases are where things start to get really interesting. The 18-year-old gets a bourbon barrel finish to kick up the flavor with some extra vanilla and caramel notes, the 15-year-old is a certified organic whisky, and there are various vintages finished in sherry, fortified wine, and brandy casks. If you get an opportunity to try the 40-year-old, please do so, but also keep an eye out for the 20-year-old, considered an “archived” release as it’s not currently in production. Deanston does not add color to or chill filter its whisky.
Peaty scotch can be a very divisive issue for whisky drinkers. Some people love the earthy, smoky rush that envelops them from nose to finish, while others think it tastes like an acrid tire fire. There are different levels of peat, of course. Laphroaig, from the Islay region of Scotland, falls around 45 ppm, which makes it a decidedly peat-forward whisky. The 10-year-old is a staple you can find at most bars and liquor stores, and it’s a solid choice, full of seaweed, vanilla, and grill smoke flavors. Some newer additions to the lineup are the really fantastic 16-year-old, which is worth trying side by side with the 10 to see what those extra six years bring to the liquid; the 10-year-old sherry cask finish; and the Càirdeas Pedro Ximénex Cask Strength. There’s a lot to love about that last whisky: It’s bottled at cask strength (58.9 percent ABV) and tripled matured in ex-bourbon barrels, ex-bourbon quarter casks, and sherry-seasoned European oak hogsheads. These barrels contained Pedro Ximénex sherry, so expect rich notes of cherry syrup, spice, and marshmallow, all underscored by that classic Laphroaig peat.
The Dalmore positions itself as a luxury brand, and the price of the whisky follows suit. These are very fine single malts, most of which are influenced by secondary cask finishes that other brands might use, but the results are inarguably unique and give the whisky a defined Dalmore flavor. The classic 12-year-old is aged in bourbon barrels before being finished in 30-year-old Oloroso sherry casks. The Sherry Cask Select upped the ante upon its release this past year, doubling the sherry influence, according to the brand, by using casks seasoned with “a special assemblage of aged Oloroso and Pedro Ximénex wines.” And if you have $5,500 to spend on some aged single malt, which is actually not an exorbitant amount considering the price that some bottles command, try the new 30 Year Old Edition. The 2021 release, of which there are just 200 bottles, was aged in bourbon barrels and then finished in 30-year-old Tawny port pipes. This is just the first in a series of 30-year-old whiskies from The Dalmore, so stay tuned.
Bowmore’s No. 1 Vaults are supposedly the oldest maturation warehouses in the world, according to the distillery. The whisky that comes from them, as well as the other warehouses on site, is textured, layered, and stays with you for quite a while. The 15-year-old expression spends its last three years maturing in Oloroso sherry casks, while the liquid in the 18-year-old (a standout bottle) spends its life in both bourbon and sherry casks before being blended together. The peat is about half the ppm of Laphroaig (both brands are owned by Beam Suntory), so while it’s still noticeable, the fruit, caramel, and spice flavors create a whisky potpourri that unravels as you drink. Bowmore is also known for its Black Bowmore series of ultra-expensive aged whiskies, the most recent of which is called DB5 1964. This 31-year-old whisky was created in collaboration with Aston Martin, and is limited to 25 bottles selling for $65,000 each. For something a bit more affordable, check out the new permanent addition to the lineup, Bowmore 30. The first bottles of this annual whisky release were aged in sherry hogshead and bourbon barrels. And the first two editions of the distillery’s Timeless series launched this past spring, 27- and 31-year-old whiskies aged in bourbon and sherry casks that were celebrated with a short film from French director and artist Thomas Vanz.
The Macallan’s whisky is almost entirely aged in sherry-seasoned casks sourced from Spain, giving it a creamy, fruity mouthfeel with a hint of dry spice and cocoa. There are several different ranges to try, from Sherry Oak to Double Cask to Triple Cask Matured. The exceptional Double Cask lineup includes 12-, 15-, and 18-year-old expressions that are matured in Oloroso sherry-seasoned casks of both American and European oak, for soft notes of chocolate and vanilla. The Macallan is also famous for its incredibly expensive, extra-aged whisky, some of which approaches three-quarters of a century of maturation. For example, The Macallan 72 Years Old in Lalique was introduced a couple of years ago; it’s actually quite good, considering its age. More recently, the sixth and final entry in the Edition series was released, a dram inspired by the River Spey that runs by the distillery, with a bit of minerality not normally associated with The Macallan. No coloring is added to any of the whisky.
