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People get hung up on the word “best,” especially when that word comes attached to a phrase like “21 Best Whiskies You Can Buy Right Now.” You can practically hear the protests already—“But if there are 21 of them, how can they all be ‘best?’” To these people I say politely (and with infinite patience): Pipe down. There are as many expressions of scotch as there are angels nipping at every whisky cask in the Hebrides and as there are snooty grammarians who want to take the fun out of the pursuit of incredible liquor.
Speaking of pursuit, it’s worth pointing out another important caveat to this list. This is not The Best Scotches of All Time. It does not, for example, include The Macallan Valerio Adami 1926, of which there are only 12 bottles in the world—the last of which sold for just over $1 million at auction. I’m not discouraging you from chasing those bottles, of course, but my purpose here is to let you know about the best scotches you have a chance in hell of finding via an online retailer or at a top-notch liquor store. Given a modicum of motivation, every one of the whiskies on this list is eminently gettable. In fact, I suggest you treat this article sort of like an adult version of Pokémon Go, but instead of wandering into traffic while trying to bag a Charmander, you should wander into the welcoming arms of your local hoochmonger in search of The Glenlivet 18 Year Old. If you do somehow manage to capture every single one of these semi-rare beasts, tag me with the evidence at @RobbReport. And if you do, we have another challenge for you—pursue all the bourbons on this other list.
As far as “best” goes, while the term is inherently subjective, if there is a person alive who can’t find their own personal “best” in here, I’d like to have a chat with them, preferably over a dram of Lagavulin 16 and explain to them, gently and with an excess of solicitude, that they should try more new things. Oh, and one other caveat: No two products from the same distillery could appear in the list, because fairness. See you in the Hebrides, my sweet angels.
Aberfeldy 18 Côte Rôtie Wine Cask Finish
Aberfeldy is a Highlands distillery famous for its signature honey notes (hence its nickname, “the Golden Dram”), something that has ensured its role as a key component in the Dewar’s blend. There are some excellent older age-statement bottlings, including this new limited-edition 18-year-old, one of malt master Stephanie MacLeod’s special releases. After nearly two decades maturing in first-fill bourbon barrels, re-char and refill casks, it was placed in Côte Rôtie red wine casks for another few months. The honey and vanilla notes play very nicely with the tannin and berry picked up from these wine casks.
The Isle of Skye is one of the most beautiful parts of Scotland, and the single malt whisky made at the Talisker distillery there is equally spectacular. This is a rugged, windswept, briny whisky, if you can stretch your imagination to match flavor to scenery. The peat is pronounced but softer than some of its Islay counterparts, especially after 25 years aging in American and European oak casks. Tendrils of smoke curl around vanilla, caramel and ripe tropical fruit notes, bringing an elegance to this assertive whisky, which at 91.6 proof packs a little bit of heat. There are plenty of quarter-century-old whiskies to choose from, but make sure this one is on your list.
The GlenDronach Port Wood
If you’re talking sherry cask-matured single malt, The Macallan is likely the first brand that comes to mind. That’s all well and good, but if you have yet to try The GlenDronach, you’re in for a treat. The Port Wood release, however, gets an additional flavor infusion from a lengthy secondary maturation period in port pipes after initially being aged in PX and Oloroso sherry casks. This brings a little bit of spice, some bright grape notes and a dollop of dark chocolate to the palate. Port Wood is a whisky you will want to revisit time and time again.
Compass Box The Story of the Spaniard
Sure, single malts get all the glory, but there are certainly some blends that are worth exploring as well. Compass Box is an interesting brand that sources and blends whiskies from various distilleries, providing as much transparency about the process as they are allowed to (those pesky NDAs sometimes get in the way). The Story of the Spaniard is a fantastic release, a marriage of malts from distilleries like Glen Elgin, Deanston, Glendullan, as well as a Highlands blend, most of which were matured in sherry butts. Expect the unexpected here, as the typical dried fruit and creamy vanilla notes are buttressed with bright citrus and warm cocoa flavors.
Bruichladdich Port Charlotte 10 Year Old
Peated whisky can be divisive, particularly at the extreme end of the spectrum. You either like it or you don’t – there are very few people on the fence here. Bruichladdich’s core expression is actually unpeated, but the Port Charlotte range goes completely in the opposite direction with whiskies that are smoky like five-alarm fires. The thing is, there is still a good deal of subtlety to this 10-year-old spirit, which is aged in a combination of bourbon barrels and wine casks and has a PPM of 40 (that’s pretty smoky, to be clear). This is an almost savory whisky, with a supporting cast of stone fruit, vanilla and even some honey notes, striking a nice balance throughout each sip.
Highland Park Cask Strength
Highland Park is a whisky lover’s single malt, releasing peated but not overpoweringly smoky whiskies aged mostly in sherry casks. Fans of this Viking-themed distillery were very excited about the first cask strength release, which came out in 2020. The second batch clocks in at 63.9 percent ABV, slightly higher than the first, with no chill filtration or color added. The whisky was aged in European and American sherry-seasoned oak, with a small amount of bourbon barrels included as well. Add a few drops of water and the palate expands, with baking spice, toffee, pear and dried fig notes intermingling into something delightful.
