Vodka may be the most widely sold spirit in the world, but by far the most refined and sophisticated liquor is Scotch.
“Aqua vitae” (the “water of life”), whisky has been in production for well over 500 years in Scotland and Ireland. Our pick for the best Scotch whisky is Caol Ila 15 Year. Though Islay Scotch generally features smoky peaty flavors, the Caol Ila is unique in the relative lack of peat used in production, which makes for subtle and nuanced flavor and aroma profiles.
Scotch is… well, it’s about as Scottish as it gets. Though it’s uncertain whether whisky distillation began in Ireland or Scotland, there is simply no denying that the Scots have taken this spirit and made it their own. Originally made from malted barley and water, today you can also enjoy grain whiskies as well as blended options, which many drinkers like because they are easier to consume.
The #1 export of Scotland, Scotch is comprised of complex flavors and aromas—and steeped in tradition. There are several different types of Scotch, made in five different regions, all of which have a slightly different take on Scotland’s favorite drink. With so many options, it is tough to know where to start when deciding which Scotch is going to please your palate.
Never fear, we are here to help! To find the best Scotch, we embarked on a rigorous research program that included reading and listening to numerous industry experts, mixologists, and Scotch lovers from around the world. Then, we tried the products ourselves—a perk of the job! And all this led us to develop our list of the best Scotch whiskies, which we offer here for your enjoyment!
Humankind has had a long love affair with alcohol. In fact, according to some researchers, alcohol of one sort or another has been a component of some of the key moments in human evolutionary and cultural history. That’s right—before we learned how to write, we were enjoying a drink of liquid courage.
The earliest indication of the creation of alcoholic beverages is around 7000 BCE in China. Different forms of wine came first, since the process of fermentation was relatively easy to accomplish.
It wasn’t until much later that the technique of distillation was paired with the creation of alcohol, which made it possible to create higher-alcohol-content spirits. The earliest recorded attempts to distill alcohol were actually with wine in the medieval period, and more than likely the purpose was medicinal.
The “water of life” was the name given to distilled wine and is the basis of what would later become hard liquor or alcohol. It was a commonly distilled spirit in Europe. Both the words whisky and vodka are etymological derivations of the word. The term “whisky” comes from the Gaelic term uisce beatha.
It is unclear exactly where whisky distillation began, with Ireland and Scotland laying claim to the process. The earliest written evidence points to the 15th century as a period when whisky production had been firmly entrenched, both in Ireland and Scotland.
The earliest mention for Scotland is found in an entry in the Exchequer Rolls of Scotland, dated June 1, 1495. The entry refers to a large quantity of malt that was to be sent to Friar John Cor so that he could make “aqua vitae.”
It took some time, but before long, “aqua vitae” was transformed into Scotch. Early on, Scotch was made from malted barley and was the preserve of the church. When the monasteries were dissolved by King Henry VIII, the monks were dispersed into the general public taking their knowledge of whisky production with them.
This early spirit was not aged and tended to have a very rough taste—as well as serious potency.
By law, for a spirit to qualify as a Scotch whisky today it must be aged in an oak barrel for at least 3 years. But this process only started in the 19th century. The process was improved by the late-19th century practice of storing Scotch in used Spanish sherry casks—a practice that emerged as an accident of history.
It was really the result of the Great French Wine Blight, which wiped out the wine industry in the late 19th century. When this happened, the British aristocracy turned to sherry as a drink of choice and as the sherry was consumed, it left numerous empty barrels which could be used to store whisky.
The Scots noticed the improvement of, as well as the growing demand for, their spirits and began the process of aging their whisky so as to recreate what had originally happened by accident.
It was also around this time that distillers began to offer whisky made from wheat and rye.
Types of Scotch
Broadly speaking, there are three types of Scotch. Single malt Scotch refers to a spirit produced in a single distillery, using only water and malted barley and distilled using a pot still. Single grain Scotch refers to a spirit made using other grains, like wheat or rye, in addition to malted barley and water, which is also produced in a “single” distillery.
The third type—which for some Scotch experts isn’t really a type at all—is blended Scotch. There are three general types of blended Scotch: blended malt Scotch, blended grain Scotch, and blended Scotch. Both blended malt and blended grain Scotch refer to the practice of blending together malt or grain whiskies from different distilleries.
The last type—blended Scotch—refers to the practice of blending together malted and grain whiskies to produce a single spirit.
Under UK law, all bottles of Scotch are required to indicate the type of Scotch in the bottle, the age, bottling, and producer. Bottles of Scotch that do not list an age are still required to have been aged at least 3 years to qualify as a Scotch.
