The best Scotch whisky for Burns Night and beyond
Read our expert guide to the best whisky Scotland has to offer for every occasion, from Burns Night to first footing. Whether it’s supermarket bargains or the best of independent distilleries, our Scotch taste tests include single malts and more.
The world of Scotch whisky is varied and occasionally intimidating, ranging from the light and heathery to the smoky and medicinal, with a huge gamut in-between. While a lot of distilleries were closed down or mothballed in the 1980s and 1990s, there has been a recent Scotch whisky revival. Some exciting new entrants are rubbing shoulders with distilleries centuries old to produce this illustrious spirit drink, rivalled only by fine wine for depth.
Here is an introductory stroll through our choice of the best Scottish whisky – perfect for drinking with your haggis, neeps and tatties on Burns Night. We’ve included a range of price points from £30-80 a bottle, as well as styles, so whether you’re new to the world of Scotch or know exactly what you like, we’ve got a regional spirit for everybody.
All the Scotch whiskies below have been chosen and tested by our drinks expert Richard Davie. Richard is a writer, barman and brewer with roots in home-brewing. He co-wrote The Art of Drinking Sober with Miriam Nice. When he’s not making his own beer and cocktails, Richard works at award-winning micro pub The Beer Shop. He has previously written round-ups of the best Irish whiskey and best Japanese whisky for BBC Good Food.
The best Scotch whisky to buy at a glance
- Best gentle Scotch: Glenkinchie 12 year old, £40.99
- Best young Scotch: Wolfburn Northland, £45.91
- Best peat Scotch: Highland Park 12 year old, £32.99
- Best classic Scotch: Benromach 10 year old, £40.99
- Best smoky whisky: Ardbeg 10 year old, £47
- Best long aged whisky: Lagavulin 16 year old, £69.55
- Best independent whisky: Gordon & MacPhail Discovery Miltonduff 10 year old, £50.95
- Best Scotch whisky for beginners: Caol Ila 12 year old, £38.80
- Best grain whisky: Raasay & Borders Distillers The Tweeddale Grain Of Truth, £51.95
- Best Scotch whisky for an accessible Speyside: GlenAllachie 15 Year Old, £67.94
The best Scotch whisky to buy 2023
Glenkinchie 12 year old
Best gentle Scotch
Glenkinchie, owned by Diageo, is based just a few miles outside Edinburgh, and is one of the lightest of the Lowland whiskies, a region given to gentle, delicate drams. There are only a few distilleries left in the area, but Glenkinchie, a stalwart producer of whisky even during World War II, is now Diageo’s sole representative from the region.
The nose is light and gentle, with flavours of barley and grain, fresh hay and lemon coming across the pale malt sweetness. It drinks very easily, with a prickle of heat, ginger and cinnamon, and comes to an easy finish, still with lemon notes and a little dryness.
This is a very gentle Scotch with a couple of touches that keep it interesting. For a spirit so light, it responds well to a little water to ease the heat and open up the lemon notes.
Best young Scotch
Young whiskies are often fiery. The Northland manages that tendency magnificently, with a far greater smoothness and complexity than you’d expect for its age.
There’s no age statement on Wolfburn Aurora, but it certainly has the feel of a young whisky, with a fresh, light nose giving off a touch of green apple and grass, a little smoke and sea air. It drinks light and dry, with a restrained complexity.
Grounded by nut and a chocolate/coffee hint nestling under the fresh flavours that roll on from the aroma, the lightness and youth is balanced by a hint of fudge and grape. A gentle finish accentuates the smoke, while revealing a quiet sweetness.
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If you want to lean into the smoke, Wolfburn Morven is lightly peated, without losing the relatively youthful freshness.
Highland Park 12 year old
Best peat Scotch
With a greater northerliness than even Wolfburn, Highland Park comes from Orkney and claims a history dating back to 1798. The distillery still has its own floor malting (a traditional process where the grain germinates on a concrete floor) and uses local peat, which gives its whiskies part of the character for which it’s famous.
The 12-year-old is the mainstay of the range, and the nose is balanced and medium bodied. There’s an apple note redolent of calvados, with raisins, a suggestion of leather and vanilla-led spices to fill it out. Light smokiness and a hint of briney air intermingle.
To drink, it continues to be balanced, dryish with the smoke and brine covering a malt sweetness that emerges at the end, and a slight nuttiness under the bonfire notes on the short finish. Beautifully balanced and a great introduction to peat Scotch, this is tremendous whisky, even before you get to the competitive price.
Benromach 10 year old
Best classic Scotch
Mothballed for long stretches by one of Diageo’s precursors, before being reopened by independent bottlers Gordon & MacPhail in 1998, Benromach has expanded in the last twenty years from just two distillers to a small team today. It currently pitches itself as reviving the authentic taste of Speyside by bringing a light and, it is claimed, historically accurate peat note, to the refined spirits of the region.
A slightly buttery malt nose, with toffee, touches of green apple and liquorice with a light waft of smoke. The Benromach 10 year old drinks deceptively easily, with spicy pepper, light sweet malt and more toffee notes, the bonfire air restrained and entwined with cardamom.
The higher peat levels are a joyous union with Speyside's traditional refinement. If you’re looking for extra oomph, the Benromach 100° Proof has a ‘more is more’ approach, which, interestingly, brings down the smoke notes.
Ardbeg 10 year old
Best smoky whisky
While Ardbeg is another distillery that’s seen a few ups and downs in its 200-year history, it’s hard to believe that its doors were closed as recently as the 1990s. Along with Highland Park, this is an iconic Scotch whisky, and the Ardbeg 10 year old is a great, if bracing, introduction to the distinctive peat and sea air characteristics of Islay whiskies.
