Scotch whisky is a varied and occasionally intimidating world, 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 into the 80s and 90s, there has been a Scotch whisky revival in the last couple of decades.
Some exciting new entrants are rubbing shoulders with distilleries centuries old to make this illustrious spirit, rivalled only by fine wine, for depth.
Here is an introductory stroll through what whisky has to offer and our choice of the best Scotch whisky. For more drinks product reviews, see our buyer’s guides to craft whisky, classic whisky, bourbon and much more.
The best Scotch whisky to buy
1. Glenkinchie 12 year old (43% ABV)
Glenkinchie, owned by Diageo, is based just a few miles outside Edinburgh, and is seen as one of the lightest of the Lowland whiskies, a region given to gentle, delicate drams. There aren’t that many distilleries left in the region, but Glenkinchie has proven a stalwart producer of whisky even during World War II, and 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 something so light, it responds well to a little water to ease the heat and open up the lemon notes.
2. Wolfburn Northland (46% ABV)
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, and 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, it balances the lightness and youth with a hint of fudge and grape. A gentle finish accentuates the smoke, while revealing a quiet sweetness.
Young whiskies are often fiery. The Northland manages that tendency magnificently, with a far greater smoothness and complexity than you’d expect for the age. If you want to lean into the smoke, their Morven is lightly peated, without losing the freshness of the relatively young spirit.
3. Highland Park 12 year old 40%
With a greater northerliness than even Wolfburn, Highland Park comes from Orkney and claims a history dating back to 1798. They still have their own floor malting (a traditional process where the grain germinates on a concrete floor) and use local peat, which gives their whiskies part of the character for which they’re famous.
The 12-year-old is the mainstay of their 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 filling it out. Light smokiness and a hint of briney air intermingle.
To drink, it continues 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 price.
4. Lidl Abrachan Triple Barrel (42% ABV)
Available from: Lidl (£17.49).
Lidl has been making a noise in the world of spirits for a few years by bringing their ruthless pricing to drinks like Scotch whisky, which have in general become noticeably more expensive over the last decade.
Abrachan, a blended malt whisky, sits at the same price point as their Islay, Highland and Speyside single malts (all of which are also very decent for the price), and is comprised of whiskies aged in oloroso sherry butts, bourbon barrels and tawny port pipes.
A rich nose, with hints of the sherry and port. Full and malty with blackberry aroma and a peachy note. It drinks easily, despite that full-bodied character, with caramel and more fruit, before a lightly tannic dryness ushers in a quick finish.
This may not compete on complexity with some of the other entries, but it’s still a very pleasing drop at a fraction of the price, and a great reminder that blended Scotch doesn’t need to be second best.
5. Benromach 10 year old (43% ABV)
Mothballed for long stretches by one of Diageo’s precursors, before being revived by independent bottlers Gordon & MacPhail and reopened 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 supposedly historically accurate, peat note to the refined spirits of the region.
A slightly buttery malt nose, with toffee, touches of green apple and liquorice and an light waft of smoke. The Benromach 10 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 refinement. If you’re looking for extra oomph, the Benromach 100° Proof has a ‘more is more’ approach, which, interestingly, brings the smoke notes down in the mix.
6. Ardbeg 10 year old (46% ABV)
While Ardbeg is another distillery that’s seen a few ups and downs in its 200-year-old history, it seems nearly impossible that this was closed as recently as the 90s. 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 that verges towards coal smoke, with softening vanilla and some citrus. Pepper and even soap tuck in amongst them. To drink, the body is rich and smooth, a soft, light caramel malt sweetness before that peat barrels along. 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 long finish, with more of that savoury smoke and a hint of toasted sugar.
7. Lagavulin 16 year old (43% ABV)
Another iconic Islay whisky, and also one that doesn’t stint on the peat smoke heft, the Lagauvulin 16 year old has a large and very devoted following. While an eight-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 just as intense, but here it pushes lapsang souchong and brine, while throttling back the bonfire somewhat. 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 that smokes brings alongside slight iodine. A full malt body underneath reveals itself, along with a woody dryness and more spice. A long, spicy sweet smoke finish revives the lapsang souchong air.
8. Gordon & MacPhail Discovery Miltonduff 10 year old (43% ABV)
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 seen as a single malt.
The nose is very rich. Soft cocoa, stewed raisins, spicy rum, sweet malt and a nutty hint at the edges. There’s a little aggression at the beginning when you drink it, but that richness 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 opulence.
9. Caol Ila 12 year old (43% ABV)
Caol Ila has spent a large part of its history largely producing fodder for blending, though owners Diageo spotted an opportunity and started releasing bottle under its own name in 2002. Although measurable peat quantities are as high as Lagavulin, it has a reputation as an easier-going Islay, one to help you get your head around all that smoke and salt that aficionados so enjoy.
A sniff reveals both full and delicate peat smoke, with sweetness and a light element of brine, possibly even samphire. There’s an oiliness too, and this follows along when drunk. There’s a lovely full, clean mouthfeel, guiding the sweetness along and the peat smoke follows after, filling out the space.
Fruity notes with a melon juiciness gives 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 its appeal?
10. Raasay & Borders Distillers The Tweeddale Grain Of Truth (46% ABV)
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 rest of the whiskies in this article are single malt whiskies (that is, from a single distillery and made only with malted barley), grain whisky can have other grains, such as wheat, rye or oats, malted or unmalted. Grain whisky normally has a lighter body, and that lightness usually sees it go into blends, rather than use it 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 hogsheads, this has a unexpected fullness, with a rich fruity nose. Vanilla and candy floss mingle with a clean, almost menthol edge. Very smooth, with an edge of the alcohol presenting itself at 46%, tidbits of ginger biscuits and hazelnut poking through. It finishes cleanly, with the spice and hint of tannin 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.
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 with which to dip your toes in.
The best drinks, taste tested
This review was last updated in January 2021. If you have any questions, suggestions for future reviews or spot anything that has changed in price or availability please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What do you think of our selection of best Scotch whisky? Do you have a favourite bottle to recommend? We’d love to hear your product suggestions in the comments below…