People get hung up on the word “best,” especially when that word comes attached to a phrase like “20 Best Whiskies You Can Buy Right Now.” You can practically hear the protests already—“But if there are 20 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.
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 ($288)—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 ($55), 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.
Highland Park Odin
Released in 2015, Odin ($350) outmuscled Freya, Loki, and Thor as “Top God” in Highland Park’s Valhalla Collection, commemorating the Orkney-based distillery’s Norse heritage. Aged 16 years in a combination of first-fill sherry casks and refill hogsheads, it’s a robust whisky imbued with Highland Park’s trademark dense fruitiness, tinged with a subtle peaty component. There are other tasty treats in the mix, as well, including toasted walnuts and baking and wood spices. It’s rich and chewy and drinks like a meal. An estimable dram tailored to fit serious scotch drinkers. Bottled at 111.6 proof, it’s the highest proof of any Highland Park release.
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 cask to cask. Truly a game changer in the whisky world, Aberlour A’Bunadh ($100) has commanded a cult-like following since it was introduced in 1997.
The Dalmore 15 Year Old
With its emphasis on rich chocolate and orange notes resulting from sherry-cask aging, the Dalmore 15 ($125) is the epitome of this Highland producer’s house style. In this case, the liquid is split between three barrel types for aging, all culled from one of Spain’s most well-known sherry bodegas, González Byass, purveyor of Tío Pepe Fino Sherry. The Dalmore 15 presents a host of felicific flavors, including cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla, and green apple. It’s a holiday party in a snifter. A stroll through a field of pine trees in December. A whisky that feels like a joyous homecoming.
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 ($700) 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.
Talisker 10 Year Old
This briny beauty is a classic island whisky from the oldest distillery on Skye, founded in 1830 on the south shore of Loch Harport, a gorgeous area that yields beautiful whisky. The nose on Talisker 10 ($50) opens with a surge of peat smoke followed by hints of salty seawater and citrus. With a full-bodied and rich mouthfeel, it’s a whisky that offers considerable warmth. The flavor profile is highlighted by dried-fruit sweetness, smoke, and cereal grains. Pepper has a go at the back of the tongue, producing a long finish that strikes a balance between sweet and spicy.
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 ($75) 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.
Bruichladdich Black Art 1990, Edition 6.1
The sixth commercially available version of this mythic whisky is an unpeated Islay malt aged 26 years in cask types Bruichladdich prefers to keep secret. What is manifest, though, is that Black Art ($350) is an exceptionally rare and unique dram. The aromas are plentiful, among them raisin, apple, blackberry jam, brown sugar, and charred oak. The vitality of the oak and the fruit is sensational. It’s a whisky that twists and changes constantly. Mysterious and inscrutable, it delivers an assortment of tastes that surprise and delight, from honeycomb to ginger-nut biscuits to tobacco. It is non-chill-filtered and bottled at a cask strength of 93.2 proof.
Bowmore 15 Year Old
Located along the shores of Loch Indaal, Bowmore holds the distinction of being the oldest licensed distillery on Islay. At 15 years old, though, the finest whisky in the portfolio is just a pup. Bowmore’s centuries-old stone warehouse, the No. 1 Vaults, famously begets whisky of impeccable balance, complexity, and beauty, as exemplified by the 15 Year Old expression ($76). Breathe in and delight in aromas of toffee, ripe berries, and charred oak. Savor the brininess on the tongue and the taste of pineapple dipped in chocolate, seasoned with salt. And, of course, the whole blessed deal is enwreathed in Islay’s signature smoke.
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 ($90). 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.
What makes this whisky such a standout is a singular stroke of genius by master distiller Bill Lumsden—marrying barley with chocolate malt to produce the mash. The designer casks made bespoke for Glenmorangie from American white oak play a key role, as well. Signet ($200), the richest whisky in the brand’s expansive portfolio, smells of plum pudding and fresh coffee. The palate leads with sweet vanilla icing and then pivots to sizzling spices, lemon, and bitter mocha. The dramatic swing can be momentarily bewildering, but in the funnest, wiliest, whiskiest way possible.
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 ($200) 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 ($94) 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.
Old Pulteney 21 Year Old
Old Pulteney, which was founded in 1826, is located way up in the Scottish Highlands near the royal burgh of Wick, making it the most northerly whisky-making facility on the Scottish mainland. Old Pulteney is known as “the Maritime Malt,” and the 21 Year Old ($190) certainly has its sea legs . . . er, sea mouth, as evidenced by its fish-oil-like texture and prominent briny notes. The bulk of the spirit that goes into the final blend was aged in ex-oloroso sherry casks, imbuing the whisky with rich toffee and vanilla flavor. There are biscuits, dates, and baked apple in the mix, as well, with smoke and a hint of iodine on the lingering finish.
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 ($120). 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.
This whisky takes its name from a famous whirlpool that lies to the north of Islay, where swimming is definitely not encouraged. Like its namesake, the Corryvreckan single malt ($95) is a deep and turbulent force, swirling with intense flavors such as vanilla, bacon, blueberry, and black tarry espresso that coat the palate with rich, melted, dark fruits. The finish is long and powerful and delivers chocolate-coated cherries and hot pepper sauce. Awarded The World’s Best Single Malt in 2010 by the World Whiskies Awards.
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 ($200) 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.
Craigellachie 23 Year Old
Craigellachie was founded in 1891 but only recently entered the single-malt market with this powerhouse whisky, which won the Best in Show prize in 2015 at the prestigious San Francisco World Spirits Competition. Craigellachie 23 Year Old ($300) has the fresh tropical fruit flavor you’d expect from a Speyside whisky, complemented by toasted oak and a zing of menthol freshness. And there’s pineapple, too. Delicious pineapple.
The GlenDronach Single Cask 1990 #2257, Aged 27 Years
This limited-edition single malt from the esteemed Highlands producer was released in 2018 and became an instant classic in the offhand opinion of at least one whisky-soaked observer (ahem!). The GlenDronach Single Cask 1990 ($1,100) spent more than a quarter century resting inside a sherry butt, which was as consequential to the flavor profile as it is funny to say out loud. The sherry wood imparted nuttiness and dark fruit flavor. Time imbued the spirit with intensity. And make no mistake, this is a heavy-duty dram. Afford it the respect it deserves, or be prepared to pay a steep toll the next morning.