For some reason, single malt scotch still falls into an elite, rarefied category for a certain kind of whisky drinker. It conjures 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, particularly the bit about scotch being a drink reserved for the boys club. (Although those tasting notes could be dead on.) The concept that 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. And this past year saw pompous, sexist blowhards like Whisky Bible author Jim Murray get called out for outdated, immature, and gender-biased tasting notes. Both mark 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 and should 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, and it absolutely should be inclusive.
A quick primer on single malt scotch: "Single malt" means that the whisky comes from one distillery in Scotland 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. The 12-year-old age statement refers to the youngest whisky in the mix.
The best-selling whiskies coming out of Scotland are actually blends, but single malts better speak to the character of a particular distillery from a specific scotch whisky region. There are five or six of these different regions, depending on who you ask—Lowlands, Speyside, Highlands, Campbeltown, Islay, and (sometimes) Islands. While Islay in particular 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 in their whiskies will proudly and loudly let this be known. Ultimately, it’s up to you whether you care about things like added caramel color or peaty-ness; whisky fans can argue for days about these issues.
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.
BenRiach isn’t the best known scotch distillery out there, but it is really quite interesting, producing some fantastic whisky. Acquired a few years ago by drinks conglomerate Brown-Forman, owner of Jack Daniel’s and Woodford Reserve, the core lineup recently relaunched with new bottle designs, names, and expressions. The most accessible and affordable whiskies are simply and directly named—the Original Ten and the Smoky Ten, the Twelve and the Smoky Twelve. As you can guess, one of each is peated, the other is not. But there’s a lot more that goes into these excellent single malts, such as the range of casks used for maturation, including ex-bourbon, sherry, port, virgin oak, and rum. No color is added to BenRiach's delicate and flavorful whiskies, which are complex enough for seasoned drinkers but simultaneously suitable for newcomers to scotch.
Aberfeldy was mostly known for producing malt whisky that went into the Dewar’s blend until about 20 years ago, when a 12-year-old single malt expression was first released. It’s still a major component of Dewar’s, but the range of single malts bottled at the distillery truly shine on their own as well. There are 12-, 16-, and 21-year-old expressions of this “Golden Dram,” as it’s sometimes called, and all are richly honeyed, spicy, and laced with notes of vanilla and fruit. This past fall saw the release of two new wine cask-finished whiskies in the Exceptional Cask series, both of them remarkable. The 18-year-old expression was finished for four to five months in first-fill Pauillac wine casks from Bordeaux, while the 20-year-old was finished for a year in Sauternes wine casks. Both are pricey bottles but worth sampling if you can swing it.
Mortlach is another distillery pumping out delicious whisky that is kind of under-recognized by the general public. This might be due, in part, to the fact that the core range has been revamped a few times over the past six or seven years. Back in 2014, the distillery (nicknamed “the Beast of Dufftown”) had no age statement, 18-, and 25-year-old expressions. Then, a year or two ago, these were replaced with 12- (Wee Witchie), 16- (Distiller’s Dram), and 20-year-old (Cowie’s Blue Seal) whiskies made entirely from unpeated barley and matured in ex-bourbon and sherry casks. The distillery utilizes what it calls a 2.81 distillation process, meaning the whisky is not quite triple distilled… it’s a bit confusing, but there are many websites that will explain this process in intricate detail. The bottom line is that these single malts have big dried fruit and spice notes that come from a healthy dose of sherry cask aging, mingled with vanilla and citrus flavors from the American oak.
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, making 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. A new and really flavorful addition to the family is the 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. This release will vary from batch to batch, so it will be interesting to see what comes next. 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.
William Grant and Sons has two neighboring distilleries just outside of Dufftown in Speyside: the larger Glenfiddich and the smaller Balvenie. The Balvenie is arguably the more delicate and unique of the two in terms of flavor, although Glenfiddich is much more popular. Balvenie malt master David Stewart has worked in the industry for more than half a century and is still coming up with new creations. One of his crowning achievements is DoubleWood 12, which launched in 1993. The whisky is aged for 12 years in ex-bourbon barrels and hogsheads, finished for nine months in Oloroso sherry casks, and then transferred into large "tuns" to allow the liquid to mingle. The whisky in the 14-year-old Caribbean Cask is finished in rum barrels, where it picks up molasses and fruit notes. In recent years, the distillery has come up with more new whiskies, some under the auspices of apprentice malt master Kelsey McKechnie. These include Balvenie Stories, a series highlighting the effects of toasted oak, peat, fresh heather, and dark barley. And most recently, Batch 7 of the Tun 1509 whisky series was released, a blend of specially selected casks married together in the distillery’s wooden vat. On top of it all, Questlove has begun a multi-year partnership with the Balvenie that'll include a digital series set to debut in fall of 2021.
