It’s always a good time to grab a really good bottle of single malt Scotch whisky. Yes, it’s more expensive and a little more elusive than just grabbing a bottle of bourbon here in the good ol’ U.S.A., but that’s not the point. Single malt scotch is a whole different beast with a unique and vibrant flavor profile that takes you to completely different places than corn-fueled bourbon whiskey. It’s apples and oranges, as the saying goes.
Today, to help you find a truly great single malt from Scotland, I’m conducting a blind taste test with some of the best unpeated Scottish malts I have on my shelves right now. For the tasting, I cast a wide net to battle it out between the new and old, the classic and the soon-to-be classic, the old guard and the new blood. The most affordable bottle on this list is around $55. The price only goes up from there. Still, I kept this in the “reasonable” price range. There are no unicorns in the thousands of dollars here.
This is a test of good and accessible whisky that you should be able to find in a quality liquor store. When it comes to the ranking, I’m basing that solely on taste. The price is beside the point. I’m looking for whiskies that stand out, bring a great nose and flavor profile, and have some serious nuance and balance. Still, in the end, the taste is all that really matters.
Today’s lineup is as follows:
- The Balvenie French Oak Finished in Pineau Casks Aged 16 Years (New)
- Cardhu Aged 16 Years 2022 Special Release (New)
- Benromach Contrasts Organic (New)
- Glenfiddich Grand Cru Aged 23 Years (Classic)
- The Glenrothes 18 Years Old (Classic)
- The Glenlivet Aged 21 Years (Classic)
- Aberfeldy 18 Finished in Tuscan Red Wine Casks (New)
- The GlenDronach Allardice Aged 18 Years (Classic)
Let’s dive in and find a great single malt worth spending a little cash on this season.
Also Read: The Top 5 UPROXX Scotch Whisky Posts of The Last Six Months
Part 1: The Tasting
The nose opens with a soft floral note next to fresh honey, green grass, pear skins, cinnamon rolls with vanilla posting, and a hint of orchard woods. The palate has a lemon meringue pie aura with subtle hints of honey-soaked gingerbread, shortbread biscuits, rum-raisin, and orange zest with a hint of salted dark chocolate lurking in the background. The end has a light mix of ginger candies and cinnamon-laced dark chocolate creaminess with a whisper of apple/pear tobacco.
This is great.
This opens with a nose full of barrel char and grilled tropical fruit all dusted with powdery winter spices and just kissed with taco seasoning, old leathery dates, a little bit of mango lassi, and a flutter of fresh laundry. The palate opens with a sweet and rummy burnt toffee nest to banana bread brimming with walnuts, brown butter, nutmeg, and soft sugar next to almond syrup and orange mixed with brandy and old oak. The end has a moment of black pepper spiciness that ends on a lightly fizzy apple cider and some soft caramel malts cut with a hint of woody spice.
Well, that’s another great pour of whisky. Seriously, this was astoundingly good.
This opens with a fascinating mix of bran muffins cut with rich vanilla and lemon oils next to dry ramen packs, softly stewed brown beans, and apple-cider-infused malts with a hint of cumin, cardamon, and cinnamon that’s almost garam masala. The palate leans into the spiced malts with an undercurrent of rich toffee, gingerbread, vanilla cream, and salted banana chips with a light flutter of sage and thyme. The end has a soft espresso cream vibe next to black licorice and dry chocolate crumbles.
This is so interesting on the nose and sort of classic on the palate. It’s a nice mix.
This is straight-up classic malt on the nose with stewed apples and pears with a slight tartness and floral impression over a buttery brioche with a hint of maple woodiness. The palate is lush and supple with a vanilla foundation and layers of pear candy, old toffees, creamed honey, and orchard wood with a sweet side. The end has a pear and apple skin ambiance that leads to barks, cores, and stems with soft floral honey and a tiny bit of proofing water.
This is really good and classic but a little watery at the very end.
Butterscotch, leather, and passion fruit draw you in on the nose with pear candies and winter spices next to a hint of menthol. The palate stays butterscotch sweet with a spiced maltiness next to cinnamon-kissed crème brûlée, savory fruits, and a touch of vanilla cake. The end has a woody cinnamon vibe with figs, prunes, and some apple rock candy sweetness rounded out with musty old oak staves.
This was fine. The butterscotch was a little… tinny at first. I don’t know. I’m not over the moon on this one.
Leather and winter spices lead the way on the nose with a hint of saffron-stewed pears, ripe peaches, and lush eggnog next to boiled beans with a bay leaf. The palate leans into the peaches and pears but puts them in a pie with plenty of cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg next to apricot jam and rum-raisin. The mid-palate hits a pine resin note before descending toward brandied cherries and dark chocolate with fresh ginger sharpens and a dash of cinnamon candy.
This is pretty nice overall. It’s not my favorite but it’s not bad by any stretch of the imagination.
There’s a cumin and chili powder essence on the nose with vanilla cream, cherry cake, and spiced caramel malts, and maybe a fleeting hint of flour tortillas with a hint of lard. The palate Leans into the spiced and sweet malts with a dash of sharp green pepper next to lime leaves before moist marzipan and vanilla cake counterpoint the spice with sweetness. The end has a soft oakiness that leads to a hint of soda bread with a mild pepperiness to the malt.
This was interesting. It’s warmer for sure but still has a nice balance of flavors vying for your palate’s attention.