In addition to the different types of Scotch listed above are regional differences. Though Scotland is traditionally divided into four regions, there are five generally recognized regions for Scotch production, each with its own unique history and quality, and producing their own unique types of Scotch.
Those regions are the Lowlands, Speyside, the Highlands, Campbeltown, and the isle of Islay.
Deciding which type of Scotch most appeals to your palate is part of the fun of enjoying a wee dram from time to time. Slàinte mhath! To your good health!
Our rankings were developed through extensive study and analysis of meta-data from several trusted review sites, as well as conducting numerous hours of online research listening to and reading reviews by various industry insiders, mixologists, and folks who love to kick back with a glass of Scotch. After collating our research, we developed a list of the best Scotch whisky.
Our efforts led us to consider the following categories as essential for shaping our rankings:
- Flavor: No one wants a bad tasting spirit—especially if they are going to spend decent money on it!
- Aging Process: The length of time spent in a barrel and the type of barrels used can change the flavor and aroma profile of any Scotch.
- Price: Most Scotch is pricey, but some are more worth it than others.
- Aromas: The nose on a good bottle of Scotch can be almost as enjoyable as the taste when you drink it.
- Packaging: For some time, Scotch distillers have taken great pride in how they bottle and label their products, since those bottles also tell the story of the spirit inside.
- Finish: How a spirit goes down will always determine how you think about it later.
Whether you’re new to the Scotch game or you have a well-developed palate for Scotch, check out our list to help you pick out the best Scotch whisky for your next purchase.
The Best Scotch
Caol Ila 15 Year
Our first whisky is the Caol Ila 15 Year. The Caol distillery is one of eight distilleries on the isle of Islay, which is famous for its Scotch production. The good folks at Caol Ila have been producing whisky since the 19th century. The handsome packaging highlights one of the most unique aspects of this whisky—it’s relatively light on its use of peat, which is indeed rare for an Islay Scotch.
The 15 Year is aged in former bourbon casks and is bottled at a high 123 proof, meaning it has some kick. The aromas include roasted coconut, chocolate, and baked bread, with just the slightest hint of smoke. The lack of peaty smoke means that the flavor profile is similarly subtle and includes a mineral and salty taste, with honey and even some grapefruit. Add a drop of water, and you get lemon and marshmallow as well.
The finish on this excellent spirit is long with notes of oak, sweetness, and honey. This is an outstanding Scotch for those who like only the slightest bit of peat, but still enjoy the Atlantic saltiness that often characterizes Islay whiskies!
- Great flavor and aroma
- Excellent finish
- Unpeated—some folks love their smoke
- Somewhat pricey
Laphroaig Lore Islay Single Malt
Our second Scotch also comes from Islay—get ready, because this is going to be a trend. Laphroaig Lore Islay Single Malt is a tip of the hat to the longstanding process of passing down to each generation the knowledge and practices of the previous age. The Laphroaig distillery has been producing spirits for over 200 years, and they describe this as the “richest ever Laphroaig.”
This is a single malt blend that uses some six different whiskies with ages ranging between 7 and 21 years. The nose is marked by the standard briny peat, as well as roasted nuts and some dry florals. The flavor palate also includes the Atlantic smokiness of an Islay classic, and a few drops of water reveal a richly textured profile with dried fruits, cocoa, and cinnamon.
The finish is long and ends with some heat and a lingering taste of peat, fruit, honey, and spices. Though not cheap, this is a wonderful addition to Laphroaig’s already stellar lineup!
- Complex and rich flavors
- Bold aromas
- Great finish
- Peat may be too much for some
Oban 18 Year
The Oban distillery is located in the western Highlands. The distillery has been in operation since 1794, when a local brewery was converted to distill whisky. The 18-year expression is aged in American oak barrels and is bottled at 86 proof.
The aromas offered by this brightly colored whisky include grain, citrus, honey, lemon peel, and salty brininess. The flavor profile includes orange blossom, apple cider, caramel, and honey. On the palate it is smooth but dry. The finish is a deep and rich honey, which warms and is long lasting.
This is a smooth and delicious spirit that also reveals additional flavors when you add a bit of water. Though there is a hint of smoke, it never overpowers the zesty brightness, so even though it is an 18-year aged Scotch, it still feels young. Well done, Oban!
- Very smooth
- Great aromas
- Very elegant finish
- A solid, but not transcendent whisky
- Price is a bit high
Glenfarclas Single Malt 25 Year
Our next whisky comes from the Speyside region and is produced by one of the few family-run distilleries in Scotland. In fact, the company has been in the same family’s hands since 1865. Glenfarclas Single Malt 25 Year is aged in former sherry European casks, as well as former bourbon American oak casks. The color is a beautiful amber gold.
