This definitive guide to the best Scotch whiskies of 2020 explores everything you need to know about Scotland’s favorite brown spirit, including important terminology, a cheat sheet for each distilling region, and, of course, a list of the best bottles for sale at your local liquor store, and beyond.
The Short List
Best Overall Scotch: Lagavulin 16 Years Old
Need a crowd pleaser? Here’s your go-to bottle. Popularized by the character Ron Swanson in Parks and Recreation, this legendary bottle merges peat with campfire smoke. It’s aggressive and mouth-wateringly savory, like brisket on a hot summer day, and it is available in nearly every liquor store, duty free shop and self-respecting bar in America and abroad.
Price: $65 – $75
Best Scotch Under $50: Old Pulteney 12 Years Single Malt Scotch Whisky
Far at the northern end of the Highlands region is Old Pulteney, a distillery that popped up to satiate local fishing villages. This 12-year-old expression, which took home the gold at the 2018 San Francisco World Spirits Competition, is the perfect intersection of price and quality. It’s aged entirely in ex-bourbon barrels, so expect it to be sweet and briny, with vanilla from the wood.
Price: $40 – $50
Best Scotch Under $200: Highland Park 18 Year Old Viking Pride
Highland Park Distillery is based on the largest of the wild, peat-filled islands off of the northern tip of Scotland. Its brightly peated whisky sits in sherry-seasoned European oak casks and ages in the extremely mild climate of the islands, for a gentle maturation that hits its stride at 18 years. Ignore the eccentric variants and go straight for Highland Park’s classic 18-year expression. This whisky has too many awards to name, including being named Best Spirit in the World in Spirit Journal, twice.
Price: $145 – $160
How to Buy Scotch Whisky
Peated or unpeated? Sherry-cask aged, ex-bourbon cask aged or some combination of the two? The tweaks and variations that go into each bottle of Scotch are intimidating, especially for bourbon and rye drinkers who may not be accustomed to the price of a whiskey that’s been aged for 18 years or more.
We recommend thinking of each bottle of Scotch as falling somewhere along two spectrums: from light to rich; delicate to smoky. From there, it’s easy to move along those two spectrums to find bottles you like. Novices should start by exploring the regions of Scotland.
For starters, there are five Scotch regions: Speyside, Highlands, Islay, Lowlands and Campbeltown. While every distillery is unique, there are unofficial “regional styles” that can help cut out some of the noise when browsing a liquor store.
In general, bottles coming from Islay, such as Laphroaig and Ardbeg, are the smokiest. Whiskies from the Lowlands (like those from Auchentoshan and Glenkinchie) tend to be light and delicate. Speyside, to the east, with distilleries like The Macallan or The Balvenie, is known for whiskies with a delicate richness that doesn’t rely on peat — so, expect a lot of sherry and rum casks for aging. Meanwhile, distilleries from the Highlands, the largest region in Scotland, take cues from each of the other regions.
Scotch Terms You Should Know
Single Malt Scotch Whisky: This is whisky distilled at a single distillery using a pot still from a mash of malted barley. To be legally considered Scotch whisky, the whisky must be distilled in Scotland and aged in oak for at least three years on Scottish soil.
Single Grain Scotch Whisky: This is whisky distilled at a single distillery using a Coffey (or column) still from a mash of cereals, such as wheat, corn or rye, either malted or unmalted. The cereal mash and Coffey still produce light-bodied liquid using cost-efficient, industrial-scale distillation, meaning this whisky is most commonly used in blended scotch.
Blended Malt Scotch Whisky: This is whisky made by blending single malt Scotch whiskies from two or more distilleries.
Blended Grain Scotch Whisky: This is whisky made by blending single grain Scotch whiskies from two or more distilleries.
Blended Scotch Whisky: This is whisky made by blending one or more single malt Scotch whiskies and one or more single grain Scotch whiskies. While there is no standard ratio to blends, typically grain whisky lends an inexpensive body while malt whisky imparts unique flavors.
Independent Blenders or Bottlers: This is a third-party operator who buys casks of Scotch from distilleries and blends them together, creating unique and sometimes superior flavors to the original distillery. Brands like Signatory, Gordon Mccail, and The Scotch Malt Whisky Society are all top tier examples.