A peat nose verges towards coal smoke, with softening vanilla and some citrus. Pepper and even soap tuck in among them. To drink, the body is rich and smooth – a soft, light caramel malt sweetness before that peat barrels in. The vanilla adds a counterpoint and keeps it from pure liquid smoke, even as the soft malt reveals layers of coffee, liquorice root and pepper. A rich mouthfeel contributes to a long finish, with more of that savoury smoke, plus a hint of toasted sugar.
Lagavulin 16 year old
Best long-aged whisky
Another iconic Islay whisky, and one that doesn’t stint on the peat smoke heft, the Lagavulin 16 year old has a large and very devoted following. While an 8 year old has recently been added to the permanent range (and is very good), the additional body and refinement of the 16 makes it the Lagavulin to start with.
As with the Ardbeg, it has a big peat smoke nose and is just as intense, but here it pushes lapsang souchong and brine, while throttling back the bonfire. Vanilla adds a creamy note, along with bay leaf, even as the smoke and brine swirls around it.
As you sip it, that peat comes straight onto the tongue, with the sweetness the smokes brings sitting alongside a slightly salty iodine. A full malt body slowly reveals itself, as well as a woody dryness and more spice. A long, spicy, sweet smoke finish revives the lapsang souchong air.
Gordon & MacPhail Discovery Miltonduff 10 year old
Best independent whisky
Beyond the big distilleries is a thriving group of independent bottlers (to muddy the waters, some of them have distilleries, but still), whose skill lies in buying new-make spirits directly from distilleries, then ageing and bottling themselves. Some, like Gordon & MacPhail, even send their own carefully considered casks to be filled at the distillery.
Done well, independent bottlings offer quality, value, and the unexpected from distilleries you thought you knew. This particular bottling is from Miltonduff, a distillery that mainly goes into Ballantines’ blends and is rarely regarded as a single malt.
The nose is very rich. Soft cocoa, stewed raisins, spicy rum, sweet malt and a nutty hint at the edges. When you drink it, there’s a little aggression at the beginning, but that richness quickly reasserts itself, with fruitcake notes, more of the sherry, oaky vanilla and fig. It finishes with nut, oak woodiness and cinnamon spice, adding complexity and dryness to a whisky that might otherwise tip into excessive opulence.
Caol Ila 12 year old
Best Scotch whisky for beginners
Caol Ila has spent a large part of its history largely producing fodder for blending, though its owners Diageo spotted an opportunity and started releasing under its own name in 2002. Although the measurable peat quantities are as high as Lagavulin, it’s an easier-going Islay, one to help you get your head around all that smoke and salt aficionados so enjoy.
A sniff reveals both full and delicate peat smoke, with sweetness and a light element of brine, possibly even samphire. On drinking, there’s an oiliness too, which follows along. There’s a lovely full, clean mouthfeel, guiding the sweetness, while the peat smoke follows after, filling out the space.
Fruity notes with a melon juiciness bring variety to the sweetness, and that strangely easy, oily body fades into a long smoky finish and longer sweet edge. An Islay that doesn’t overwhelm may seem like faint praise, but not everyone is after a bruiser, and when the elements are as well arranged as this, why deny the appeal?
Raasay & Borders Distillers The Tweeddale Grain Of Truth
Best grain whisky
Tweeddale’s Grain of Truth is a bold attempt to reclaim the notion of grain whisky as a term to be used with pride. While the other whiskies in this article are single malt (that is, from a single distillery and made only with malted barley), grain whisky can include other grains, such as wheat, rye or oats, malted or unmalted. Grain whisky normally has a lighter body, and that lightness usually pushes it to blends, rather than to being used in its own right.
Here though, a grain whisky is the star. A grist of 50% barley and 50% wheat, matured in bourbon barrels and finished in oloroso sherry hogshead casks, this has an unexpected fullness, with a rich fruity nose. Vanilla and candy floss mingle with a clean, almost menthol quality. Very smooth, with an edge of the alcohol presenting itself at 46%, plus titbits of ginger biscuits and hazelnut poking through. It finishes cleanly, with the spice and hint of tannins of oak.
Rich, but sidestepping the heft of many single malts, Grain of Truth also sits very neatly in cocktails like a bobby burns, or in the place of bourbon in a boulevardier.
The GlenAllachie 15 Year Old
Best Scotch whisky for an accessible Speyside
While the The GlenAllachie, built in the late 1960s, lacks the heritage of some of its older Speyside neighbours, the distillery has seen a revival in the last few years. Taken on by the feted master distiller and blender Billy Walker in 2017, it has started putting out a fuller, fruitier spirit than before, with the 15 year old a great example.
Bottled at 46%, with no chill filtering, it has a rich chestnut glow in the glass. The nose is full and complex, without being heavy – dried fruit, honey, baked quince, cinnamon, nutmeg and a hint of frangipane. On the palate, dried figs, chocolate and vanilla emerge on a full mouthfeel, as well as a dark sugar sweetness that avoids being sticky. It finishes lightly, a whisper of smoke and the spices and fruit lingering for a few seconds.
A note on whisky miniatures...
If diving in and picking up a whole bottle seems intimidating, many specialist whisky retailers offer double measure bottlings (50ml) at a commensurate price. Drinks by the Dram offer many excellent small measure sets you can experiment with.
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This review was last updated in October 2022. If you have any questions, suggestions for future reviews or spot anything that has changed in price or availability please get in touch at email@example.com.
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