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 more than £765,000 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. 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 (around £220)—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 (£40), 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 flavour 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 (around £60) 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 (£345) 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 flavours 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 flavour profile that straddles the smoky style of the Scottish islands and the livelier, more toothsome malts made in the Highlands. Oban 14 Years Old (£52) 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 (£295) 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.
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 (around £50). 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.
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 colourful Isle of Mull. The Ledaig 1996 19 Years Old (around £150) 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-coloured 17 (£65) is full-flavoured and balanced, develops slowly, and brims with sweet malty notes and the intensely jammy flavour 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 (around £145) 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 flavour. 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 (£80). 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 flavour. 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 (around £65) is a deep and turbulent force, swirling with intense flavours 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 (£110) in Caribbean rum casks that rouse exotic fruit flavours 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 GlenDronach Master Vintage 1993
Our friends over at Whisky magazine recently anointed The GlenDronach’s Rachel Barrie “Master Distiller of the Year” for 2020, and we second that laudation. At one of Scotland’s oldest licensed distilleries, Barrie and her team consistently turn out world-class drams such as The GlenDronach Master Vintage 1993 (£300). A sterling example of sherry cask aging and true Highland single malt style, Master Vintage 1993 (48.2% ABV) offers marzipan and toasted raisin bread on the nose, priming the palate for a delightful mélange of flavours including mocha latte, brioche and prune oil, brightened by a twist of baked orange rind.
The BenRiach Cask Strength Peated: Batch 2
Cask Strength Peated: Batch 2 (around £85), 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 flavour 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 (£595) 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 flavours 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 (£85) 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’s ever been, it’s best enjoyed neat right after a sip of ice-cold spring water.
Craigellachie 19 Years Old Single Cask
Part of parent company Bacardi Limited’s new Exceptional Cask Series, Craigellachie 19 Years Old Single Cask (around £150) is an extremely limited one-time-only release from a Speyside producer that’s been distilling since the 1800s but only recently got into the single malt game. While the majority of Speyside whiskies are known to be fruity and floral, Craigellachie is a bit of an outlier, crafting spirits that are rich and robust. The 19 Years Old was matured in second fill Sherry butt casks and offers creamy vanilla and malty sweetness, tinged with licorice and cinnamon notes. At 55.2% ABV this is a potent potable indeed.
Glen Grant 15 Year Old Batch Strength Single Malt Scotch Whisky
Back in the 6th century, the Arabs of Mesopotamia were distilling spirits from grapes for medicinal reasons and perfume. Celtic missionaries got a whiff of the stuff and summarily brought those distilling techniques to Scotland. So we have two diverse cultures to thank for the likes of Glen Grant 15 Year Old Batch Strength (around £60), legendary whisky expert Jim Murray’s 2018 Scotch of the year. The experience is pure joy from the fruity, dessert-like aromas, to the explosion of pear slices and vanilla on the palate. Behold, a 100-proof, autumn-gold beauty from a 180 year-old brand that continues to get better with age.
Pittyvaich 29 Year Old
Do you believe in ghosts? Well, one sip of this elusive liquid from a long-shuttered Dufftown distillery is sure to make you shudder. Pittyvaich was built in 1974 by Arthur Bell & Sons for the primary purpose of providing malt whisky for blends. The distillery was demolished in 2002. The Pittyvaich 29 Year Old (around £330) was double matured in Pedro Ximenez & Oloroso sherry seasoned bodega casks, and is the only such whisky the distillery ever produced. This just-released rarity is the stuff of collectors’ dreams—a never-again bottling of exceptional quality.