Although we’re used to rye- or corn-based whiskey in the U.S., it’s the barley-based spirit from Scotland that’s generally become the most coveted in the world. Certain bottles of single malt Scotch whisky have gone for millions at auctions while other high-age expressions routinely retail for thousands of dollars. Unlike bourbon and rye, you can age single malt whisky for significantly longer, but most importantly, barley is more expensive and harder to grow.
Typically producing earthier and lighter profiles than rye or corn, the delicate malted barley base is given a broader palate spectrum after the oak aging processes, often using former bourbon or sherry casks, the latter of which provides sweet, fruity flavors. Simply put, when it comes to Scotch, single malt is the way to go. Before we give you our picks for the best single malt Scotch whiskies to drink, let’s dive into what separates this style from its contemporaries.
What Makes It Single Malt?
Distillery & Grain
First, let’s understand what malting means. Malting is the process of germinating the barley grain by soaking it in water, thus developing enzymes and allowing its sugars to be fermented easier. It’s then dried with heat for the perfect amount of time to prevent over-sprouting.
When it comes to single malt, the “malt” part refers to the malted barley that makes up the entirety of the whisky’s mashbill — in other words, the grain that gets distilled. However, the “single” portion simply indicates that the liquid comes from a single distillery and uses a pot still for distillation.
We use the term “single malt” so often when referring to Scotch whisky that we forget that there are other kinds of Scotch as well, including “single grain” — which features other grains, like wheat or rye, along with the malted barley — and “blended malt,” which marries single malt whisky barrels from different distilleries.
The Glenlivet Archive 21
Best Overall: One of the preeminent budget whiskies, the Glenlivet may not be the first thing that comes to mind when talking about the several-hundred-dollar range. However, this 21-year-old Archive Scotch is worth every penny. Not only is the age statement over two decades, but the Speyside staple produced this expression in small batches to ensure maximum quality control. The end result is the pinnacle of what single malt Scotch can and should be, with a perfect balance of sweet, buttery, and spicy, including notes of dried fruit, sherry, cinnamon, and buttered biscuit.
Tasting Notes: Dried fruit, sherry, cinnamon, buttered biscuit
Best Under $200: At under $200, Glenfarclas’ 25 Year is easily one of the most affordable quarter-century single malts around. But what’s more, it’s actually fantastic. Named Whisky Magazine’s coveted Distiller of the Year for this past year, the Speyside distillery is now run by a fifth-generation descendent of the famous Grant bloodline and is super popular with hardcore enthusiasts. Towards the top of its core range, this 25 Year expression is aged in ex-Oloroso sherry casks that impart notes of dark chocolate, citrus, and smoke.
Tasting Notes: Dark chocolate, citrus, smoke
The GlenDronach 21 Year Parliament
Best from the Highlands: The Highlands region is given distinction merely for its favoritism by the Royal family at one time. As such, with around 50 distilleries in this region, the whiskies that come out of it aren’t as indicative of its geography and can range quite a bit. At a higher proof than your average single malt, this 21-year-old whisky, nicknamed Parliament, from the GlenDronach is popular among fans of sweeter expressions and yet one of the most complex in that flavor category. It’s extremely fruity as far as Scotch goes, with a strong palate of blackberries and plums, warmed up with notes of cinnamon and nutmeg, and rounded out with dark chocolate. It earns its complexity from its meticulous aging process, marrying liquids from Oloroso and Pedro Ximenez sherry casks.
Tasting Notes: Blackberries, plum, cinnamon, nutmeg, dark chocolate
Glen Garioch 15 Year Sherry Cask
Best Underground Pick: Every once in a while it’s fun to get a hold of something a little more obscure. Glen Garioch is perhaps the perfect example of a bottle that tells onlookers that you like to venture farther beneath the surface of mainstream Scotch. From one of the oldest and farthest east distilleries in the nation, this 15-year-old single malt is smoky, sweet, floral, and everything in between. Aged in ex-Oloroso sherry casks, the expression punches way above its price point and can be attained for around a hundred bucks.
Tasting Notes: Smoke, floral, honey, vanilla
Laphroaig 25 Year
Best Peated Scotch: While Laphroaig’s 10 Year may be the most mainstream smoky Scotch around, its 25-year-old expression is its holy grail. The Islay distillery takes its flagship 10-year whisky and ages it for a quarter-century in seasoned ex-sherry and ex-bourbon casks before bottling at cask strength of around 50% (depending on the year). The annual release typically boasts some of the most intense heat AND smoke you’ve ever experienced, with complexities of fruit and vanilla notes in there as well. If you have the bankroll big enough, grab yourself a bottle of this peaty single malt from one of the paragons of the Islay region.
Tasting Notes: Smoke, fruit, vanilla
Best Budget Peated Scotch: With over 200 years of technique, Lagavulin has become an undisputed staple of the Islay region with some of the smokiest, yet deceptively complex single malts in the world. Its flagship 16-year-old single malt is a big whisky, indeed. With the first sip, you’re met with a wall of intense peat, but then break through to the well-rounded palate of sweet and smoky. If you’re looking to impress your friends but don’t want to break the bank, grab yourself a bottle from the “King of Islay.”
