Picking the best 20-year-old Scotch whisky off the shelf is a nervy task. You’re devoting serious money to one single bottle of whisky. And if you don’t dig it… well, you’re stuck with a bottle that set you back hundreds (maybe even thousands) of dollars. Ouch.
Point being, buying old and expensive Scotch whisky isn’t something to take lightly. You need to be informed about what you’re investing in. To help you navigate that thorny world, I’m going to blindly taste eight expensive expressions and rank each bottle. Hopefully, this info helps the next time you venture beyond the locked glass at the liquor store.
PART I — Methodology
I grabbed eight bottles of the good stuff off my shelf with one parameter: It had to be between 20 and 29 years old. No 19-year-old bottles sneaking it. No 30-year-old ringers. Just the 20s — the age where single malt Scotch whisky hits a serious sweet spot. That put the price range between $250 and (gulp) $1,000 per bottle — definitely a range where some expert opinion is necessary before you swipe that debit card at checkout.
Our lineup today is the following bottles:
- Bowmore Islay Single Malt Scotch Whisky Aston Martin Masters’ Selection Aged 22 Years
- The Glenlivet Single Malt Scotch Whisky Aged 21 Years
- Mortlach Single Malt Scotch Whisky Aged for 20 Years
- Ardbeg 25 Years Old Islay Single Malt Scotch Whisky
- The GlenAllachie Speyside Single Malt Scotch Whisky Aged 21 Years
- Glenfiddich Grand Cru Single Malt Scotch Whisky Aged 23 Years
- The GlenDronach Grandeur Highland Single Malt Scotch Whisky Aged 28 Years
- Glengoyne Highland Single Malt Scotch Whisky Aged 21 Years
When it comes to ranking these bottles, I’m going to split some minuscule hairs and rank these based on the best flavor alone, because these are all well-made whiskies with deep pedigrees. When I say “best,” I mean what has the most depth, what takes me on a journey, and what is the most pleasant whisky experience. All of our palates are at different places, so read through those tasting notes and find something that feels right for you or that entices you to new heights. Then click those price links to see if you can get a bottle in your neighborhood.
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Part 1: The Tasting
Nose: Gently smoked cherries and smoked orange come through on the nose with a mild sense of smudging sage ash next to bourbon vanilla and apple fritters with a soft powdered sugar glaze.
Palate: That sweetness presents on the palate with a smoke chocolate powder vibe next to spiced malts, singed vanilla husks, and more of those smoked cherries but this time they have a twinge of tartness with a pinch of salt.
Finish: The finish combines the tart yet salty smoked cherries with the dark chocolate next to a deep sense of oak and spicy malts.
This is flashy and delicious. It’s almost daring you not to like it by pressing the peatiness toward burnt fruit but just pulling back and allowing the sweetness, tartness, and salinity to drive the nose and taste. In short, this is fun, engaging whisky.
Nose: Leather and winter spices lead the way on the nose with a hint of saffron-stewed pears, ripe peaches, and lush eggnog next to boiled beans with a bay leaf.
Palate: The palate leans into the peaches and pears but puts them in a pie with plenty of cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg next to apricot jam and rum-raisin.
Finish: The mid-palate hits a pine resin note before descending toward brandied cherries and dark chocolate with fresh ginger sharpens and a dash of cinnamon-vanilla candy.
This is smooooooth. It’s like drinking Christmas with a side of orchard fruit (in the best way). There are no rough edges, which almost makes it too smooth as it kind of disappears as soon as you finish the sip.
Nose: Freshly baked apple pie with cinnamon bark and nutmeg lead to black raisins, fatty walnuts, grilled pineapple, and sea-salt-infused dark cacao sauce with a hint of vanilla and pear on the nose.
Palate: The palate leans into the lard pie crust under that apple pie with a hint of powdered sugar icing next to mint chocolate chip, old vanilla pods, and banana’s foster with a smidge of clove and allspice thrown in.
Finish: There’s a light sense of caramel malts on the end that leads to a walnut cake full of raisins and cinnamon with a buttery vibe next to a savory note that’s part green herbs and part extra virgin olive oil.