Best Islay Scotch Whiskies
Islay is a small island that’s believed to have played a major role in distilling crossing the sea from Ireland to Scotland in the 13th century. So, despite its small size, the area carries an outsized distilling resume, with heavies like Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg residing there. Expect peaty drams of some of the best whisky in the world.
Bruichladdich Port Charlotte 10
While Bruichladdich’s main lineup consists of unpeated Scotches, Port Charlotte is aggressively peated in a way that stinks up the room when you pour a dram. Bottled relatively young after spending 10 years in a mixture of first- and second-fill bourbon casks, and second-fill French wine casks, it’s an aggressive Scotch. And the 10 year statement is a huge upgrade from what was originally a no-age-statement offering.
Price: $65 – $75
Lagavulin 16 Years Old
Need a crowd pleaser? Here’s your go-to bottle. Popularized by the character Ron Swanson in Parks and Recreation, this legendary bottle merges peat with campfire smoke. It’s aggressive and mouth-wateringly savory, like brisket on a hot summer day.
Price: $65 – $75
Caol Ila Distillers Edition
Caol Ila, Islay’s largest distillery, is a go-to brand for easy, entry-level Scotch from the region. (It famously produces much of the Scotch for blending in Johnnie Walker expressions.) The story behind this edition is that the whisky was finished in barrels that once held Moscatel sherry wine, making for an extremely sweet barrel that balances the smoke and peat nicely.
Price: $70 – $80
Laphroaig 10 Cask Strength
If widely available, massively peated Scotch is what you desire, Laphroaig is your distillery. It’s the type of Scotch you can smell from across the bar. The 10-year expression bottled at cask strength is unadulterated Laphroaig and the best regular bottle in its lineup. Laphroaig’s Càirdeas series hits shelves every summer and it’s certainly worth checking out if you’re looking for a more-complex bottle.
Price: $80 – $90
Named for the famous whirlpool that lies to the north of Islay and winner of The World’s Best Single Malt in 2010 by the World Whiskies Awards, Corryvreckan is intense, non-chill-filtered experience of peat and pepper aged in virgin French Limousin oak. If you’re looking for more fruitiness than spice, another fantastic Ardbeg is Uigeadail, which substitutes virgin French Limousin oak for ex-Sherry casks and was named ‘World Whisky of the Year’ by Jim Murray’s 2009 Whisky Bible.
Price: $90 – $100
Bunnahabhain 18 Year Old
The Bunnahabhain Distillery was first founded at the mouth of Margadale Spring in 1881. Its 12-year-old expression premiered in 1979, and in 2006, as part of a rebrand, the 18 and 25 years were added to the lineup. The 18 is its most prefect bottle, having been upgraded from 40% to 46.3% ABV and bottled un-chillfiltered; it blends ex-sherry cask and ex-bourbon cask notes, with much, much less peat than other Islay examples.
Price: $120 – $130
Signatory Cask Strength Laphroaig
This will be nearly impossible to find, but this cask strength Signatory blend is included because any serious Scotch fan needs to explore the wonderful world of independent bottlers. This is 17-year-old Laphroaig juice blended in a limited run by Signatory, which, along with Gordon Mccail and The Scotch Malt Whisky Society, brings beautiful bottles of Scotch into the world, despite not distilling anything itself.
Best Campbeltown Scotch Whiskies
Campbeltown juts out toward Ireland from mainland Scotland; it’s a peninsula sandwiched between Islay to the west and the Lowlands to the east. Once home to 34 distilleries and considered the whisky capital of the world, a post-war economic downturn left the region with only a handful of active distilleries. In general, expect Campbeltown whiskey to be dry and pungent, with a peatiness that’s less smokey and meaty, like that found in Islay, and more earthy decay and fantastic funk.
Kilkerran 12 Year Old
The great-great nephew of William Mitchell, the founder of Glengyle Distillery, reopened his family’s distillery in 2004. The distillery had remained quiet since 1925, when it closed following an economic downturn, and August 2016 was the first time Glengyle’s new flagship hit shelves. Kilkerran 12 has since proved a worthy torchbearer, with light peat working off bright sherry and bourbon casks.
Price: $70 – $80
Springbank 12 Year Old
Springbank was founded in 1828 by Archibald Mitchell and today is owned by Mitchell’s great-great-great-grandson, making it one of the few independent distilleries trading blows with giants like Diageo. Beginning in 2010, the distillery releases it’s 12 year expression, which blends juice aged in bourbon and sherry cask, semi-annually at cask strength. It’s well worth grabbing a bottle when they hit shelves.
