Even if you’ve never taken a snort of whisky in your life (yeah, that’s a thing), you’ve probably heard the term Single Malt Scotch, likely spoken with an air of importance or terror. Maybe both. But don’t be intimidated, either by the Scotchiness or the Single Malt-iness. Single Malt just means the whisky is 100% malted barley and the product of one distillery. (Not a single barrel, or a single year.)
And believe it or not, decent Single Malt Scotch isn’t necessarily expensive—in fact, many distilleries put out a great Single Malt around or under $50 as a sort of introduction to their style (since, as we said, a single malt is the expression of just one distillery). So not only are you saving money, but you’re also getting something intriguing but not as…aggressive, as other, more expensive bottles from the same distillery. If you like a certain distillery’s “entry level” single malt, you’ll probably like something more complex from the same distillery—a double wood, or cask strength, or limited edition, etc.
Really, Scotch shouldn’t be intimidating at all. Unless Nick Offerman or Brian Cox is drinking it. Otherwise, it’s a social drink, meant to be enjoyed, savored, chewed up and swallowed down with relish, and maybe a tall tale to follow. With that in mind, we’ve included a variety of styles so you can find a match depending on your tastes. You’ll be falling in love with the stuff before you can say “Scotchy Scotch Scotch.”
*Prices are an approximation or average, some retailers (online and in-person) may charge more or less, so shop around!
Highland Park 12 Year ($48)
A marquee and fairly well known single malt from the Orkney Islands, Highland Park 12 Year is one of the smoother, sweeter single malts. Buckwheat honey overlaid with heather florals on the nose. Honey and subtle fruit flesh out a rich mouthfeel, giving way to oaky spice and a subtly smoky, drying finish.
Glengoyne 12 Year ($50)
Distilled in the Highlands and stored in the lowlands, Glengoyne is all about its totally unpeated barley—meaning not a hint of smoke, not even a subtly bracing smoky dryness on the finish. Instead, a softer whisky, a bit buttery with hints of caramel and nuts balanced by freshening citrus and apple flavors. Maybe a touch of spice.
Bowmore 12 Year ($45)
Bowmore is an Islay Scotch (and Islay tends to be the home of salt-spray, iodine, and heavier peat). But the 12 year is a medium-peated Islay, with smoke and sea spray on the nose intermingling with florals and light citrus, and a sweetness that balances any iodine character.
Aberfeldy 12 Year ($41)
Another Highlands Scotch, the Aberfeldy 12 is another sweetly approachable single malt—honey with a hint of dried light fruits and super subtle smoke on the nose, with a smooth, slightly fruity body that finishes smooth and dry.
Glenlivet 12 Year ($30 to 40) – BEST BUDGET OVERALL
One of the most famous single malts out there, and an archetypal Speyside whisky (on the lighter, grassier end of the Speyside style). You’ll get light cereal/grain notes with some delicate buttery notes, honey, soft orchard fruits and light, grassy spring florals. Famous for a reason, a great value.
Laphroaig 10 Year ($48)
An iconic Islay Scotch, bursting with peat and salinity. Say “Laphroaig” to a group of whisky friends and you may divide the room—you’ll get unembarrassed peat and coastal notes here, smoke, salinity, Band-Aid, black pepper. Not devoid of sweetness, but only as a background balancer. Peat does all the heavy lifting here. (A great way to find out just how much peat you like…)
Tamdhu 10 Year ($42 to $55)
Tamdhu first opened in the late 19th Century but was shuttered in 2010, making a comeback at the Spirit of Speyside festival in 2013. And come back they did, with a bottle bursting with complexity, light fruit, citrus and spice on the nose along with some richer fruit/toffee notes on the palate, and just the tiniest, palate-cleanse of smoke on the finish.
Auchentoshan Valinch ($50)
A bit of a dueling single malt—but the duel is interesting. Auchentoshan is the only triple-distilled single malt in Scotland, meaning (like many Irish whiskies) it’s smoother. But the Valinch (named for the tool a distiller uses to taste the barreled whisky) is cask strength, meaning it’s got more kick (57.2% ABV kick) and heat, even in all that smoothness. If you can’t find Valinch, the American Wood is great (also around $50) or splurge (over $50) for the Three Wood, finished in bourbon, Oloroso and Pedro Ximenez sherry casks.
Ardbeg 10 Year ($51) – BEST PEAT SPLURGE
Another unapologetically peated Islay, and a great value for all the complexity. Fragrant with heavy charcoal smoke, interlaced with black coffee and (unsweetened) cocoa notes, but also a lightening salinity and fleeting melon/soapy note. Medicinal notes as with the Laphroaig, with spice and, again, sweetness only to balance.
Aberlour 12 Year ($45)
On the other end of the Speyside style, richer and Sherry-finished, you’ll get luscious fruit flavors, buttery and smooth with notes of toffee, vanilla, and dark dried fruits. Cinnamon and spice intermingle with the balancing spicy oak, warming and opulent but not overwhelmingly so.
Another Islay, but on the lighter side, aged in Sherry butts (not what you think) with a delicately pale gold look to it. But don’t let paleness fool you (or a dark caramel color, for that matter): complexity’s swimming around this bottle, honeyed apricot and vanilla with a balancing salinity and just an edge of nutty oak and moderated smoke.
Glen Scotia Double Cask ($44)
Many whiskies—and many single malt Scotches—are “finished,” which is to say aged for a briefer period of time in a previously used cask (e.g. bourbon, port, sherry). This Campbeltown whisky finishes with a balance of first-fill bourbon and Pedro Ximenez (sweet) sherry casks, intermingling an almost fudgy fruitiness with vanilla, and a drying oaky spice. Harder to find in the States, but worth a look.