If you’ve got a spare fifty bucks, there are few more satisfying ways to spend it than buying a nice bottle of scotch. And you can actually get some spectacular ones. While it’s a widely accepted opinion that low-priced scotches are not even in the same ballpark as those costing more, strong competition in the segment and the resurgence of the U.S. dollar have meant that the minimum price for a quality scotch has dropped significantly.
In fact, these days there are a number of affordable, entry-level scotches that just might surprise even veteran enthusiasts with their subtlety and overall refinement. Of course, if you’re trying to impress a client, read no further (try this instead). But if you just want something to sip on your own, with the significant other or with close friends that will let you feel the satisfaction of having bought a great scotch without paying too much, by all means, check out our list of the 8 best scotches under $50.
Tamdhu 10 Year Old
Not a big name, not a million years old, but one excellent Speyside scotch. Tamdhu flies under the radar because, for years, its corporate parent used much of its production for blends (good ones like Famous Grouse). With a new owner, it’s been revived as a single malt; but its lack of name recognition means that it’s selling for a price that’s much lower than it’s worth. Interestingly, this is the only distiller that uses water from the River Spey, once a time-honored tradition for all Speysides. Aged exclusively in oak sherry casks, its nose is dominated by those two tones. On the tongue, orange peel dominates at first, but gives way to sweet cream, chocolate and even a bit of stout. The finish is orange peel again with a Nutella chaser. If you find it, buy as much as you can before everyone else finds out how good it is.
Indie heroes Gordon and MacPhail deserve their reputation for making fine affordable scotches in the face of overwhelming corporate competitors. From way up in the Orkneys, their scotches have distinct but exceeding subtle characters. Its hay color should tell you it’s not bourbon-like at all. Instead, its nose is floral with orange peel and coriander overtones. The primary flavor note is green apple with slight vanilla, acidy green grapes and a touch of pear. And it finishes strong with tobacco, oak and apricot. If you’re looking to be blown away, look elsewhere. But if you are looking to be charmed into a long-term relationship, give this one a try.
Macleod’s 8 Year Old Speyside
From the same firm that makes Tamdhu, this one is more of a definitive Speyside whiskey. The nose is grassy and smoky, just as it should be. That’s followed by a dry selection of old Scottish tones like malted barley, seaweed, nuts and grain. The finish is a bit of a surprise as orange peel, black pepper and even a touch of dark chocolate penetrate through the smoke. As with many on this list, it’s a complicated whiskey that lures rather than putting on a show. A drop or two of water can help decode the flavors.
Compass Box Great King Street – Artist’s Blend
If you’re looking for a scotch that’s more of a crowd pleaser — you know, one that’s easy to get the most out of right away — then look no further. It’s a blend (get over your anti-blend biases if you still have them) of 46 percent Lowland grain, 28 percent Northern Highland single malt, 17 percent of a different Northern Highland single malt and 1 percent Speyside single malt. The company says that makes it: “fruity/perfumed,” “malty/fruity,” “grassy/perfumed” and “meaty.” And in real world terms … I’d say that you’ll be surprised by the thick complicated nose (with hints of apricot, several flowers, vanilla, peat and even butter) from such a hay-colored scotch. It’s bourbon-like in its creaminess and flavor profile, with vanilla, orange peel and a touch of grain without the characteristic scotch burn. The finish keeps the vanilla strong with just enough smoke to keep it balanced. Serve this one at a dinner party, and wait for the compliments to roll in.
Inchmurrin 12 Year Old
Another indie darling, Inchmurrin 12 Year Old is a highlander whose straw color belies its big, full-bodied flavor and thick mouth feel. The nose is superb with pear being the dominant note, mixed with caramel, maple and hazelnuts. But the drink is totally different with barley malt pushing around a diverse collection of lesser notes including blackcurrant, toffee, nutmeg and green apple. And it finishes with even more notes, including anise, cherry and cinnamon. This is a whiskey that takes a long time to explore completely. And, after one taste, you’ll want to.
Kilkerran Work in Progress 6th Release – Bourbon Wood
As part of its Work in Progress series, Kilkerran released two scotches as the same time Sherry Wood and Bourbon Wood, which took their names from the types of barrels they were aged in. The Sherry Wood is very good, but I prefer the Bourbon Wood in no small part because it’s much easier to find scotches that taste of sherry than those with the bolder complexities of bourbon. Open it up and you’ll understand. The nose is unapologetically strong with familiar honey-vanilla tones augmented by blackcurrant. There’s smoke and peat to be had in a creamy mouthful, but they are never overpowering, instead taking seats alongside dark chocolate and toffee. But the finish is easily the best part — long and sweetly honeyed with just enough oak and smoke to give it a likeable maturity. This is a lovely end of the evening sipper — by a fire if you have that option.
Bruichladdich Bere Barley 2006
There’s old school, and then there’s ancient school. This scotch is made from bere, a type of barley that was brought to the British Isles by 9th century Vikings who needed a grain that could grow quickly in a harsh climate for bread. Now only grown in the northern Scottish islands without chemicals and used almost exclusively for indie whiskies, it gives Bruichladdich a distinct taste. It has a truly magnificent nose with the almost wild barley accompanied by vanilla, lemon peel, flowers and honey. In the mouth, the honey melts with butter, sweet grapefruit and corn without a hint of peat. The finish is all barley, vanilla and hazelnut. This is a scotch that will surprise even the most jaded. Give it a try neat with close friends who you’re sure will appreciate its unique nature.
Royal Lochnagar 12 Year Old
Celebrity endorsements aren’t normally associated with scotch, but this one is said to have been a particular favorite of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. They even toured the distillery, which is not far from Balmoral, the royals’ Scottish vacation home. The royal nose would have been able to distinguish herbal tones over vanilla, a touch of sherry and a little red berry. It’s thicker than you might expect and the taste is primarily malt and honey with light, unobtrusive floral overtones to go with raisins and smoke. And it ends with a delightfully smoky finish of vanilla and allspice. While today’s royals are unlikely to go out of their way to enjoy such an easily affordable scotch, you can rest assured that Queen Victoria had a pretty good palate. Try this one on a lazy afternoon.