Price: $80 – $90
Longrow 18 Year Old
Longrow has been distilling Islay-style single malt at Springbreak since 1973. This is double-distilled and aged in bourbon and sherry barrels. These bottles are hard to come by, and carry a high price tag, but are worth picking up to explore Campbeltown’s take on peated Scotch.
Price: $180 – $190
Best Speyside Scotch Whiskies
Bisected from north to south by the River Spey, Speyside is a little pocket of land in the northeast of Scotland, surrounded on three sides by the Highlands and the North Sea. It’s home to the highest number of distilleries in Scotland, with well over 60 at present, including Glenfiddich, the world’s best-selling single malt Scotch. The region falls on the opposite side of the flavor spectrum (and map) from the peatiness of Islay. Because of this, Scotches from the region make great entry-level offerings.
The Balvenie DoubleWood 12 Year Old
The Balvenie is a great distillery. Like at Springbank, every phase of whisky production takes place at The Balvenie. Their core lineup is diverse enough to satisfy most palates, with bottles showcasing sherry, bourbon, port, and rum, and peat week releases that crank the smoke. And while other distilleries are removing age statements to cut corners, The Balvenie has been doubling down on incredible, aged offerings like Tun 1509, which releases yearly in small quantities and should be on your wishlist. The Balvenie DoubleWood is 12-year-old whisky that’s spent nine months in ex-Oloroso sherry casks and makes for a great intro to the distillery at a fabulous price.
Price: $50 – $60
The Glenlivet Nàdurra Peated Whisky Cask Finish
The Glenlivet is a name known everywhere. The Nàdurra line is named for the fact that it’s released non chill-filtered and at cask strength, or “natural.” While the rough cut Nàdurra is fantastic and the winner of Double Gold at the 2010 San Francisco World Spirits Competition, those who want a little more refinement should look no further than The Glenlivet 18.
Price: $80 – $90
Glenfarclas 17 Year Old
Glenfarclas is one of the few remaining family owned and operated distilleries in all of Scotland. Their core line-up is packaged without fuss or frills, making them a great value (Glenfarclas 12 is great for those on a budget) and the 17 year just gets it right. Matured exclusively in ex-Oloroso sherry casks, this has big butterscotch and sherried fruit, mix with a little peat smoke for an easy-drinking, reliable Scotch.
Price: $95 – $105
Glenfiddich Bourbon Barrel Reserve 14 Year Old
One of the newest Glenfiddich permanent releases, the 14 Year Bourbon Barrel Reserve is aged for 14 years in ex-bourbon casks before being transferred to first-fill, heavily-charred American oak barrels from Louisville, bringing more wood. The 43% ABV, as opposed to their standard 40%, fixes the wateriness (or smoothness, depending on your preference) and helps tip this as our go-to Glendfiddich bottle.
Price: $60 – $70
Aberlour 18 Year Old
Aberlour keeps things simple. Their core line-up consists of bottles of their Scotch aged 10, 16 and 18 years old, with A’bunadh representing their cask strength offering and occasional releases of 12 or 15 year old Scotch keeping things interesting. For our money, the 18 hits the sweet spot for an occasional dram.
Price: $160 – $170
The Macallan Sherry Oak 18 Years Old
Great Scotch? Yes. Smooth? Ridiculously? Overpriced? Definitely. The Macallan 18 Sherry is the perfect Scotch for non-Scotch drinkers. It’s difficult not to love it, but as a luxury Scotch bottle it isn’t designed to challenge you, but rather to open the door for anyone to enjoy what 18 years can do to transform whisky. It makes for a (really) nice gift, and is a showcase of what 18-year-old sherry-bombs can taste like, but the more adventurous should look elsewhere.
Best Highlands Scotch Whiskies
Under the official Scotch Whisky Association guidelines, the Highlands region is made up of all Scottish islands (except Islay) and the mainland of northern Scotland (except Speyside). Some consider the Islands (and distilleries like Arran) as their own unofficial region. The flavors of the Highlands are too diverse to pin down with a single broad stroke; the region is so big that it’s home to distilleries that represent the entire flavor spectrum. But in general, the north brings rich body and sweetness; the west brings rich body and peatiness; the south brings delicate drams with light body; and the east brings similar lightness with a touch more fruit.