The Macallan Triple Cask Matured 18 Years Old
This legendary single malt, formerly known as Fine Oak 18 Years Old, is an amalgam of spirits aged in a trio of different oak casks—sherry-seasoned European oak, sherry-seasoned American oak, and American ex-bourbon barrels. Of the many brilliant expressions produced by the Macallan, Triple Cask Matured 18—arguably, of course—best exemplifies the identity of the brand’s core range: scotch that is exceedingly smooth, elegant, and adorned with disparate tastes that somehow come together in perfect harmony. Dominant flavors include rich dark chocolate, dried coconut, and orange, with subtle notes of vanilla, nutmeg, and wood smoke. Best enjoyed neat with a side of toasted marshmallows dipped in Pedro Ximénez sherry.
The Balvenie DoubleWood 12 Year Old
The inimitable David Stewart has been at The Balvenie going on 60 years. He’s the longest-tenured and most highly decorated malt master in the business and has had a hand in the development of some legendary whiskies, from the Tun 1401 series to the DCS Compendium, a collection of 25 handpicked casks curated by Stewart that include vintage single malts spanning his illustrious career. But of all the whiskies he’s made, Stewart once told me, he’s most proud of DoubleWood 12 Year Old, which changed the way the industry approached spirit maturation. It’s aged in two types of barrels: American oak and European oak sherry. Today, virtually every whisky distillery in the world has similarly aged whiskies in their portfolio, but only one is the true original.
Every February, for as far back as anyone can recall, the folks at Aberlour in Speyside have been emptying a bottle of whisky into the River Spey to “bless” the beginning of salmon fishing season. And wouldn’t you know it, the salmon haven’t once raised an objection. A’Bunadh is Scottish Gaelic for “of the origins,” a nod to Aberlour’s founder, James Fleming. This full-bodied, creamy expression is produced one batch at a time and matured exclusively in first-fill oloroso sherry casks. The nose offers mixed spices, praline, and citrus zest. On the palate is a cornucopia of bright fruit flavor spiked with ginger and dark chocolate. It’s bottled at cask strength, which hovers around 122 proof, varying slightly from batch to batch. Truly a game changer in the whisky world, Aberlour A’Bunadh has commanded a cult-like following since it was introduced in 1997.
Bunnahabhain 25 Year Old
The island of Islay is renowned for peat-heavy scotch made by the likes of Bruichladdich, Laphroaig, and Ardbeg. The region’s most notable outlier is Bunnahabhain, where, since 1881, it’s produced exceptional whisky with nary a hint of peat influence. Bunnahabhain 25 is an exemplar of elegance and balance. Aged in ex-bourbon, scotch, and sherry casks, it offers aromas of polished leather, rich dried fruits, and spiced oak. Primary flavors are sweet berries, roasted nuts, and cereal, with a touch of sea salt on the finish. In 2010, Bunnahabhain upped the proof from 86 to 92.6, providing an extra measure of oomph to this world-class whisky.
Oban 14 Years Old
Oban (pronounced “OH-bin”) is a port town in western Scotland known as the gateway to the Hebridean islands. Its eponymous distillery, established in 1794, produces whisky with a flavor profile that straddles the smoky style of the Scottish islands and the livelier, more toothsome malts made in the Highlands. Oban 14 Years Old is a wee bit oily and quite a bit weighty. Smells like lemons and pears sprinkled with sea salt, set atop a table that had recently been on fire. Tastes like dried figs dipped in honey up front, followed by some oak and malt dryness. Begs to be paired with oysters and smoked salmon.
Lagavulin 16 Years Old
The most celebrated of the five whiskies in the Lagavulin range is the stuff of legend, for peat’s sake. Peat, of course, is the lifeblood of Islay whisky, and there’s nary a dram produced on that scotch-soaked isle that is as peat-forward as Lagavulin 16. It’s a smoke show, simple as that. Okay, maybe not so simple. There’s a bit of sweetness to this whisky, and some seaweed and bacon notes, as well. Mouthfeel is slightly oily, the juice chewy. It’s the spiritual kin of the Shetland sweater—stylish, full of texture, and a source of great warmth.
Balblair 25 Year Old
This stellar single-malt from the esteemed 230-year-old Scottish Highlands producer arrived stateside in November 2020—a wee bit of good news in dark times. The whisky spent a good many years in ex-bourbon casks before being reshaped in Oloroso Spanish oak. On the nose we get apricots, anise and orange oil. Full-bodied mouthfeel brims with blood orange, raisin and chocolate praline, with a bit of spice on the finish.
