There was a time not too terribly long ago when if “single malt” came up in a conversation, it’d almost definitely be about Scotch or Japanese whisky. Scotland and Japan have dominated the single malt game for centuries, especially Scotland. But the spirits industry has seen an explosion of craft distilling (especially in the U.S.), making single malt whisk(e)y a truly international spirit.
Below, I’m going to blindly taste some classic Scotch single malt whiskies against crafty American single malt whiskeys. Can the so-called new kids on the block from America beat the distilleries that define the style and push it forward? …Maybe? This is an uphill battle but it certainly sparks my curiosity.
Our (unpeated) lineup today is:
- Glendronach 15 Revival (Highlands, SCOTLAND)
- Westward American Single Malt Whiskey (Oregon, USA)
- Courage & Conviction American Single Malt Whiskey (Virginia, USA)
- Cragganmore Distillers Edition (Speyside, SCOTLAND)
- Arran Barrel Reserve (Islands, SCOTLAND)
- Balcones Pilgrimmage Texas Single Malt (Texas, USA)
- Boulder American Single Malt Whiskey Bottled in Bond (Colorado, USA)
- Aberlour A’bunad (Highlands, SCOTLAND)
- Cedar Ridge The QuintEssential Signature Blend (Iowa, USA)
- Glenmorangie Nectar d’Or (Highlands, SCOTLAND)
Let’s get tasting!
Also Read: The Top 5 UPROXX Scotch Whisky Posts of 2021
Part 1: The Taste
Dark berry brambles with tart and sweet fruit, stems, thorns, and even a little black dirt draw you in on the nose with a hint of walnut shell and cherry pie. The palate is a creamy-yet-bitter dark chocolate orange that leads towards a semi-savory fig countered by ripe apricot. The chocolate comes back with cinnamon spice and more dark berries and walnut on the end.
There’s a mix of cream soda, wet applewood, soft yet spicy malts, and orchard fruit on the nose. The taste has a nice vanilla tobacco vibe with a nutmeg-heavy eggnog creaminess, a little dry leather, and a pretty big dose of dry cacao. The chocolate vibe drives the mid-palate towards the finish with a powdered edge and a slight wet wicker feeling on the end.
There’s a clear bourbon caramel and vanilla note with a buttery edge that leads towards a chalky multivitamin vibe on the nose that’s … interesting. The palate is all about red berries, dry cedar bark, more of that vitamin, and a dark chocolate softness. The finish stays very soft with the chocolate leading towards a mildly warming maltiness.
This is like a fresh herb garden with dill and fennel leading the way on the nose next to fresh bushels of green apples and soft and supple vanilla. The palate has a savory fruit note that’s part fig and part squash next to fancy pear candies and an orchard in full bloom. The finish marries those florals, orchard fruits, and vanilla and then circles back around to a bundle of fresh, green, sharp, and slightly savory herbs.
This has a nose full of ripe apples and pears with stems and cores alongside soft and damp cedar and a chewy vanilla-laced toffee. The palate counters with grapefruit pith, silken vanilla cream, and apple butter brimming with dark spice. The finish comes about with a singed cedar bark feel next to soft powdery spices, orange oils, and a very light vanilla ice cream scoop.
A hint of leather leads towards rich honey dripping through freshly shelled pecans, cinnamon-laden peach cobbler, and light and dry green herbs on the nose. The palate has a stewed pear vibe with a hint of saffron next to a well-made apple soda, cinnamon sticks, milk chocolate, and dry orchard wood towards the finish.
Leather meets Chery Coke on the nose as vanilla pudding and brown spices mingle in the background. The taste is all about the malty spice with more of that Cherry Coke next to ropes of black licorice. A hint of anise arrives late and brings about a finish that indulges in a spicy oatmeal cookie with raisins and walnuts.
This opens plummy and leathery with dashes of orange oils, dark cacao, honey, sweet oak, and crushed almonds on the nose. The palate is part ripe and bright cherry and part meaty and dark prune next to more orange oils, dark chocolate, and this vibe of what feels like a really densely packed bale of dry hay. Vanilla cream drives the mid-palate towards a finish full of soft chocolate-covered brandied cherries, spicy stewed plums, and a light note of soft tobacco resting in an old cedar box.
The nose dances between Almond Joys, banana bread full of walnuts and winter spices, and a bright peach/pear mix. Gingersnaps open the palate up with cream soda, creamy hot chocolate spiked with pepper, and sweet apple candy. The mid-palate bursts with apricot and toffee that leads towards a rum-raisin and vanilla landing.
This opens with buttery and sugary shortbreads cut with lemon oils and good vanilla with a hint of soft leather and just … softness. The taste is all buttery toffee, soft oak, and mild dark spices attached to malts. Fresh ginger warms things up a bit more before the finish arrives with creamy vanilla pudding and more of that buttery shortbread.
Part 2: The Ranking
10. Courage & Conviction American Single Malt Whisky 2021 Edition — Taste 3
Average Price: $75
Virginia Distillery is one of those craft distilleries you’re going to be hearing more and more about in the coming years. This expression is a single malt blend of 100 percent malted barley distillate that’s aged in ex-bourbon, ex-sherry, and ex-Cuvée wine casks. The blend is a split of 50 percent from the bourbon cask and an equal measure from the sherry and Cuvée casks.
That multivitamin note threw me on this tasting. It wasn’t off-putting by any stretch. I just couldn’t square it in the flavor profile. Otherwise, this was a lovely dram.
