Spoiler alert for this blind tasting: 20-plus-year-old Scotch whisky is pretty amazing. I tasted eight bottles of single malt — both peated and unpeated — in the 20 to 26-year range and every single one was great. “Great” might even be underselling our baseline here. There were a lot of “wow!” and “holy shit!” and “that’s amazing!” moments in this blind tasting.
That means that this ranking is very, well… loose. I could not choose between several of these bottles and ended up with a lot of ties. It was just too hard to put one amazing whisky over another one when every single one of these drams presented something unique — deep in flavor and rich in technique.
Seriously, they were all delicious. I tried my best.
Our lineup today is:
- Ardbeg 25
- BenRiach 21
- Glenfiddich Grand Cru 23
- GlenDronach 21
- Oban 21, 2018 Edition
- Lagavulin 26, Special Edtion 2021
- Royal Brackla 21
- Talisker 25
In the end, the eight bottles of single malt Scotch whisky below are all stellar. Try them. They’ll advance your palate while providing a great whisky-tasting experience. Click on those prices to track down a few bottles for yourself!
Also Read: The Top 5 UPROXX Scotch Whisky Posts of 2021
Part 1: The Tasting
There’s a bitter lemon note that draws you towards smoked toffees, creamy vanilla, a dusting of cold ash, and … peppermint candy on the nose. The sip is very earthy (almost potting soil) with a fatty smoked bacon vibe, a touch of sour cream on a dirty baked potato — baked in a campfire — that all turns on the mid-palate towards honey tobacco with a spiced finish and a dash more of that ash.
Smoked apricot opens this one up on the nose with a sweetness that leads towards salted plums with a hint of spice and malt. The taste delves into a honeyed sweetness spiked with spicy stewed apples, old and wet oak, roasted almonds, and a big tobacco chew. That all tappers off, leaving you with a rich apple candy finish.
This burst forth with an apple orchard in full bloom, day-old brioche, and a sweet yet tart lemon curd on the nose. The palate is all vanilla cookies with pear candy, white grapes, and singed potpourri leading toward a mid-palate of honey. That honey circles back towards the pear with a slight core and stem feel as the finish slowly fades back through all that honey and orchard fruit for the softest landing possible.
Berry brambles open this one up with a focus on the stems, leaves, and the soil beneath those bushes as a spicy raisin oatmeal cookie arrives to balance out the nose. The taste revels in orange oils, creamy vanilla pudding, and black-tea-soaked dates. A dark cacao vibe takes over the mid-palate and leads towards a holiday spice mix with a stewed plum and cedar touch on the finish.
There’s a candy wax paper note that nosedives into Douglas Fir bark from a stack of firewood with some of the black dirt from the forest floor smashed into the crevices of that bark as butter caramel malts counterpoint that earthiness and ends up at a fruit chew, kind of like an apple Starburst, on the nose. The palate leans into a hazelnut-heavy Nutella with a touch of toasted coconut mingling with sweet cedar planks. A dark cacao tobacco leaf arrives late and takes on a warming holiday spice mix that leads towards a hot stripe of orange saltwater taffy dipped in ocean water.
Freshly unrolled Ace bandages invite you in through the nose as figs wrapped in nori lead toward a rush of fresh white rope and a slight whisper of outboard motor smoke. The palate presents meaty smoked dates next to the oil from a sardine can with a clear rush of fresh red chili peppers. The mid-palate mellows out considerably with a cold forest mushroom next to smoldering cedar branches and a final note of green bell pepper that just rings as sweet.
Light vanilla pudding with a big dollop of berry compote welcomes you on the nose as this vibrant white grape bursts forth. The taste meanders from spicy dark chocolate towards a malty Black Forest cake as stewed cherries, light cream, and a lot of dark chocolate shavings come together. The finish embraces the chocolate until that bright white grape comes back to bring about a nice end.
The nose opens with fresh beeswax candles next to unfiltered apple cider, dried roses, and a wisp of campfire smoke from a mile or so down a rocky and rainy beach. Sea salt combines with old cellars full of cobwebs as wet moss, wisteria in full bloom, and orange tobacco mingles on the palate. The mid-palate dries out with some cedar bark as singed rose pedals lead towards singed orange peels with this tiny echo of dark red cherry on the very backend of the finish.
Part 2: The Ranking
6. BenRiach The Twenty One Four Cask Matured — Taste 2
Average Price: $300
This newly-released whisky from BenRiach is a combination of peated and unpeated malts. The whiskies are then aged for 21 years in ex-bourbon barrels, ex-sherry casks, virgin oak casks, and former Bordeaux red wine casks. Those are then blended after their two-decade rest and proofed with that soft Speyside water.
This is a beautiful whisky. The only reason this bottle landed here is that it was the only one that didn’t blow my socks off.