This is mind-blowing. It’s so deep yet welcoming. It takes you on a journey. It almost feels like you’re looking at a masterpiece painting in liquid form that dances around your senses.
Nose: Heavy cream, smoked toffee, lemon pith, and ashes from last night’s campfire open this one up on the nose before veering toward soft sea-filled air, a touch of muddy bog, and old shovel handles from a well-worked farm.
Palate: On the palate, there’s this deep sense of potting soil that’s still in the plastic from the garden shop next to uncooked smoked bacon rashers with plenty of black pepper and a slightly sour edge leading back to that heavy cream and smoked toffee by the mid-palate.
Finish: Finally, hefty/spicy packed tobacco chewiness brings about a full-on head buzz — it’s a wild sensation.
This is so far on the other side of the spectrum from the last sip. This grabs you by the scruff of your neck and throws you into the deep end of an inky sea full of falling burnt forests. It’s wild. It’s grandiose. And I kind of love it. But this is clearly not for everyone. The palate is like a 6’9″ bouncer intimidating people at the door to the coolest club in the town.
Nose: There’s a note of tannic old oak and grapefruit pith when you nose this dram that leads towards honeyed chocolate truffles with a touch of cinnamon and orange.
Palate: The palate goes full Christmas cake with plenty of dried nuts, candied and dried fruits, rich wintry spice, and a touch of chocolate maltiness next to candied ginger, more orange, and a note of golden corn syrup.
Finish: That sweetness attaches to the fruit and spice to create a stewed plum vibe on the finish that luxuriates in mild spice, sweet and meaty stone fruit, and a touch more of that chocolate.
This feels old but not really all that much else. There’s a pretty nice (read: standard) flavor profile but it’s not leaping out at me.
Nose: This is straight-up classic malt on the nose with stewed apples and pears with a slight tartness and floral impression over a buttery brioche with a hint of maple woodiness.
Palate: The palate is lush and supple with a vanilla foundation and layers of pear candy, old toffees, creamed honey, and orchard wood with a sweet side.
Finish: The end has a pear and apple skin ambiance leading to barks, cores, and stems with soft floral honey and a bit of proofing water.
This is smooth in all the right ways. It’s almost simple but so bright in every single soft note it plays that you just want more. This proves that less is so much more — when executed perfectly.
Nose: The nose opens with a sense of black-tea-soaked dates blended with Saigon cinnamon and freshly ground nutmeg next to blackstrap molasses, walnut cake, old oak staves soaked in floral honey, moist marzipan laced with orange oils and dipped in salted dark chocolate, and a little twinge of bourbon vanilla cherries.
Palate: The palate pops with dark cherry cordial on the palate next to stewed plums with anise and clove, old leather tobacco pouches, and a touch of creamy espresso.
Finish: The end is a mix of dark chocolate and brandy-soaked cherries next to spent oolong tea leaves, walnut shells, and salted black licorice with a whisper of spiced caramel malts.
This is bold as a motherf*cker. It slaps you on the palate with dark, deep, and funky flavor notes that don’t let up. Then it goes soft and cuddly with a deepness that’s damn near unparalleled.
Nose: The nose pops with butterscotch, red apples, and mild nuttiness next to spicy malts, sticky toffee pudding, and a hint of old oakiness.
Palate: Spiced raisin and nut cakes mingle with cinnamon bark and clove buds as a rich honey creaminess leads back to some creamy nuttiness and a hint of chocolate powder.
Finish: Rum-soaked raisins and spiced malts drive the finish toward more cinnamon bark and a fleeting sense of vanilla.
This was fine but felt a little middle of the road, especially compared to some of the big swings the blenders took with other expressions on this list.
Part 2: The Ranking
8. Glengoyne Highland Single Malt Scotch Whisky Aged 21 Years — Taste 8
Average Price: $226
This whisky starts with air-dried unpeated barley. The mash then goes through the “slowest” still in Scotland. The hot juice from those stills is loaded into used sherry casks for a long rest before batching, proofing, and bottling.
When you’re talking about whisky at this price point, “fine” is never going to cut it. You can get “fine” Scotch whisky for $50.