Another robust Islay whisky comes from Ardbeg, which at about 50 ppm is slightly peatier than Laphroaig. Ardbeg, the sister distillery to Glenmorangie, generally appeals to hardcore fans of the smoky stuff, and for many years was sort of a cult whisky. But there’s a lot of nuance underneath all of that salty, ripe, bold, burnt vanilla flavor. The whisky is predominantly aged in first- and second-fill bourbon barrels, with some liquid going into sherry butts and French oak as well. The 10-year-old anchors the range, with hard-to-pronounce, Gaelic-inspired expressions to round it out—Uigeadail brings sherry cask whisky into the mix, with dried cherry and prune notes complementing the peat, while Corryvreckan ups the ABV to 57.1 percent. Each June, the distillery celebrates Ardbeg Day with a special release, and this year’s was Scorch, a whisky aged in heavily charred ex-bourbon barrels. Also new from Ardbeg is Traigh Bhan 19 Years Old Batch 3. It’s named after an Islay beach, matured in bourbon and sherry casks for nearly two decades, and has the dubious honor of being the first Ardbeg release to be bottled during the pandemic. Hopefully, there won’t be too many more of those… Ardbeg does not add coloring to its whisky.
The GlenDronach might not be as well known as fellow sherry cask whisky maturation giant The Macallan, but that’s starting to change. A few years ago, The GlenDronach was acquired by Brown-Forman (along with BenRiach and Glenglassaugh), increasing its profile in the competitive world of single malts. The distillery’s focus on Pedro Ximénex and Oloroso sherry casks gives the whisky a range of flavors from sweet to baking spice, and the core lineup goes from 12 to 21 years, though there have been some exceptional limited editions as well. This spring the first domestic release of the Cask Bottling launched, Batch 18, which was a series of vintages selected by master blender Rachel Barrie. The 2008 is a 12-year-old aged in an Oloroso puncheon, the 2005 is a 14-year-old aged in a Pedro Ximénex puncheon, the 1994 aged for 26 years in a port pipe, and the 1993 spent 27 years in an Oloroso puncheon. These whiskies are rare and pricey, but if you stick with the core range you won’t be disappointed. The GlenDronach does not add coloring to its whisky.
Bruichladdich is a study in creative contradictions. The Islay distillery produces some of the most heavily peated whisky available. Literally—the Octomore range ventures into the hundreds of ppm, which is extremely, seriously, not-fucking-around smoky (the 08.3 release clocked in at 309.1 ppm!). Then there’s the Classic Laddie, a light, unpeated whisky full of citrus and green fruit notes that could not be more different. Recent expressions have focused on the concept of terroir in whisky, an idea that Bruichladdich is trying to convince the doubters really exists. While some scotch drinkers think the cask plays the biggest role in flavor, overriding barley varieties and even peat source, Bruichladdich is intent on proving otherwise. One of the newest releases from the distillery is Port Charlotte PAC: 01. This heavily peated whisky, a trait that defines the Port Charlotte lineup, was aged partially in bourbon barrels and partially in French oak red wine casks from Bordeaux. Octomore 12 Series arrives this fall, a trio of five-year-old whiskies—one aged in ex-bourbon barrels, one in bourbon and Sauternes casks, and a single field vintage aged in bourbon and sherry casks. Also, the expensive Black Art 9 will be unveiled, a 29-year-old 1992 vintage aged in casks that head distiller Adam Hannett doesn’t reveal. Bruichladdich does not add coloring to its whisky.
Another excellent peated whisky comes from Talisker, although by no means does this Isle of Skye distillery produce the smokiest dram out there. The 10- and 18-year-old expressions are solid entries into the lineup, while the no-age-statement Talisker Storm is also worth trying. The latter is a bit darker, a bit smokier, and has a different flavor profile than the age-statement bottles due to the use of re-charred bourbon barrels during maturation. It also happens to be a pretty affordable bottle. Naturally, there’s something incredibly expensive to try as well. In this case, it’s the new 43-year-old Talisker Xpedition Oak. This whisky was finished in barrels that were built using staves that traveled across the Atlantic on an adventurer’s yacht. Does that affect the whisky? Maybe, maybe not, but this ultra-mature whisky is delectable, which is not always the case with old age.
Master distiller Dr. Bill Lumsden and his team recently unveiled the Lighthouse distillery at Glenmorangie, a beautiful architectural creation that will allow them to experiment to their hearts’ desire. This is fitting for Lumsden, who frequently releases new expressions that play with different types of barley and cask types used for maturation. X By Glenmorangie came out a few months ago, an affordable, no-age-statement single malt that is meant to be used in cocktails. On the flip side, there are some high-end vintage releases that command thousands of dollars on the secondary market. If you get to the distillery anytime soon—still a dream for many of us—you can buy a bottle of Glenmorangie Lighthouse whisky, which is aged in bourbon and sherry casks. Only 3,000 were made, and the staves from the barrels now decorate the Lighthouse. Anyone interested in the single malt category overall should pay attention to what Lumsden and his team are getting up to in their whisky-lab-cum-distillery.
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