Within the past 10 years, perhaps no other class of spirits has enjoyed such an increase in popularity as Scotch whisky. Years ago, you may have typically only had 3 or 4 scotch options to choose from at a bar. But now, thanks to the popularity of Scotch, it’s not unusual to see 10 or more different bottles, even at your standard local restaurant. But what are the best scotches?
One consequence of this surge in Scotch consumption is that it’s now harder than ever to really know the best ones available. So, we took it upon ourselves to review as many brands as possible and sift through all the possibilities for you.
It was hard work. But we were happy to do it. Here are our 20 Best Scotches for 2020:
The 20 Best Scotches for 2020 (and Beyond…)
Best Under $150: Highland Park 18 Year Old Viking Pride
Based on the largest of the famed peat-saturated islands that sit just off the northern coast of Scotland, Highland Park Distillery can boast this wonderful product, being named Best Spirit in the World by Spirit Journal not once, but twice. This bright, peat-forward Scotch seasons in European sherry oak cases and ages for 18 years in the extremely mild climate, resulting in a smooth yet complex whisky that is guaranteed to impress.
Best Under $50: Old Pulteney 12 Years Single Malt Scotch Whisky
Originally founded to satisfy the Scotch thirst of residents of the local fishing villages at the northern end of the Scottish Highlands, Old Pulteney can now boast that this wonderful 12-year was awarded a Gold Medal at the 2018 San Francisco World Spirits Competition. The price is right for a sweet and briny Scotch that also offers hints of vanilla that results from its aging exclusively in old bourbon barrels.
Best Islay Scotches: Bruichladdich Port Charlotte 10
Usually, this producer releases unpeated Scotches, but they really went for it here. Port Charlotte is an aggressive Islay Scotch that will definitely fill a room up with its pungent peaty aromas the moment you open the bottle. Since it’s the result of a mixture of second-fill French wine casks plus first- and second-fill bourbon casks, Port Charlotte is not for the faint of heart. If you love peat, you’ll love this one.
Best Islay Scotches: Lagavulin 16 Years Old
Even though it’s an aggressive yet savory Islay Scotch (kind of like BBQ on a blistering summer evening), Lagavulin’s 16 Years Old pour will please most lovers of peaty beverages. The smoky, campfire-like profile will make everyone notice, and maybe someone will even remember how much Ron Swanson sang its praises in Parks and Recreation.
Best Islay Scotches: Caol Ila 2006 Distiller’s Edition
You might not have heard of this producer, but Caol Ila is actually Islay’s largest distillery. This is a wonderful way to ease into trying peaty Scotches from this region. (Not surprisingly, Caol Ila provides a lot of the Scotch that’s used in the Johnnie Walker blends.) The 2006 Distiller’s Edition is a treat … since it’s finished in old Moscatel sherry wine barrels and thus imparts a balanced peaty and smokey flavor with some welcome hints of sweetness.
Best Islay Scotches: Laphroaig 10 Year Cask Strength
Boy can you smell this one from across the room. This widely available and massively peaty Scotch is probably the best standard bottle that comes from this famed distillery. It is chunky, complex and smoky … something you can count on with every sip.
Best Islay Scotches: Ardbeg Corryvreckan
In 2010, World Whiskies Award identified this one from Ardbeg at the World’s Best Single Malt. I’m not surprised. Corryvreckan (named for a famous whirlpool that sits north of Islay) is an intense treat of peat and pepper that comes as a result from a non-chill-filtered experience from virgin French Limousin oak.
Best Islay Scotches: Bunnahabhain 18 Year Old
Even though it’s got a tongue-twister of a name, Bunnahabhain has been distilling excellent whiskies since 1881 when it was founded near the famous Margadale Spring. This 18 year old single malt is probably the distillery’s best bottle. Although it has much less peat than other Islay whiskies, don’t let that dissuade you … the blend of ex-sherry and ex-bourbon casks brings a remarkable complexity and uniqueness.
Best Campbeltown Scotches: Kilkerran 12 Year Old
In general, whiskies from this region (which resides between Islay to the west and the Lowlands on the east) are dry and pungent, with a bit more earthiness and funk than other Scotches. This Kilkerran 12 Year is no exception. It features a light peat sense that exudes confidence from the bright sherry and bourbon casks. Even though this distillery was only recently reopened in 2004, this is a great, solid whisky.
