While some connoisseurs may enjoy their Scotch peated — a technique that imparts highly distinctive and often polarizing campfire-like aromas and flavors — there are a multitude of styles making Scotch suitable for any palate.
“Scotch has fallen out of favor in recent years, as people shift to clear spirits and the bourbon industry has taken over because of its sweeter flavor,” Ryan Lindquist, bar manager at Chicago’s LUXBAR, tells VinePair. “It also has the misnomer of always being smoky,” he says.
To help wade through the many, sometimes intimidating options, VinePair asked Lindquist and other bartenders and beverage managers across the country which brands they believe present the best quality at an affordable price. Their recommendations span gateway bottles to a blend that, according to Lindquist, “has changed the Scotch world forever.”
At the time of publishing, many bars and restaurants are closed or struggling to stay in operation due to the coronavirus pandemic. Given this situation, VinePair also asked interviewees to provide links to Venmo accounts, GoFundMe campaigns, or other fundraising opportunities to help support them and the businesses with which they are (or were) affiliated.
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“Sheep Dip Blended Malt Scotch Whisky. This Scotch blend has honey notes and contains 16 single-malt whiskies from the Highland, Speyside, and Island regions of Scotland, each aged between eight and 21 years. It is approachable, especially for those new to the spirit. It can be used in balanced and bright cocktail applications. I call it a ‘gateway’ Scotch. You might choose to sub it in as the base in your favorite mezcal drink for a similar but wholly unique complexity. — Laura Ganci, Bartender/Beverage Manager, Courtland Club, Providence, R.I.
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“For the money, I’d say Macallan 12 for the smoothness. Plus, it’s approachable for Scotch beginners. For something super smoky, I’d recommend Laphroaig 10. So much peat!” — Michell Boyd, Beverage Manager, Hampton + Hudson, Atlanta
“Highland Park Magnus. For around $35 a bottle, this Scotch is often overlooked and very under-appreciated. [Highland Park is] one of the most northern distilleries in Scotland, located on the Orkney islands. There’s a perfect amount of sea spray, heather, and honeycomb on the nose and just a touch of smoke, making it very approachable to the newer whiskey/whisky drinker.” — Brett Helke, Beverage Director/Wine Director, Toast and Perro Blanco, Norfolk, Va.
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“Glenlivet Founders Reserve. It’s at a great price point and can appeal to the masses with a lower peat flavor, bright fruits, with a long, creamy finish.” — Jennifer Raymond, The Cave, Omni Mount Washington Resort, Bretton Woods, N.H.
“Clynelish Distillery located near Brora, Sutherland in the Highlands of Scotland. It’s like baby Brora [single-malt Scotch] at a tenth [of] the price.” — John Lindquist, General Manager, Tam O’Shanter, Los Angeles
“Compass Box Artist Blend. … Compass Box may not be a household name in the Scotch world, like Macallan, Glenlivet or Dewars, but this blending house (no distilling done here) led by John Glaser, formerly of Johnnie Walker, has changed the Scotch world forever. By procuring whisky from other distilleries, they blend liquid into beautiful bottlings that aim to be transparent in their process. Scotch can be a scary or difficult world to navigate, but they make it approachable. This light and fruity blended Scotch can make anyone a fan of the category and is an easy grab because of the price at your liquor store.” — Ryan Lindquist, Bar Manager, LUXBAR, Chicago
“Balvenie 14 Year Caribbean Cask offers a rich aroma, well-rounded taste with notes of vanilla and sweet oak, and lingering tropical fruit. The finish is soft and smooth with a layer of lasting vanilla notes. The depth of flavor offered by finishing then-14-year single malt in casks that previously held Caribbean rum offers a comparable taste to further aged Scotch whiskies.” —
Kevin Mucha, Bartender, Salt Kitchen and Bar, New Castle, N.H.
“Some may say that blended Scotch is a faux pas, but Monkey Shoulder produces by far the most superior product in its market segment. It is supremely well blended from three historic distilleries and it doesn’t break the bank.” — Scott Kollig, Beverage Manager, Rye Street Tavern, Baltimore
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“For bang for my buck in the Scotch category, my goal is always to grab something that I’m happy to sip on neat or on the rocks, but is also usable in a cocktail. I really like Bank Note Scotch. It’s a blend of some high-quality single malts and grain whiskies. I love the crisp, clean quality it brings to cocktails, as well as the mellow palate it provides for straight sipping.” — Ryan Lotz, Beverage Director, Traveler Street Hospitality, Boston
“For blended, I pick up Famous Grouse for cocktails. It’s complex yet approachable, with both dry and fruity notes. For single malt, I go with Highland Park. The distinctive craft and style of this Orkney Island Scotch is unparalleled, and Highland Park Magnus gives a lot of value for a single malt.” — Christine Kang, Beverage Director, The Breslin, NYC