Ledaig 1996 19 Years Old
Lest ye be mistaken for a whisky neophyte, remember that this single-malt scotch from the Inner Hebrides is pronounced “la-chayk” or even “la-chik” (“la-dayg,” on the other hand, sounds like a Bond villain). Ledaig, “safe haven” in Gaelic, is handcrafted at the Tobermory Distillery, the only whisky production facility on the impossibly colorful Isle of Mull. The Ledaig 1996 19 Years Old is what is often referred to as a “peat bomb,” crackling with smoky goodness from sniff to finish. And bless the ole malt master’s heart for all the other wonderful things at play in this whisky—toffee and seaweed on the nose, with apple, orange, and black pepper mingling on the palate. Finishes long, with peaty embers glowing.
Glenfarclas 17 Year Old
Glenfarclas can be challenging to pronounce, especially after a dram or two, but don’t let that deter you from going for it. This classic Speyside whisky is worth twisting the tongue over. The rich amber-colored 17 is full-flavored and balanced, develops slowly, and brims with sweet malty notes and the intensely jammy flavor of a black mission fig—and with a touch of peat smoke and a hint of oak to boot. It combines the smoothness of the distillery’s younger whiskies with the depth of the older expressions.
The Glenlivet 18 Year Old
The Glenlivet’s master distiller Alan Winchester has made many fantastic whiskies over the years, none more significant or awarded than the 18 Year Old. Winchester shepherds this expression through several different cask types, including both first- and second-fill American oak (for tropical fruitiness) and ex-sherry oak (for spicy complexity). It’s an intense whisky, full of ripe citrus and winter spice flavor. The Glenlivet 18 has garnered virtually every award of note handed out in the spirits industry, and deservedly so. It may well be the most complete mass-market whisky of all.
Ardbeg Traigh Bhan Batch 2
This is the second annual bottling in a series that was launched in 2019 by the acclaimed Islay distillery. Islay, of course, is an island off Scotland’s west coast, famous for its peaty whiskies, and Traigh Bhan (pronounced tri-van) is the isle’s best-known beach. Smells like the sea, with notes of leather, eucalyptus oil and pine. Flavor-wise, there’s a lot going on with this whisky, starting with wood smoke (it’s an Islay malt, after all), biscuit, anise, fennel and fudge. Eventually, savory and smoke collide in a sharp, intense and satisfyingly lengthy finish.
The Glenfiddich 21 Year Old
The Glenfiddich distillery is synonymous with Speyside whisky, and this expression is ripe with the brand’s signature cereal grain and subtle oak notes. Ah, but malt master Brian Kinsman adds a sublime touch, finishing the 21 Year Old in Caribbean rum casks that rouse exotic fruit flavors such as mango, lime, and banana. Opens soft on the palate and then busts a move toward brisk and peppery, with smoke and ginger on a very long and warming finish.
The BenRiach Cask Strength Peated: Batch 2
Cask Strength Peated: Batch 2, the latest release from under-the-radar Speyside producer The BenRiach, is a single malt Scotch whisky that will test the intestinal fortitude of the heartiest hooch drinkers. Weighing in at a whopping 120.6% ABV, this husky dram is struck through with heavy smoke and wood flavor and dense vegetal notes. Think of the biggest, brightest bonfire you’ve ever seen, and then try to imagine all that white-hot intensity being bottled for consumption. Fortunately, with a bit of dilution, the whisky’s oomph abates. Adding just a few drops of water reveals all sorts of pleasantries on the palate including butterscotch, crème brûlée, apple and star anise. These more delicate attributes work in harmony with the peat smoke to really bring the whiskey into balance. Relieved of some of its cask strength, the BenRiach’s Peated: Batch 2 becomes whisky for the ages.
Glenmorangie Grand Vintage Malt 1991
The fourth limited release in Glenmorangie’s much-ballyhooed Bond House No. 1 Vintage collection, Grand Vintage Malt 1991 rates among Glenmorangie’s legendary director of distilling, Dr. Bill Lumsden’s finest achievements. Lumsden is a leading pioneer in wood finishing, and here he combines two vastly different whiskies to yield one damn tasty dram. One parcel, finished in Oloroso sherry casks, offers sweetness and spice, while the other, drawn from burgundy casks, delivers earthy, truffle notes. Opens with a burst of fruity flavors intermingled with chocolate, apples and raspberry. The mouthfeel is round and spicy, and the whisky finishes with a refreshing citrus zest. Named “Whisky of the Year” (97 points) and “Best Highland Single Malt” (97 points) at the esteemed 2019 International Whisky Competition.
Johnnie Walker Blue Label
Arguably the best-known premium blended Scotch in the world, to many a whisky lover Johnnie Walker Blue Label is like a favorite pair of Levi’s—comfortable, reliable and always in style. The folks at the House of Walker claim that only one out of every 10,000 casks in their stocks will make the cut for this blend, and many of those come from distilleries that are no longer in operation. So this is indeed a rare treat. Blue is soft and mellow, with sherry, honey and vanilla notes. One of the great sipping whiskies that have ever been, it’s best enjoyed neat right after a sip of ice-cold spring water.