There’s an old saying that there’s a world of difference between a $20 scotch and a $50 scotch, but not all that much between a $50 scotch and a $200 scotch. Okay, perhaps that’s true for most people. But what if you’re one of those people who has been lucky enough to be: a) gifted with an elevated palate, and b) had enough $50 scotch that you’re looking for something much better? In that case, you’re going to want to go upmarket. Of course, how far up you go depends on what you can afford. But if you’re ready to spend big bucks for your love of fine whiskey, these are some great ones you have to try. Whether you prefer single malts or blends, we’ve got you covered with our list of the world’s 11 best scotches.
That Boutique-y Whisky Company Blended Whisky #1 – Batch 1
Surprised to see a blend up here? Don’t be. If you know your whisky, you know that some blends can reach some dizzying heights of quality. And none is better than this. Just 148 bottles were made, so if you can get your hands on one, do it, and don’t look back. As is usual with the Boutique-y crew, the label and name might be modern, even postmodern, but the whiskey itself is hardcore traditional. Open it, and you will be treated to an oak, tobacco and fine leather nose that puts you in mind of P.G. Wodehouse’s Drones Club. The taste is of heavy, but not hot, spice, dark fruits and a hint of nuttiness and a delayed but welcome alcohol snap. Is it smooth? Unbelievably so. And it ends with a spicy, smoky finish that brings out the best of the nose and the drink. There is no better whiskey for unsettling a snob. It’s a blend with a goofy name and a cartoonish label — but it’s also just about the best traditional whiskey that can be had for any price.
Hankey Bannister 40 Year Old
While we are on the subject of blends that fight well above their weight, this aged-to-perfection whiskey is hard to come by and won’t come cheap, but must be tasted if you’re lucky enough to find it. While you’d think the nose on something that had been in barrels that long would be all wood and smoke, this one surprises with dark chocolate and red wine as the primary tones, with a raisin or currant hint on top of it. Creamy to the point of buttery, there’s no overwhelming flavor, but instead a ride through tangerine, dark chocolate, nutmeg and red wine without a bit of harshness and still very little oak. And the finish, oh the finish, is more chocolate deeply complemented by hazel nut. And it lasts and lasts. Don’t waste this on anybody who won’t appreciate it. Instead, save it for the most perfect moments with someone whose taste you respect.
Longrow Red 11 Year Old – Fresh Port Cask
There’s an old Scottish song called Campbeltown Loch, I Wish You Were Whisky. That’s the kind of hold Campbeltown whiskeys have on their fans. Although the region has seen some hard times of late, it’s still producing its distinct, even idiosyncratic whiskies, and the best are generally from Longrow. My favorite of the Red series, this one was aged in port casks, which give it a distinct red color. And while it does open with red fruits in the nose, it is winningly accompanied by rich peat and a touch of tobacco. The flavors are also peat-strong (if not dominated), with several red and purple fruits chiming in before giving way to port. The finish is like one of those old records that fades rather than ends with a flourish, with the fruit and peat gradually diminishing, just in time for another drink. While many of the whiskies at the top of the food chain can be heavy and traditional, this one is light and fruity by comparison. And, just as there are times and places for many types of wine, this is a whiskey that can enliven something like an afternoon picnic in a way that a big old traditional scotch never could. Share this with the open-minded on a light-hearted occasion.
Glenmorangie 18 Year Old
When you’re spending big bucks for whiskey, there are two things that you really need to get — smoothness and a complex taste. And with this whiskey, you get the top of the line with both. It spent the first 15 years of its life in charred oak bourbon casks only to spend another three in Oloroso sherry casks. It might sound like an odd, plan, but it work and it gave this whiskey the advantages of both styles. On opening, you’ll be seduced first by honey and then by a series of exotic spices and blackcurrant. The drink itself is so smooth — I actually wish there was a stronger word for smooth — that it almost defies the concept of whiskey. That’s the bourbon barrels coming through. The honey and spice continue, but are augmented by citrus, lychee and several other fruits along with toffee. And the end is big oak, dry sherry, a touch of black pepper and more citrus. It’s quite an experience. But while this is near the top of the Scottish art of whiskey, it’s not a definitive Scottish whiskey. There’s not a lot of smoke — if your favorite whiskeys are from Islay, you might not truly “get” this one — and the heat of alcohol is deftly smoothed. Try this one at a quiet evening at home with your significant other and/or a good book.
Glenglassaugh 30 Year Old
This is a distillery that went from indie to corporate and back to indie, and was praised by Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond for its strong business model. And I’ll be quick to praise it too — but for different reasons, as they make gorgeous whiskeys. To appreciate it, you have to like sherry, as it is present in the nose, drink and finish, but never overwhelmingly so. The opening notes mix that sherry with oak, autumn spices and a touch of toffee. On the tongue, it’s joined by cinnamon, coffee and dark chocolate just enough spice to keep it jumping. And it finishes strong with more chocolate and a touch of citrus zest. This is one whiskey that stands up to just about any situation, and can be enjoyed with just about anything. But don’t serve it anywhere near lesser whiskeys, as it will put them to shame.
