10 best single malt scotch whiskies you need to know about
Grab an antidote to the winter chill with a warming bottle from north of the border
We’ve narrowed the choice down to Scotch whiskies for this roundup, so each one here has been fermented, distilled and matured for at least three years then bottled in Scotland (among other rules) to be called Scotch.
Within this, there are whiskies that are straight sipping whiskies, to those suitable for mixing into a cocktail or bottles best for gifting – and that’s before we’ve even started on the various regional differences – so selecting one that’s right for you is important.
Kristiane Sherry, an author and editor at Master of Malt and a Wine and Spirit Education Trust spirits educator, explains how to get started: “Whatever you’re drinking should be about the flavour experience. Think about what you enjoy eating – do you have a sweet tooth or enjoy more savoury things? What about fruit or smoky flavours? Focus on flavour first – age, distillery and different styles can all be explored later.”
Single malt Scotch tends to be more flavour-forward, with whiskies highlighting the distilleries’ characters, but blended Scotch should not be overlooked. “There’s no reason at all why blended Scotch should be seen as inferior to single malt,” says Sherry. “The whisky-maker has so many more flavour and aroma options to choose from with blended; you might end up with an easier-sipping blend, or one that’s quite complex. They can also carry hefty age statements, too. Try Compass Box, Chivas Regal or Johnnie Walker.”
We stuck mostly to single malts for this test, with just a few special or popular blends thrown in for variation. We tried to keep the bottles mostly affordable: price is always a factor with Scotch due to the man-hours involved in production and the bottles we tried varied from under £20 to almost £200, though the sky’s the limit when it comes to the really expensive stuff.
We also looked to include a range of regions in our selection to please all palates: for example, Islay whiskies tend to be heavily peated according to Sherry, while Speysides are sweeter and fruitier, but this is not a hard and fast rule.
We assembled a mixed group of whisky fans and novices and tried more than 25 examples of Scotch to compile this shortlist. Each was sampled at room temperature straight up, then with any variations (water, ice, mixed) the brand had suggested. Below are the whiskies we rated.
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Benromach organic Speyside single malt: £37.84, Master of Malt
This organic Speyside single malt blew us all away even before we’d consulted the price. Matured in virgin oak casks, there is a cleanness and interesting lightness to this whisky. Everyone in the group loved the clear banana notes in this, which were well balanced against sweet malt, vanilla and a touch of pepper. The brand advised drinking with water, but we found it mellowed too much and preferred to take in the exciting tropical notes straight up. A hidden gem of a Scotch, and one that happily has environmental benefits thanks to its Soil Association certification. We’d hunt this out again for sure.
Lagavulin 2001 distillers edition Scotch: £87.95, The Whisky Exchange
Sherry highlighted this brand as one of her personal favourites and we’d agree. The smoothness was incredible, with a persistent honeyed sherry undertone (it’s finished in casks that previously held pedro ximenez, a white Spanish grape variety) and absolutely no burn. It’s a great all-rounder, with none of the group having anything negative to say about it, and a brilliant blend of classic Islay peat smoke and raisin-like dark sweetness. It also tasted more expensive – smooth, silky and complex – than many of the pricier bottles we tried.
Duncan Taylor Strathclyde premium octave 1990: £190, The Spirits Embassy
This is a seriously special whisky and all of our testers picked up on this, immediately identifying it as one of the most expensive bottles. Hailing from Aberdeenshire, Duncan Taylor is an independent bottler of Scotch renowned for owning the largest privately-held collections of aged Scotch, which they then transform using special “octave” casks for a second maturation. This new line of eight octave matured whiskies ranges from £190-£850 thanks to the rarity and age of the whisky (the eldest is a 48-year-old Port Dundas), with each boasting expanded flavour profiles thanks to being held in oloroso sherry barrels. This 28-year-old Strathclyde single malt is a big whack of a whisky, with bold diesel flavours and a seriously grown-up spiciness. There’s a developing sweetness and a smattering of dried fruits, finished by a hefty warmth. Just 70 bottles exist, so be quick if you’re keen.
Tomatin Highland single malt 14-year-old: £53.90, Regal Whisky
Highland whiskies are often characterised by their fruitcake sweetness and delicate heathery smoke and this is exactly what you get with this 14-year-old Tomatin. It’s matured in bourbon barrels and finished in tawny port casks, so there is a discernible smokey sweetness, but the overriding flavour is of honey, chocolate and toffee; our testers thought this was like a very sophisticated Werther’s Original and it’s true: the burnt caramel flavour is big here, though there’s still an amount of fire. We’d drink it as an after-dinner drink and enjoy it tremendously.