Wicker and root beer candied (you know, the little barrel-shaped ones) vibe on the nose with dates, blackberry jam, and plenty of old worn leather. The palate has a jammy plum quality that moves toward almond cake dusted with powdered sugar and dark chocolate next to a touch of cherry and apple bark. The end has a dark berry feel that circles around salted yet creamy dark chocolate cut with marzipan and vanilla cream that’s nearly a Black Forest cake.
This is a thick and dark pour of whiskey that tastes really goddamn good.
Part 2: The Ranking
8. The Glenrothes 18 Years Old — Taste 5
Average Price: $195
This Speyside whisky is often crowned the “Best Speyside” whisky at spirits competitions. The whisky is made from a high portion of first-fill sherry casks, all of which spent 18 long years mellowing in The Glenrothes warehouses. Those barrels are then vatted and proofed down with local water before bottling without any coloring added.
That butterscotch nose and flavor just didn’t sit well with me this time around. This was a fine whisky overall otherwise. But at nearly $200, you don’t want something that doesn’t part the clouds for you from the nose to the finish.
7. Glenfiddich Grand Cru Aged 23 Years — Taste 4
Average Price: $374
It’s all in the name of this yearly special release from Glenfiddich. The whisky matures for over 23 years in both ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks before it’s vatted and then filled into French Cuvée casks that held Champagne. That whisky is then cut down to proof and bottled just in time for the holiday season.
This was fine and a very classic unpeated malt. The only place it flattens for me is on the finish, which exposes all that proofing water.
6. The Glenlivet Aged 21 Years — Taste 6
Average Price: $345
This redesigned The Glenlivet is still a classic whisky. The hot juice is aged in a triple combination of first-fill Oloroso sherry, Troncais oak Cognac casks, and vintage Colheita Port casks. After 21 long years (at least), the barrels are vatted and proofed down before bottling.
This is where we get into the no-fault section of this ranking. From here on out, I’m only going by what grabbed my attention most and what I want to actually drink in real life. This is probably the best-tasting whisky on the list that grabbed my attention the least. It’s great but not my favorite.
5. Aberfeldy 18 Finished in Tuscan Red Wine Casks — Taste 7
Average Price: $129
This year’s limited edition Aberfeldy 18 was finished in special red wine casks. Aberfeldy’s Stephanie Macleod hand-selected Tuscan red wine casks from Bolgheri, Italy to finish this whisky. Once those barrels hit the right spot, they were vatted, proofed, and bottled.
This is a really nice whisky that had a good balance of spicy and sweet. This feels like a good sipper if you’re looking for a challenge for your palate.
4. Benromach Contrasts Organic — Taste 3
Average Price: $55
This is the first Soil Association-certified organic single malt from Scotland. The mash is made from organic Scottish barley. That juice was then filled into new American oak barrels for a long rest. When those barrels hit the right mark, they were batched, proofed, and bottled without chill filtration.
This was funky and fun. That makes it a very easy sipper that’d also work really well in a sweet and acidic cocktail.
3. The GlenDronach Allardice Aged 18 Years — Taste 8
Average Price: $209
This Highland whisky is a local tradition of sorts, dating back to the brand’s origins in the 1820s. The whisky in the bottles is hewn from barrels of at least 18-year-old whiskies. The maturation is done exclusively in hand-picked Olorosso sherry casks from Spain.
This was deep and dark. It had a little woody edge which is why it’s slightly lower in the ranking. Otherwise, this is a killer bottle of whiskey that feels like the ideal cold-weather sipper.
2. The Balvenie French Oak Finished in Pineau Casks Aged 16 Years — Taste 1
Average Price: $169
The juice here is a masterful blend from whisky legend David Stewart. After around 15 years of aging, the whisky is transferred to Pineau des Charentes casks (a French fortified wine) for a final maturation, which is The Balvenie’s first foray into French oak finishing. The whisky is then bottled with a touch of water but as-is otherwise.
This is just a great pour of whisky. Take your time with it and really dig into the nose and palate to find some great flavor notes.
1. Cardhu Aged 16 Years 2022 Special Release — Taste 2
Average Price: $179
This Speyside unpeated malt was aged in refill and re-charred American oak bourbon barrels for 16 years. That whisky was then refilled into Jamaican pot still rum-seasoned casks for a final rest before vatting and bottling as-is.
This really popped on the panel. It’s dark and fresh, unique and deep, fun and enticing. I really wanted to go back for more of this one.
Part 3: Final Thoughts
Well, the most expensive whisky certainly didn’t win the day. Hell, the most expensive whisky damn near landed in last place in this blind tasting and ranking.
As for the battle between new and classic bottles of Scotch single malt, the newbies stole the show. With the exception of that delectable The GlenDronach 18, the top bottles were all the new ones. What does it all mean? Not much? Everything? Something in between? Look, we’re still talking about expressions from amazingly iconic brands here. So it’s not that big of a surprise that classic brands can still kill it when they try something new.
Overall, you cannot go wrong with that Cardhu 16. It’s so vibrant and fun to sip. If you want something a little more attuned to a bourbon palate, I’d go with The GlenDronach 18. It’s dark and sweet with plenty of spice like an old bourbon. No matter what you chose from this list, you’ll be in good hands. So go back through those tasting notes and find the bottle that speaks to you.