Tasting Notes: Smoke, sherry, fruit, salt
The Balvenie PortWood 21 Year
Best Cask Finished: The second distillery started by single malt pioneer William Grant, the Balvenie has a history that dates back to 1892. While cask finishing may be all the rage in the liquor world right now, it was essentially invented by Balvenie’s malt master David Steward in the 1980s. And so, it makes sense that the brand still makes one of the best examples of the technique with its PortWood expression — first released in 1996 — a 21-year-old single malt that spends over two decades aging in oak before spending some remaining time in ex-port wine casks.
Tasting Notes: Honey, raisin, fruit, smoke, caramel
The Macallan Sherry Oak 25 Year
Best Grail Scotch: Certain bottles from the Macallan have been known to feature record-breaking price tags. However, while it’s the most expensive in this guide, this $2,500 single malt is far from record-breaking. Of course, that doesn’t diminish the grail status of this quarter-century Scotch by any means. A legendary bottle from a legendary distillery, this 25-year-old whisky will give you a good idea of what the Speyside brand can do. Quintessential of the Macallan, the ex-sherry oak aging imparts desirable notes of toffee, orange peel, and cocoa.
Tasting Notes: Toffee, orange peel, cocoa
The Best Of The Rest
Don’t Pass On These Ones
Another product of the Islay region in the Argyll and Bute area, Ardbeg has one of the widest ranges of whiskies around. However, its award-winning Uigeadail is arguably its finest, with intense smoke achieved by burning its malted barley over burning peat. Not as well known in the States as Lagavulin and Laphroaig, the distillery has been around just as long and has an incredibly fervent fanbase. Like the best Islay single malts, Uigeadail — Scottish Gaelic for “dark and mysterious place” — is incredibly original on the palate, with notes of brown sugar, tobacco, smoked brisket, and espresso. Unlike many of the picks in this guide, it’s also bottled at cask strength.
Tasting Notes: Smoke, brown sugar, espresso, tobacco, smoked brisket
From one of the oldest distilleries in Scotland and the oldest from the Islay region, this 18-year-old whisky is the golden child of Bowmore’s core lineup. And wedged between the 15- and 25-year expressions, this nearly two-decade whisky hits the sweet spot, literally. Not quite as smoky as its Islay brethren, the single malt sports a nice balanced flavoring, featuring notes of fruit and chocolate to go along with the peatiness. Considering the limited quantity in which it’s released, the $150 price tag on this award-winning expression is not too shabby.
Tasting Notes: Mango, smoke, chocolate, peach
Highland Park 18 Year
The northernmost Scotch distillery is Highland Park, located on the Orkney Islands. Also called Viking Pride, this 18-year-old single malt from Highland Park is immensely popular among passionate enthusiasts, and we can see why. Housed in a beautiful bottle featuring an embossed design to resemble the wood carvings at Urnes Stave Church, the whiskey is peated using a harvest from a distinct location only. It’s then aged in ex-sherry casks for almost two decades. The smoke and spice on the palate are balanced perfectly with caramel, citrus, and floral notes.
Region: Highlands/Island Region
Tasting Notes: Smoke, spice, caramel, citrus, floral
Glenfiddich 21 Reserva Rum Cask Finish
Cask-finished Scotch may cause you to grimace if you’re a single malt purist, but the recent uptick in these types of expressions has proven its staying power, and this bottle from Glenfiddich is one of the best examples of such. Aged for 21 years, the whisky was finished in ex-rum casks from the Caribbean. The result is a profile filled with brown sugar, ginger, fig, and a hint of lime. Located in the Speyside region, Glenfiddich has become known for its masterful barrel finishing with bourbon and sherry as well, but this 21-year-old rum-finished Scotch is its finest. To try something out of the ordinary, yet fantastic, grab yourself a bottle of this award-winning single malt.
Tasting Notes: Brown sugar, ginger, fig, lime
It’s not necessarily common for a nearly-$300 Scotch whisky to be without any age statement, but Glenmorangie’s Signet is quite the exception. Inspired by the flavor profile of mocha coffee, the distillery’s Director of Whisky Creation Dr. Bill Lumsden came up with Signet, which blends the brand’s popular high roast “chocolate” single malts aged in both ex-sherry casks and new oak barrels, as well as some of the distillery’s oldest liquids. The palate is expectedly unique, with notes of tiramisu, plum, espresso, and, yes, chocolate. Glenmorangie is one of the quintessential Highlands distilleries, but this Signet is our favorite.
Tasting Notes: Tiramisu, plum, espresso, chocolate
The Dalmore King Alexander III
The Dalmore’s iconic stag logo comes from the tale of when the head of Clan Mackenzie — who would become the distillery’s longest-tenured owner centuries later — saved King Alexander III of Scotland from an attacking stag. To celebrate the legend, the brand released this namesake expression as part of its Principal Collection, combining single malts from six different casks — the first of its kind. While beginning its journey in ex-bourbon barrels, it’s then separated into bourbon, Oloroso sherry, Madeira, Marsala, port, and cabernet sauvignon wine barrels prior to harmonizing at the end in sherry casks. The end result is a magnificent palate of vanilla, citrus, almond, and caramel.
Tasting Notes: Vanilla, citrus, almond, caramel
The Best Scotch Whiskies Under $100
If you’re looking to save some shekels on your single malts, head over to our guide to the best Scotch whiskies under $100.