Best Campbeltown Scotches: Springbank 12 Year (Cask Strength)
You better grab this one if you see it on the shelf, because this juicy yet potent bourbon- and sherry-cask aged Scotch is a doozy. It comes from one of the oldest independent distilleries in the region, and often is seen as one of the most consistent producers in Scotland.
Best Campbeltown Scotches: Longrow 18 Year Old
Since 1973, Longrow has been producing well balanced Scotches like this one. Even though that makes the distillery a relative new kid on the block, this double-distilled and bourbon- and sherry-aged Scotch carries a nice peaty flavor that captures the best of the region. A bit pricier and harder to find than other Campbeltown whiskies, but definitely worth it.
Best Speyside Scotches: The Balvenie DoubleWood (Aged 12 Years)
Coming from a specific region that is split in the middle by the River Spey, the Speyside region boasts the highest number of distilleries in Scotland. The Balvenie is one of its greatest distilleries. Its diverse enough to appeal to all kinds of tastes but also straightforward for even the newest Scotch novice. This elegant 12-year-old whisky is aged 9 months in ex-Oloroso sherry casks and is an affordable introduction to the complexities of Speyside single malts.
Best Speyside Scotches: The Glenlivet Nadurra Peated Cask Finish
Even though Glenlivet is probably one of the most popular Scotch names around the globe, chances are you’ve not heard of releases from this Nadurra line. It’s non chill-filtered and comes at cask strength (aka “natural”). Not surprisingly, this rough cut scotch tastes fantastic and won a Double Gold medal at the 2010 San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
Best Speyside Scotches: Glenfarclas 17 Year Old
This Scotch comes from one of the last family-owned-and-operated distilleries in the region. They pride themselves on producing straight-forward whisky without any fanfare or frills, and you get the benefits in the form of great value. This 17 Year old whisky is no exception. You’ll love the sherry fruity flavor blended with a hint of peat smoke and butterscotch flavors that make it easy to drink and reliable.
Best Speyside Scotches: Aberlour 18 Year
Even though Aberlour keeps things simple, you’ll find several options in their 10, 16, and 18 year old whiskies. While their A’bunadh represents a solid cask strength Scotch, we think their 18 Year version is an affordable and solid choice that never disappoints.
Best Highland Scotches: Ledaig 10 Year
In general, since this region is so big, it’s hard to nail down a single profile of flavors that captures the diversity of all the wonderful distilleries that reside in the Scottish Highlands. A perfect example is Ledaig, which tastes heavily peaty and makes you think of Islay, but it’s made in small batches and feels like a more elegant offering than the price suggests.
Coming from one of the best selling distilleries in the world, Glenmorangie might be a household name, but this special Nectar D’Or release gets our stamp of approval. It’s finished in Sauternes wine casks, and you can taste hints of that dessert wine from Bordeaux in this complex and slightly fruity Scotch.
Best Highland Scotches: Talisker Distiller’s Edition
Talisker is best known for producing some of the peatiest of the peaty Scotches. Although their famous Talisker 10 Year is a smoky peat bomb of a whisky, I prefer this Distiller’s Edition, since it’s finishing happens by aging in Amoroso casks and thus gives a bit more sherry sweetness than others in the line.
Best Highland Scotches: Oban 18 Year Limited Edition
Oban is another popular name from the Highlands, and considering that they consistently release well-balanced Scotches that capture all of the extremes in the whisky spectrum, we know why. But this 18 year release is hard to find and should be one you keep your eye out for, since it represents a high level of craftsmanship yet is approachable even for the novice.
Best Highland Scotches: The Glendronach 21-Year-Old Parliament
Dating back to 1826, Glendronach is actually one of the first licensed distilleries in Scotland, and helped champion the approach of maturing in sherry casks. This rare, 21-year-old Parliament is one of the more expensive whiskies you’ll find on our list, but the extra age more than makes up for any sticker shock you might experience. It’s extremely fruity, sweet, rich, and complex, with only a hint of peat that makes it one of the best and more unique Scotches I’ve ever had.