9. Westward American Single Malt Whiskey — Taste 2
Average Price: $75
Portland’s Westward Whiskey has its roots in Pacific Northwest craft brewing culture (similar to most craft distilleries in the PNW). This juice is emblematic of how important the first step of whiskey — the fermented mash that is, basically, beer — is to the whiskey-making process. That craft transfers into the 100 percent malted barley whiskey every step of the way.
This whiskey didn’t really feel “younger” or “lesser” in any way. It was very tasty but didn’t quite pop the same way as so many others did on this list.
8. Boulder American Single Malt Whiskey Bottled in Bond — Taste 7
Average Price: $75
This Colorado whiskey is a fascinating experiment — asking what a single malt that’s treated like a bottled-in-bond bourbon might taste like. The juice is made from 100 percent malted barley. Then is spends four years in a bonded warehouse aging in new American oak. It’s bottled at 50 percent ABV, per federal regulations.
I wrote in my notes, “Well, that was nice.” There’s really not much else to say besides that this is a well-rounded and easy-drinking single malt but not much else.
7. Arran Barrel Reserve — Taste 5
Average Price: $55
This Island’s whisky is all about reaching over the pond. The 100 percent malted barley juice is aged exclusively in ex-bourbon barrels (for an undisclosed amount of time) before it’s vatted, proofed, and bottled as-is.
I really like this. In fact, I could see this ranking in the top three of a different blind tasting. That means, the next six whiskies are all killers, and only really separated by a tiny margin.
6. The GlenDronach Revival 15 — Taste 1
Average Price: $110
This Highland malt has made a roaring comeback (the expression went on hiatus from 2015 to 2018). Revival 15 takes its sherried nature very seriously. The juice is aged in a combination of Pedro Ximénez and Oloroso sherry casks for 15 long years. Those casks are married and this whisky is brought down to a very easy-drinking 92 proof with that soft Highland water.
I’m shocked this ranked sixth. I generally love this whisky at home. Still, the fact that such a gorgeous whisky can rank so low goes to show the heavy-hitting quality of the brands at play in this blind tasting.
5. Cedar Ridge The QuintEssential Signature Blend — Taste 9
Average Price: $60
This whiskey is all about a grain-to-glass experience. The juice is made with 100 percent 2-Row Pale Malted Barley (the same stuff used in some of the biggest craft beers) from up in Saskatchewan. The whiskey is matured in ex-bourbon barrels for an undisclosed term. That whiskey is then finished in a combination of brandy, rum, wine, port, and sherry barrels before it’s vatted. The whiskey is blend is then made using the solera method — where the vat is never fully emptied before the next barrel is added.
This is another killer dram. The only reason is ranked slightly lower is that there weren’t quite as much going on or quite as many unique notes popping. Still, this was super easy-drinking and truly tasty.
4. Balcones Pilgrimage — Taste 6
Average Price: $76
This single malt starts with Golden Promise malted barley in the mash with proprietary ale yeast and local Texas water. The distilled juice is then loaded into used barrels like all of the world’s great single malts. After a few years of aging under the hot Texas sun, the whisky is transferred into French Sauternes casks, bringing a distinct dessert wine vibe to the juice. Finally, the whisky is bottled at cask strength from very small, one-off batches.
I would have put money on this ranking number one. I actually drink this whisky a fair amount at home. It’s really damn tasty but was, again, up against serious contenders today. So, here we are.
3. Glenmorangie Nectar d’Or — Taste 10
Average Price: $80
This dram from Glenmorangie is a much-loved Highland malt. The juice is matured in ex-bourbon barrels for an undisclosed number of years. The whisky is then transferred to French Sauternes barrels which held sweet dessert wines where it spends two more years finishing.
“Golden Nectar” feels like the perfect name for this. Delicious. No faults. It’s very straightforward though, which is why it isn’t number one. Again, delicious.
2. Aberlour A’bunadh — Taste 8
Average Price: $103
A’bunadh (ah-boon-arh) means “the original” in Gaelic and the juice in this Highland bottle represents that for Aberlour. The whisky is matured in old Olorosso sherry casks exclusively. The juice then goes into the bottle at cask strength, unfussed with.
This would have been the other single malt I’d have put money on picking as number one. And, damn, was it close. This whisky is phenomenal, deep, and insanely sippable. You cannot go wrong with this whisky (even if you’re not into “scotch” yet).
1. Cragganmore Distillers Edition — Taste 4
Average Price: $86
Cragganmore is an iconic Scottish distillery. The whisky is matured in sherry casks for 12 years. It’s then transferred into American oak casks that held port for a final maturation phase before proofing and bottling.
This is so damn unique and delicious. While there were a lot of whiskies on this list that came close to the top, this really pulled away thanks to that mix of savory greens and bright fruits. This is a world-class whisky that does, indeed, wow.
Part 3: Final Thoughts
I’m honestly not that surprised an American single malt didn’t break into the top three. The competition amongst these bottles was fierce. Though, I am still surprised GlenDronach 15 ranked so low. I guess it is what it is.
Overall, unpeated single malt at this level (whether American or Scottish) tends to be subtle, fruity, and delicious (as you can tell by the number of mid-ranking drams that I still absolutely raved about). Any of these bottles would be worth checking out. But it’s really the top three that you ought to hunt down, spend your hard-earned cash on, and savor. They each offer something a little different — each interesting in its own way for a drinker with an expanding palate. Plus, that Cragganmore is one of the more unique (and tasty) whiskies available today and it comes in at a pretty accessible price point.