The nose reveals aromas of honey, vanilla, apricot, and simmered apples, with just a hint of sherry and oak from the barreling. On the palate you encounter a similar profile to the nose, with hints of sherry and oak, as well as rich flavors that include toffee, spice, and almonds.
The finish includes a good helping of spice and some sweetness with notes of caramel. Glenfarclas has never done much in terms of advertising, so the packaging is classic and a bit austere. Nevertheless, this is an excellent-quality aged spirit that is generally available at a good price, given how old it actually is.
- Excellent finish
- Great, bold nose
- Complex palate and flavor profile
- Packaging is blasé
- Pricey, but not extravagant
Aberfeldy 12 Year
Aberfeldy 12 Year is part of the “Last Great Malts” collection produced by Dewar’s. The Aberfeldy distillery was built in 1896. It has provided one of the primary single malts used in Dewar’s blended scotch. This spirit is aged in former bourbon and former sherry casks and is bottled at 80 proof.
The nose on this 12 Year is fruity, with hints of peach, apple, and apricot alongside sweet notes of honey and vanilla. There is also a lovely hint of barley. The palate follows this line as well, featuring cereal grains, peach, and honey, which sometimes gets on the sweeter side. Though there is very little smoke on the initial intake, it builds over time.
The finish is long and dry with oak, citrus, and toffee rounding out the ending. This is probably one of the best 12-Year Scotches on the market in terms of value, which is one of the reasons we have chosen it as the best budget Scotch.
- Great price
- Excellent nose
- Nice finish
- The finish can be very dry
- The finish can get a bit sweet
Lagavulin 16 Year
One taste—or smell—of Lagavulin 16 Year and you can see why it’s Ron Swanson’s drink of choice. It will put hair on your chest (or something like that)! The Lagavulin 16 Year is considered a classic expression of Islay Scotch whisky. So highly is it regarded that it has been included in the Classic Malts of Scotland package released by Diageo. In many ways, this is the king of the peated Scotch. And with a powerful combination of smokiness and salinity, this is the Scotch that evokes scenes from the ocean.
The nose includes a powerful smoke bomb on first intake, but underneath is a rich and complex layer of fruits, caramel, and baked apples. However, the smoke and industrial smells are never removed—leaving you with a robust aroma. The palate follows along with an initial smokiness that gives way to seaside flavors and the feel of the briny ocean spray. Notes of spice, dark chocolate, black tea, and seaweed are all in the mix.
The finish lingers with smoke and oak, ending in a savory finale. Lagavulin is an acquired taste. It offers one of the most robust of the classic peated Scotches, and isn’t for the faint of heart—but if you acquire the taste for it, nothing else will ever do.
- Complex and hearty flavor
- Good finish
- Great with seafood
- An acquired taste
- Peat may be too strong for some
- Isn’t going to mix well
Macallan Sherry Oak 18 Year
Although it’s out of reach for many in terms of price, the Macallan Sherry Oak 18 Year is undoubtedly one of the most highly regarded whiskies on the market. Steeped in history, the Macallan distillery has actually been featured on banknotes from the Bank of Scotland. This historic distillery considers its 18 Year as the quintessential expression of Macallan whisky.
Aged in sherry casks, the color of this Scotch whisky is a beautiful amber. The nose offers dried fruits, like plums and figs, as well as toasted nuts and warm cinnamon. The flavor profile includes similar hints of dark fruits and toasted cinnamon, but there is also a more refined citrus flavor that comes forth as well as the sherry and oak from its aging process.
The ending continues the notes of sherry, while the oak comes in more strongly as the finish lingers for a while. The Macallan is considered by many as the benchmark for high-end Scotch and it isn’t hard to see why. In terms of smoothness, taste, and aroma, it is hard to argue with this beautiful spirit—even if its price tag is steep!
- Outstanding nose
- Amazing flavor profile
- High-quality finish
- Very, very expensive
- Did we say it’s expensive?
- The advertising can get obnoxious
Samaroli Ledaig 1997
Our next whisky comes from the Highland region, or more properly, from the Islands—specifically, the island of Mull. That is where the Ledaig distillery is located, in the village of Tobermory. The Italian bottler Samaroli is responsible for distributing the Ledaig 1997.
The nose on Ledaig is unique, to say the least. It includes a vinegar scent, which lays underneath a powerful ethanol smell which first greets you. If you can get past that, smokiness, baked fruits, vanilla, and moss all blend together to create a… well… a unique aroma.