7. The GlenAllachie Speyside Single Malt Scotch Whisky Aged 21 Years — Taste 5
Average Price: $265
Glenallachie’s Master Distiller Billy Walker hand-selected just five casks for this release. The barrels were ex-Pedro Ximenez and Oloroso sherry puncheons (a large barrel that’s around 100 gallons, give or take). Those whiskies were vatted and bottled as-is.
=The Bottom Line:
This is a notch better than the last pick but only just. Again, there are better whiskies at a much lower price point.
6. The Glenlivet Single Malt Scotch Whisky Aged 21 Years — Taste 2
Average Price: $310
This redesigned The Glenlivet is still a classic whisky. The hot juice is aged in a triple combination of first-fill Oloroso sherry, Troncais oak Cognac casks, and vintage Colheita Port casks. After 21 long years (at least), the barrels are vatted and proofed down before bottling.
This is a great whisky if you don’t want to be challenged at all. It’s perfectly balanced and so soft that it damn near disappears once you sip it.
5. Ardbeg 25 Years Old Islay Single Malt Scotch Whisky — Taste 4
Average Price: $899
This expression from Ardbeg is also their oldest expression (as of their current lineup). 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. That makes this a one-and-gone whisky with only 278 bottles, 90 of which were sent to the U.S.
This is the opposite side of that spectrum. This is the bottle that you buy when you want to be challenged on every level of your senses and palate. But the reward is so deep and grand that I think it’s worth it. Maybe try a dram at your local whisky bar before you commit to a whole bottle.
4. Glenfiddich Grand Cru Single Malt Scotch Whisky Aged 23 Years — Taste 6
Average Price: $359
It’s all in the name of this yearly special release from Glenfiddich. The whisky in the bottle 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 is quintessential great Scotch whisky. It’s deep, engaging, and delicious through and through. There are zero faults. It’s just classic though and that’s why it’s a little lower on this list. I didn’t feel any excitement drinking this one, just satisfaction.
3. The GlenDronach Grandeur Highland Single Malt Scotch Whisky Aged 28 Years — Taste 7
Average Price: $800
The GlenDronach Grandeur Batch 11 was created by Dr. Rachel Barrie (who also created the BenRiach above). Dr. Barrie hand-selected a tiny number of rare Pedro Ximénez and oloroso Sherry casks that were filled with The GlenDronach malt almost 30 years ago. Those barrels were vatted and bottled with a touch of water into just over 3,000 bottles.
This was exciting. It felt new and fresh with a hardcore depth that was fascinating and alluring. This is the bottle you buy and sip when you want to push your palate to new heights.
2. Bowmore Islay Single Malt Scotch Whisky Aston Martin Masters’ Selection Aged 22 Years — Taste 1
Average Price: $999
This is the next step in the much-lauded high-end Aston Martin series from Bowmore. The whisky is batched from special barrels of Bowmore’s famed barely-peated whisky into a final product that’s refined and just kissed with that iconic Islay spring water.
This is a delicious whisky. It has a slight gimmick with the Aston Martin tie-in. But that’s washed away when you actually taste how good this stuff is. It’s a perfectly balanced low-peat malt that delivers on every level, making it a great whisky for any fan of Islay who doesn’t need a peat monster on their cart.
1. Mortlach Single Malt Scotch Whisky Aged for 20 Years — Taste 3
Average Price: $240
Dufftown’s Mortlach is one of those distilleries that may just make you fall in love with scotch. The mash is distilled 2.81 times, according to Mortlach’s unique distilling methods. That juice is then loaded in sherry casks and left to do its thing for 20 long years. The results are vatted, brought down to proof with that soft Speyside water, and bottled.
This whisky is next level in every way. It’s balanced yet nuanced; deep yet welcoming. This is the whisky you buy and enjoy to go from whisky fan to whisky expert.
Part 3: Final Thoughts
This was a hell of a lineup. The only two whiskies I’d skip on this list are the last two on the ranking. There are simply better whiskies at lower prices.
Glengoyne and The GlenAllachie fans right now…
The top six are all worth your time and money. If you want to up your peat game without overblowing your palate, then the Bowmore 22 is the play. If you simply want an amazing whisky that works on every level and will take you somewhere new, then you have to go with the Mortlach. It’s a perfect whisky (and not that expensive).