Johnnie Walker Black Label 12-year-old whisky: £22.50 instead of £30, Tesco
One of the world’s best-selling whiskies, Johnnie Walker Black Label is a well known blended Scotch that deserves a place in most drinks cabinets thanks to its versatility. Using around 30 west coast and mainland malts and grains, this is a fruity easy-drinking basic whisky that does the trick with a bit of ice or in cocktails. We found it lacked complexity and interest straight up compared with most of the others we tested, but the balanced mix of peat and vanilla with a touch of smoke is great in mixed drinks: we like it in a peach highball.
Chivas Regal Ultis victory editions 1999: £199, The Whisky Exchange
Here is a blended whisky worthy of a mention – for Manchester United fans in particular – as three single malts have been expertly blended by Chivas to create a celebratory dram in honour of the treble-winning team. The bottle is the draw here, though the whisky went down well too, with its smooth delivery and spicy Speyside notes of ginger, cinnamon and citrus that made for quite an unusual dram. It’s perhaps not the whisky to drop £200 on unless you’re a committed Man U supporter, but even apathetic drinkers will appreciate Chivas’ masterful blending.
Wolfburn Aurora single malt whisky: £37.95, House of Malt
This was an interesting one from the most northerly distillery on the mainland, and aptly named. It’s aged in ex-bourbon and oloroso casks so the aroma and initial tasting notes are very fruit-forward with lots of sweet, dried autumnal apple, raisin and almond flavours, but then wow – a fiery assault on the senses takes place – very much like a wolf in sheep’s clothing. This is a Christmas cake of a whisky, if that Christmas cake were steeped in an awful lot of seriously spicy single malt Scotch. Brilliant value for such a characterful whisky and nice to look at too.
Smokehead sherry bomb: £56.90, Regal Whisky
This divided opinion among our testers, with half of them raving about the full-on smokiness and the other half overwhelmed by the fumes. An insanely peaty, smokey Islay single malt matured in oloroso casks for an undisclosed amount of time, there is a good dose of sweet, sticky sherry, clove and dried fruit to be found if you can get past the BBQ-levels of smoke. A powerful sipping whisky that also easily holds its own in mixed drinks and cocktails.
Speyside single malt 12-year-old: £30, M&S
This is a crowd-pleasing delicious Speyside single malt from M&S that had a lovely lightness and subtle sweet flavour that all of our testers said they enjoyed. There’s nothing surprising in this whisky other than how approachable it is, with plenty of gentle cinnamon and allspice that goes over into a luxurious creamy texture. We found it to be great value and agreed it would make a good gift for any Scotch fan.
Glenrothes Speyside single malt 18-year-old: £100, The Whisky Exchange
We tried this 18-year-old Speyside against the 10-year-old version, which is around a third of the price, and cannot emphasise enough how much the higher price tag is warranted. The younger whisky was light and simplistic, whereas a further eight years spent in first-fill sherry casks makes for a far more characterful glass. The colour is deep and appealing (though Glenrothes don’t add any colours like most) and smells fantastic, like a light fruitcake. We got almonds, pears and spice on the tasting notes, but it’s so complex and rounded you could keep going for a while.
Glen Marnoch Islay single malt Scotch whisky: £17.49, Aldi
This Aldi bargain bottle is a prime example of an Islay single malt that does what it says on the tin: it’s extremely peaty and you really get the taste of the sea in there too with a salty sweetness and herbal seaweed notes. It’s smokey in a mellow way and easy to see how this has picked up a few awards over the years. It tastes at least three times the price it is.
The Single Malt Collection whisky discovery pack by John Dewar & Sons: £40, Amazon
Anyone looking for an introduction to single malts could do worse than pick up this boxed trio from John Dewar & Sons. The selection starts you off with 200ml each of 12-year-old Aberfeldy (oaky, honeyed spice), 12-year-old Aultmore (light and herbal) and 13-year-old Craigellachie (robust, malty).
The verdict: single malt Scotch whiskies
We’ve tried some exceptional whiskies over the course of this test but two examples really stood heads and shoulders above the rest: the Benromach organic Speyside was interesting, exciting and stood up to some of the far more expensive Scotch, so this is our hands-down winner.
It’s closely followed by the 2001 Lagavulin, which just oozed luxury and again was good value at around £87 – we thought it would cost double. For a bargain “everyday” whisky, Aldi’s Glen Marnoch is your one.
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