If you speak Gaelic, the name of this whiskey will give you a pretty good idea of what’s inside. An anCnoc is a traditional peat harvesting tool, and this whiskey is as peat-rich as any you will ever taste. But don’t worry about it being overwhelming, or one-note. It’s aged in ex-bourbon barrels, which imparts smoothness and maturity. But one whiff of the nose will tell you that peat smoke is large and in charge, though dampened with welcoming tones of toffee and vanilla. As with many complex scotches, the flavors come in waves. This one features barley, apple cider and vanilla all surfing in on a sea of peat smoke. The finish is long, and — guess what? — smoky. Try this one with someone who’ll appreciate the traditional Scottishness of it all. But be careful not to serve it during any showings of Braveheart (you don’t want to go full-Scotsman).
Ledaig 42 Year Old Dùsgadh
If you’re impressed by aged whiskeys, this one is for you. Dùsgadh, which means awakening in Gaelic, was bottled in 1972, released in 2014, and comes with a certificate made from the copper of the stills it was made in that promises its bearer a bottle from the 2014 batch that will be ready in 2024. That’s all very cool, but what about the whiskey? As someone who is already smitten with the complexity of Ledaig’s 10 year olds, I’m struggling to describe its elder statesman. The nose introduces itself with honey and a variety of nuts, before bringing toffee, apple and, somehow after all those years in a cask, smoke. And that’s nothing compared to when it gets in your mouth. Then honey gives way to dark chocolate, black cherry and even pear, all while being rich but subtle. It says good-bye with blackcurrants, mandarin and oak, and begs, no insists, to be sampled again. Of course, every subsequent drink will bring even more flavors. This is a whiskey to be treasured, but not hoarded because it’s as much a crowd pleaser as it is a sipper.
Bunnahabhain 25 Year Old
Bunnahabhain is an Islay favorite, but many whiskey connoisseurs have criticized the distillery for getting a bit too fancy, even cute, with its process. For them, the 25 Year Old will be a revelation. A pure whiskey made in traditional ways, the result is still a richly textured and thoroughly delightful drink. The Oloroso sherry casks are immediately evident in the nose, as is vanilla and a hearty does of old leather. That’s just a prelude to a surprisingly deep set of flavors, including (but not limited to) cinnamon, whipped cream, brown sugar, nutmeg and even grilled chestnuts. It’s followed by a lingering and satisfying finish of spice and toffee with enough smoke to remind you where it came from. This is an expert’s whiskey, one that reminds me less of traditional Islay smoke and more of the best Japan has to offer. Definitely a mature whiskey, and although by no means harsh, it’s not one for the uncultured palate.
Do you like peat, I mean, really love peat? You’re not alone. When Ardberg, which is already known as just about the peatiest distiller there is, brought out the Supernova with four times the peat of any of their other whiskeys, buyers snapped it up and begged for more. So it’s back. So at the risk of belaboring the point, I’m only going to mention the other qualities of the whiskey and you can just assume that it’s all performed under a cloud of peat smoke. The nose is super complex; I get a fine curry, heavy with cumin and fenugreek, tobacco, followed by apple, a little vanilla and just a hint of barley. That’s followed by chili peppers, dark chocolate, coffee and a surprisingly satisfying tone of tequila with lime. All of that is chased by a long-lasting finish with a spicy tingle and the flavor of buttered popcorn. And did I mention peat? Because there might be some peat.
BenRiach 16 Year Old
You can spend a truckload of money for BenRiach’s 35 Year Old, or you can buy the 16 Year Old, save the cash and, in my opinion, enjoy a far superior whiskey. Living up to Speyside’s reputation for making lighter, sweeter whiskeys, this one is an excellent example of the tradition. The nose is all honeyed fruit, but without the insipid sugary overtones some cheaper Speysiders bring. Once on the tongue, the parade begins with barley and honey, a distinct grassiness, followed by a whiff of peat smoke and butter. The peat comes back again in the finish, along with toffee and brown sugar. This is an excellent counterpoint to many of the heavier whiskeys on this list. It can be enjoyed anytime, and can even take a few drops of water without any decrease in quality.
Glen Moray 25 Year Old Portwood Finish
Glen Moray has the distinction of being the only major scotch that malts its own barely in house. While that might or might not make for superior whiskey, Glen Moray certainly does make some great ones. My favorite is the Portwood because while it retains the wonderful qualities of other Speysiders, it also has a deep red, instead of hay, color and the addition of port-based richness its lighter stable mates lack. It starts with a surprisingly strong, but far from intrusive, nose that imparts caramel, mixed nuts and strong honey. And, true to its color and in contrast to many other Speysiders, it’s thick and creamy with dark chocolate and spice to go with the sweeter flavors underneath. The finish is similarly strong, with coffee giving way to hard candy and almonds. Try this when you would normally think of bourbon. Not only is it that easy to drink, it’s also refreshingly distinct.