The flavor palate is sweet with honey, and spicy. Mid-palate gives way to brown sugar and some vegetation that shows up toward the end. The finish is long and filled with spice, some sweetness from the malt, and some peat. Every Ledaig is unique in terms of quality, so there can be some variation in terms of palate and nose, but the overall quality seems to be something people enjoy, even if this spirit is way overpriced.
- Good flavor
- Nice solid finish
- Good packaging
- Much too expensive
- Questionable nose
- Some may find it too sweet
Balvenie 12 Year Doublewood
Rooted in the tradition of Speyside Scotch, our next whisky is the Balvenie 12 Year Doublewood. Originally opened in 1892 by William Grant, this distillery has grown in renown. It is one of the few “complete distilleries” in Scotland. This means they grown their own barley, have their own malting floor, and make their own casks as necessary, all on the same grounds—ensuring that they control the production process from beginning to end.
The 12 Year is considered their signature spirit. The descriptor “doublewood” refers to the process of “wood finishing,” whereby the distillers age the whisky in American oak former-bourbon barrels for 12 years, and then move them into former sherry casks for another 9 months.
The nose includes sweet honey and vanilla, with some fruit and spice. The palate includes spicy cinnamon, with notes of citrus, apple, and caramel. The finish on this whisky is medium, with oak notes that linger. Though this may not be a Scotch that will blow you away, it is the kind of table Scotch you can use for almost any occasion—and the price tag makes it easy to justify doing so.
- Good price
- Flavorful nose
- Great with seafood
- Finish is somewhat weak
- Some folks might miss the peat
Ardbeg Scotch Uigeadail
Our final whisky is the Ardbeg Scotch Uigeadail. The Ardbeg distillery has had a history of ups and downs and is now operated by Glenmorangie, who purchased it in 1997. The whisky is named for the water source that is used in production—the Uigeadail Loch. This is a no-age-statement (NAS) Scotch that is bottled at a hearty 108 proof.
The nose includes peat smoke, tobacco, leather, and salted peanuts, as well as some dark fruits, including raisins. The flavor profile offers similar notes of tobacco, peat smoke, and cherry. There is also a hint of smoked meat and some medicinal qualities as well.
The finish is balanced and smooth. It offers a long-lingering taste of dark fruit and spice. The leather and smoke also come back in at the very end, which includes some salty sweetness as well. Though the bottling looks a great deal like Glenmorangie, the spirit is unique and all its own. And the price makes this a spirit worth trying.
- Good price
- Finish is smooth
- Interesting nose
- Not great packaging
- Taste is not as complex
- Some may not like the peat
Where Does Scotch Get Its Smoky Flavor?
One of the common characteristics of many popular Scotch whiskies is the smoky flavor and aroma that many people love. Where does this come from? Well, the short answer is that it comes from the use of peat in the production process. What is peat, you ask?
Peat, or peat moss, is a dark-colored collection of decayed vegetation or organic materials. Much like soil, it is found in the ground and is one of the most effective carbon-capturing ecosystems on Earth.
Scotland (and Ireland) are filled with peat bogs. And from time immemorial people have been using peat for fuel. Basically, once it is dried out it can be burned, and it was often used for cooking or domestic heating.
Peat is often used in Scotch production to help dry out the malted barley during the production process. The process of malting includes the conversion of starches into sugars via the process of germination.
However, if the process continues to its final end, you wind up with another barley plant. Distillers obviously want to interrupt the process, and the way they do so is to heat up the barley malt traditionally—by using peat.
It usually takes about 30 hours to dry out the malted barley, and some portion of this time includes the use of peat. This is where the smoky flavor begins to penetrate the malted barley, which is the primary raw ingredient (aside from water) in traditional Scotch.
Unsurprisingly, different geographical conditions produce different types of peat. This variation in peat, as well as different lengths of time during which distillers use peat to dry their malted barley, is what is responsible for the differences between Scotches.
What Are the Different Scotch-producing Regions?
There are four regions of Scotland. For Scotch production, that number is generally increased by one. In each of these regions there are multiple distilleries, each offering their own unique whisky.
The southernmost region of Scotland is known as the Lowlands. There are several distilleries located in this region, including Auchentoshan, Bladnoch, and Glenkinchie. Lowland Scotch tends to be smooth and less peaty, with floral notes.
The largest region in Scotland is the Highlands. This region also includes several islands off the Scottish coast. Some Scotch experts consider the islands to be their own unique Scotch region. There are numerous distilleries in this region, including Glenmorangie, Oban, and Tomatin.