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 known for its smoky scotch, falls around 45 ppm, which makes this 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. If you’re looking for something quite a bit stronger, try Batch 12 of the cask-strength version of this classic, which you can proof down as you like. If you have the money to spend, the extra-aged expressions are where the whisky really starts to take on new dimensions. When it reaches a quarter century of maturation, Laphroaig still brings smoke to the party, but a host of other elements come into play that aren’t immediately evident in some of the younger expressions. The Ian Hunter Story is a newer series of whiskies highlighting the life and contributions of the former Laphroaig owner. Book 2, the most recent release, was aged for 30 years in former Oloroso sherry casks, and it is a delicious, if expensive, dram.
Bowmore is an Islay distillery owned by Beam Suntory, which also owns Laphroaig, but the whisky it produces is very different. The No. 1 Vaults are supposedly the oldest maturation warehouses in the world, or so goes the line from the distillery. Regardless, this is layered, textured whisky that stays with you for quite a while. The 15-year-old 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, 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 limited to 25 bottles selling for $65,000 each. For something a bit more reasonable, 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.
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. In the Double Cask lineup, the new 15- and 18-year-old age statements are matured in American and European oak, Oloroso sherry-seasoned casks—both exceptional whiskies that are spicy and fruity, with 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 (this writer got to sample it, and it’s actually quite good, considering its age). More recently, the sixth and final entry in its Edition series was released, a whisky inspired by the River Spey, which runs by the distillery. Check out the bottle’s label if you are interested in the breakdown of casks used to mature it, but this is a really interesting dram 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 some hard-to-pronounce, Gaelic-named 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. This year's was Blaaack, a whisky finished in Pinot Noir casks from New Zealand. And on opposite ends of the age spectrum, the distillery has added two whiskies to its lineup: Wee Beastie, a vibrant and tasty five-year-old expression, and an Ardbeg 25 Years Old that arrives in January of 2021. 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, and for good reason. A few years ago, the GlenDronach was acquired by Brown-Forman (along with the previously mentioned BenRiach), increasing its profile in the competitive world of single malts. Like the Macallan, its focus is on sherry cask maturation, but the whisky produced here is entirely different. It’s aged in a combination of PX and Oloroso sherry casks, giving it a swath of flavor from sweet to baking spices. The core lineup ranges in age from 12 to 21 years, and there have been some excellent new limited editions as well. The GlenDronach Kingsman Edition 1989 Vintage came out last summer, a tie-in with the forthcoming movie The King’s Man. And most recently, the GlenDronach Port Wood was released, a no age statement whisky aged in sherry casks and finished for two to three years in port pipes. 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 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 people think the cask plays the biggest part in flavor, overriding barley varieties and even peat source, Bruichladdich is intent on proving otherwise. The most recent Octomore series (the 11th), includes some interesting experiments like the five-year-old 11.3, which was distilled from barley grown entirely by one farmer. For something much more expensive but always delicious, take a dive into the distillery’s Black Arts series. This year’s release is a 26-year-old unpeated whisky aged in a variety of casks, the makeup of which is kept secret by head distiller Adam Hannett. Bruichladdich does not add coloring to its whisky.
Another standout smoky whisky comes from Lagavulin. There are many different expressions to try from this venerated Islay distillery, in addition to the core eight-, 12- and 16-year old bottles. Last year, actor Nick Offerman, a partner and spokesman of sorts for the distillery, helped to pick the liquid that went into an 11 Year Old. The 2020 Lagavulin Distillers Edition recently hit shelves, which differs from the regular 16 Year Old in that it’s finished in PX sherry casks for a period of time. And finally, a cask-strength 12-year-old whisky was included in this year’s Diageo Special Releases collection, bottled at 56.4 percent ABV. While the age statements are similar in many Lagavulin expressions, there is a great deal of variety in terms of flavor. Peat is the throughline that ties it all together, but try some of these back-to-back if you can, to see how an extra year or two in casks or a difference in proof makes a big difference.
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