If you purchase an independently reviewed product or service through a link on our website, SPY.com may receive an affiliate commission.
If you are a fan of single malt scotch whisky, there is no shortage of bottles to choose from, both new and old. For those who are just beginning their journey into the world of scotch, here’s a quick primer: “Single malt” means that the whisky comes from one distillery, but it is usually a blend of many different barrels (as opposed to single cask, which means the whisky comes from just one barrel). It must be made from a mash bill of 100 percent malted barley and aged for a minimum of three years. The difference between single malt and blended scotch is that the latter consists of grain and malt whisky that usually comes from several different distilleries. Lastly, the age statement on the bottle indicates the youngest liquid — a 12-year-old scotch may have older whisky in the blend, for example.
There are five whisky regions in Scotland: Campbeltown, Highland, Islay, Lowland and Speyside. Each has its own characteristics, but this doesn’t mean all the whisky from a region tastes the same. Islay is known for its peated, or smoky, scotch, a process in which peat is used to dry the barley to stop the malting process infusing it with rich smoke. Speyside is where some of the most famous and popular scotch distilleries are located, like The Glenlivet and Glenfiddich. Ex-bourbon barrels are frequently used to mature scotch — by law, bourbon must be aged in new charred oak containers so the barrels are shipped to Scotland, Ireland, Canada, and other countries to use after being emptied. But many other barrel types are used for initial or secondary maturation, like sherry, wine, rum, and even tequila.
Now, on to the single malts! We’ve curated a selection of some of the best out there to consider sipping this winter, or any night of the year, because whisky should be your go-to drink no matter the occasion (or lack thereof). Here are eight single malt whiskies in different categories to try now.
1. Port Charlotte Islay Barley 2013
Bruichladdich’s core expression, The Classic Laddie, is an unpeated whisky, but the Islay distillery does specialize in making some extremely smoky spirits. Case in point is the Port Charlotte lineup, with this 2013 vintage one of the standouts of the bunch. The barley used to make the whisky can be traced back to seven farmer partners, and the eight-year-old whisky was aged mostly in bourbon barrels, with a quarter of the batch spending time in French wine casks before being blended back together. The result is fruity and smoky, with notes of espresso and spice on the palate.
2. Oban Distillers Edition
BEST CASK FINISH
Cask finishing, or a secondary maturation period, is extremely common in the world of single malts, but some are done more skillfully than others. The new 2021 Distillers Edition from Oban, in the West Highlands region of Scotland, is an excellent new whisky. This is a 2007 vintage that was finished in Montilla Fino casks from Spain to infuse the whisky with a rich fruitiness and full-body, a perfect complement to the honey, vanilla, and spice notes that are intrinsic to the whisky.
3. Highland Park 15 Year Old Viking Heart
BEST NEW RELEASE
Highland Park is well known for the Viking imagery and themes of its whisky lineup. The distillery is located in the rugged Orkney Islands, and most of the whisky that is produced there is matured in sherry casks, with some bourbon barrels used every now and then as well. The new addition to the lineup is Viking Heart, a 15-year-old aged mostly in sherry-seasoned European and American oak, with some refill barrels as well. The ceramic decanter is particularly eye-catching, but the whisky within is the star, a softly smoky liquid with notes of blackberry, vanilla, and a hint of citrus. No color is added to this whisky.
4. Deanston Virgin Oak
The name of this single malt comes from the fact that it’s initially aged in bourbon barrels and then finished in virgin oak, or casks that have not been used to mature whisky before. Deanston is a relatively under-recognized Highland distillery that makes some really high-quality expressions, and you will find a lot of flavor in this bottle that generally sells for less than $40. Look for citrus, vanilla, honey, and a nice dose of spice that can be attributed to that final virgin oak maturation. The whisky has no age statement, it’s non-chill filtered, and has no color added.
5. Glenmorangie The Original
BEST FOR COCKTAILS
While whisky snobs might scoff at the notion, there is absolutely no reason you shouldn’t use a good single malt in a cocktail. But it is a good idea to consider the flavor (and price) before you do, and Glenmorangie The Original is a really good whisky to use. It’s a 10-year-old whisky that is moderately priced and full of honey, vanilla, and spice notes, making it an excellent choice for an Old Fashioned or a Rob Roy, the scotch version of a Manhattan.
6. Mortlach 18
Sometimes you just want to treat yourself and spend a little extra cash on a nice bottle of whisky. But consider your options carefully, because you worked hard for your money and you don’t want to blow it on something pricy that doesn’t have a lot of substance. Mortlach 18 Year Old is a whisky worth dropping a few hundred bucks on. The distillery is nicknamed “the Beast of Dufftown,” and the whisky in this fetching bottle is indeed assertive but complex, with notes of toffee, ginger, vanilla, and a bit of tropical fruit rounding out the palate.
7. Aberlour A’Bunadh
Cask-strength whisky means that instead of being proofed down before bottling, the whisky is bottled at the strength at which it comes out of the barrel, which is usually rather high (although various technical factors affect this). Aberlour A’Bunadh is one of the best cask-strength single malts out there, released in batches over the years with each one differing in subtle ways. It’s a favorite of whisky collectors who like to compare each release, which usually clocks in somewhere between 110 and 120 proof (55 to 60 percent ABV). Fans of sherry cask-matured whisky like The Macallan, in particular, should try this intense but truly delicious whisky.
8. The Macallan Double Cask 12
BEST SHERRY CASK
Speaking of sherry cask-matured whisky, that’s really all The Macallan does. The “double cask” in the name here comes from the fact that the whisky was matured for 12 years in a combination of European and American sherry-seasoned oak, giving the liquid note of spice, dried fruit, and vanilla. The Macallan is a widely known and popular whisky brand for a reason — it delivers dependable whisky with a flavor profile that is derived from the use of these specially selected sherry casks for maturation.