The islands also have important distilleries like Jura and Talisker. Given the geographic span, it’s not surprising that there is a wide variety of expression in Highland Scotch.
Nestled within the Highland region is what has come to be known as Speyside. This region, though significantly smaller than either the Lowlands or the Highlands, contains the most distilleries in Scotland. The region is named after River Spey, which travels through the area and provides the water used by the distilleries there.
Familiar distilleries like Glenfiddich, Balvenie, Cragganmore, Macallan, and Glenlivet, all come from this area. Speyside whiskies tend to be smooth, not featuring smoky flavors, and opting instead for nuts and fruits.
Campbeltown is an area on the southern end of the Kintyre Peninsula. The area once laid claim to being the “Whisky Capital of the World” and had over 30 distilleries. That number has been reduced to three working distilleries: Glen Scotia, Glengyle, and Springbank.
Last, but by no means least, is the isle of Islay. Widely revered and beloved because of the peaty smokiness of their whisky, the island boasts eight distilleries, including Laphroaig, Lagavulin, and Caol Ila.
If you have the time (and you can afford it), taking the Scotch whisky trail throughout Scotland is a great way to get introduced to these different regions and their lovely spirits!
Why Is Scotch So Expensive?
Scotch whisky is generally more expensive, compared to other spirits or hard liquor. Why is that? Well, it has to do with the raw materials that are used to make it, as well as the aging process.
Scotch is made by breaking down the starches in organic material into sugars, which can then be fermented and eventually distilled. Barley is an essential ingredient. The malting process includes steeping the barley in water, then spreading it out on malting floors so the barley can germinate.
It is then dried out and heated up in a kiln, where peat is usually used for fuel at some point. Once dried and heated, the malted barley is mashed and later fermented. Even if a Scotch is a single-grain whisky, barley is still a component of the production process. As it turns out, barley is a bit more expensive to procure than other grains.
The second major element that drives up the price of Scotch is the aging process. All Scotch is required to be aged in oak casks, which have usually been previously used for aging bourbon, sherry, or Scotch.
The aging process is also called the “maturation” process because it is during this period that the spirit gains its distinctive coloring and many of the flavors and aromas develop.
Unlike bourbon, Scotch must be aged for a minimum of 3 years. However, some of the most desirable Scotch is aged for up to 25 years. The longer Scotch is aged the smoother the spirit becomes, making it that much more desirable to consume.
If it takes 25 years to produce a single batch of Scotch, you can see why the prices can be high.
What Is the Best Scotch Whisky?
Trying to determine the best Scotch whisky can be tricky, since the palate and nose options can differ quite a bit. Do you like peaty smokiness? Do you prefer honey, cinnamon, and vanilla? Or perhaps you like floral notes? Or maybe you want a complex spirit that includes all of the above? All of these are options that will depend, in large part, on your own personal taste. To help you decide which Scotch whisky might be the right “next bottle” for you, we created our rankings based on extensive research.
Our rankings are based on careful research and include assessments of the following:
- Price: Scotch is pricey. Some of the expensive stuff isn’t worth it, while some of the cheap stuff is.
- Color: The coloring of whisky is the product of its barrel aging, and it’s also part of the experience of enjoying a good drink.
- Nose: You would think that whisky would just smell like alcohol, but nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, a good whisky includes all kinds of lovely scents that accentuate the experience of having a wee dram.
- Flavor: Smoke? Fruit? Sweetness? Spice? The flavor is half the reason we drink it!
- Packaging: Scotch bottles have long offered sophisticated and handsome packaging as a component of the overall whisky experience.
- Finish: How does it end? Does it linger? Is it sweet, harsh, or somewhere in between?
These and other factors led us to choose Caol Ila 15 Year as the best Scotch whisky overall.
Whether you’re a seasoned pro or a newbie, check out our rankings before you make your next Scotch purchase!
Here are some more great products to use while you enjoy a glass of your favorite spirit!
- Glencairn Whisky Glass, Set of 4: Specially designed to hold that “wee dram,” these glasses will enable you to enjoy the color and flavor of your favorite Scotch.
- Venero Crystal Whiskey Glasses, Set of 4: A refined spirit like Scotch deserves a refined presentation when you serve it.
- glacio Sphere Ice Ball Maker: For when you decide to pour your Scotch over the rocks!
- Paksh Novelty Italian Highball Glasses, Set of 6: If you like a Scotch and soda (and who doesn’t?), these highball glasses are just the ticket.
- 7-Piece Twist Crystal Whiskey Decanter Set: If you decide you like to let your whisky breathe, this decanter set is exactly what you need.