5. Ardbeg 25 — Taste 1
Average Price: $880
The newest expression from Ardbeg also happens to be their oldest expression (in the core line). The whisky is the epitome of peat on Islay. What makes this expression so special and extremely rare is that it was distilled and casked when Ardbeg was on its knees as a company, in the early 1990s. They simply weren’t making that much whisky back then and there’s hardly any of it left.
This is a one-and-likely-gone whisky.
Goddamn, this is just delicious. It’s so delicious that I don’t think I can say I don’t dig big peaty Islay malts anymore — because I love this.
4. Glenfiddich Grand Cru 23 — Taste 3
Average Price: $290
It’s all in the name of this yearly special release from Glenfiddich. The whisky matures for over 23 years in both ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks before it’s vatted and then filled into French Cuvée casks that held Champagne. That whisky is then cut down to proof and bottled just in time for the holiday season.
This was damn near perfect. It was so (almost unbelievably) soft that I felt I might have been missing something deeper. But that’s me looking for something to rank these by and, in no way, an indication of the quality at play in this stellar whisky.
(tie) 3. The GlenDronach Parliament Aged 21 Years — Taste 4
Average Price: $262
Don’t let the name fool you. The “parliament” in this case is the collective noun for rooks — a type of European crow that nests above the distillery. That dark essence is rendered in the whisky through 21 long years of maturation in Oloroso and Pedro Ximenez sherry casks exclusively.
This could have been number one had my mood been different, or if I had done this tasting in the morning instead of after lunch, or, or, or… This whisky is impossible to find faults with. It just didn’t blow my mind today the way it has on other days.
(tie) 3. Royal Brackla 21 — Taste 7
Average Price: $218
This whisky is the oldest aged statement from the Last Great Malts from John Dewar & Sons line. The juice is distilled slowly before it spends 21 long years maturing Olorosso sherry casks where it’s left untouched. The barrels are vatted when they’re just right, proofed with soft Speyside water, and bottled.
This is one of those bottles that’s deceptively subtle but deeply satisfying. It’s also one of those bottles where you ask yourself, “where have you been all my life?”
(tie) 2. Lagavulin Aged 26 Years, The Lion’s Jewel — Taste 6
Average Price: $2,220
This is a very rare and unique expression. First, it’s the first 26-year-old Lagavulin release. Next, there are only 7,500 of these bottles in existence. Lastly, the whisky was built from a combination of first-fill Pedro Ximenez and Oloroso sherry casks. Those barrels were married after over two decades of mellowing and bottled at a very accessible cask strength of 44.2 percent.
I wrote in my notebook, “Fuck, this is amazing.” For years, I thought I wasn’t an Islay whisky drinker and, honestly, I could drink this for the rest of my life and not complain.
(tie) 2. Talisker 25 — Taste 8
Average Price: $398
This whisky is a marriage of American bourbon barrels, Spanish sherry casks, and Talisker’s seaside location. The whiskies in this single malt spend a minimum of 25 years resting in old bourbon and sherry barrels a few short steps from the sea in the Isle of Skye. Talisker’s tiny warehouse feels a bit like an old pirate ship that’s seen too many sea battles and that aura is imbued into every barrel as it matures.
This was the last taste and I would have kept tasting whisky this good for hours, happily. While this is the perfect single malt, it didn’t quite take me on a journey as the number one pick did. Still, I’m pouring one of these tonight and taking a minute to sit next to the tree after everyone is in bed to just let it all soak in.
1. Oban 21, 2018 Edition — Taste 5
Average Price: $589
This whisky from 2018 is much-sought-after. The classic juice from the tiny Oban Distillery spends 21 years resting in a combination of used European oak barrels in Oban’s small warehouse nestled between a black rock cliff and the lapping of the sea. The juice is then married and bottled at cask strength, capturing all the nuances and uniqueness of Oban in the bottle.
This was like going home again. I was a teenager splitting firewood with my father in the backyard. I could smell the splinters of fir and bark. Then, we were walking along the cold stony beaches of the Pacific Northwest looking for agates as the gulls guffawed and pranced along the shoreline. It nearly brought a tear to my eye.
This whisky transports me. It’s pretty much a perfect experience.
Part 3: Final Thoughts
I’m going to stop saying that I don’t really dig peaty whisky in 2022. I clearly love some of them. That doesn’t mean I love the sweet malts any less. It’s more that these days I continually reach for subtly peated malts. And those whiskies clearly dominated this ranking.
In the end, when the whisky is this good, you end up looking for a transformative and maybe even emotion-inducing experience. My winner might not technically be any better than any whisky on this list, but it took me somewhere. It touched my soul.
That’s what it’s all about when you’re sipping these high-end drams — what truly sings to you? The Oban 21 from 2018 sang to me today.