Old Pulteney 12
Far at the northern end of The Highlands region is Old Pulteney, a distillery that popped to satiate local fishing villages. This 12 year old expression, which took home the gold at the 2018 San Francisco World Spirits Competition, is the perfect intersection of price and quality. Aged entirely in ex-bourbon barrels, expect it to be sweet and briny, with vanilla from the wood.
Price: $40 – $50
Ledaig comes from the Tobermory distillery in the northwest corner of the Isle of Mull, just a short hop across the water from the mainland Highlands. In contrast to Tobermory single malts, Ledaig is heavily peated and made in small batches. This un-chillfiltered bottle is a standout for the price, and a better value than the distillers more expensive, and more refined, Ledaig 18.
Price: $50 – $60
Glenmorangie Nectar d’Or
With few exceptions, since 1983 Glenmorangie has been the best selling single malt Scotch in the world. And for our money, the Nectar D’Or and the 18 year expressions are the best of the lot. The Nectar d’Or is Glenmorangie Original finished in Sauternes casks, a white dessert wine from Bordeaux, for an incredibly smooth and fruity Scotch at a great price. Pro tip: As of summer 2019, the Nectar D’Or swapped to a “no age statement” release. So if you see bottles with age statements (12 years), make sure to snap them up.
Price: $60 – $70
Talisker Distillers Edition
This yearly release is, for the price, among Talisker’s best. Of Highland’s distilleries, Talisker tends to bring high octane peat bombs, and if that’s where your heart lies I’d stick to Talisker 10, which is a fantastic, go-to bottle for entry-level smoke. But for those of us who want a bit more sherry sweetness, from the finishing months spent in Amoroso casks, this is a must.
Price: $75 – $85
Highland Park 18 Year Old Viking Pride
Highland Park Distillery is based on the largest of the wild, peat-filled islands off of the northern tip of Scotland. Their brightly peated whisky sits in sherry seasoned European oak casks and ages in the extremely mild climate of the islands, for a gentle maturation that hits its stride at 18 years. Ignore the eccentric variants and go straight for Highland Park’s classic 18-year expression. This whisky has too many awards to name, including being named Best Spirit in the World in Spirit Journal, twice.
Price: $145 – $160
Oban 18 Years Old
Oban is a port city in central Scotland, and its namesake distillery borrows a little of this and a little of that to produce an extremely well balanced Scotch that displays all the extremes of Scotland flavor. The distillery uses some of the smallest stills in Scotland, meaning that the 18 year release is a hard to find, limited-release, despite being a flagship product. This is a perfect starting point for those first wading into Scottish waters.
Price: $150 – $160
The GlenDronach Parliament Aged 21 Years
An early distillery founded in 1826, was one of the first licensed distilleries in Scotland and a pioneer of sherry cask maturation. While sticker shock might steer you toward their more economical and no less worthy 12-year-old bottle, the extra age on this bottle — 21 years in Oloroso and Pedro Ximenez sherry casks — is outstanding for special occasions. Located in the far east of Scotland, near the Ardmore Distillery, come expecting whisky that’s extremely rich, sweet, and fruit, but don’t expect much peat this far from Islay.
Best Lowlands Scotch Whiskies
Large in land but small in output, the Lowlands is home to only a handful of distilleries, with Auchentoshan and Glenkinchie being the most well-known. Traditionally, Lowland Scotch was triple distilled using unpeated malt for a light, simple sweetness. This simplicity lends the region to provide the base to many blends, though a few distilleries have been kicking out some peated options recently.
Glenkinchie 12 Years Old
For much of its history, Glenkenchie was producing the light-bodied Scotch typical of the Lowlands for use in blending. But in 1998, after changing hands to Diageo, the brand was selected to represent the Lowlands and the 12 year old expression hit shelves. This is a super easy-going Scotch, with delicate sweetness and little in the way of smoke, oak, or complexity.
Price: $55 – $65
Auchentoshan Three Wood
Auchentoshan is the only distillery to triple distill their Scotch, making for an extremely smooth, and a bit muted, Scotch. The three wood variation gets a bit more complexity from being aged in bourbon casks and finished in Oloroso then Pedro Ximénez casks. Expect some more fruit than the Auchentoshan 12.
Price: $65 – $75