Coke and Pepsi; Bud, Coors, and Miller; Taco Bell and McDonald’s — every category of the food and drink world are dominated by just a few major brands, with everyone else falling in line somewhere behind them. The same is true for Scotch whisky, with the likes of Johnnie Walker, Glenlivet, Lagavulin, The Macallan, and Dewar’s gobbling up attention and shelf space.
And while you can’t go wrong picking up a bottle from one of those brands, you’re doing yourself a disservice if you don’t branch out and try something lesser-known, too. The winter of our collective quarantine is a perfect time to try a new dram, after all.
When Tommy Cummins, Head Buyer at The Umbrella Project in London, thinks about lesser-known winter Scotches, he always envisions sherry bombs.
“Ones that feel like you are chewing them not drinking them,” he says. “GlenDronach is one of those distilleries that has always been pasted over, god knows why, as the 12-year-old is a perfect dram to sit down and have with a beer.”
While not everyone is as enthusiastic as Cummins about sherry-rested Scotch, plenty of other bartenders were happy to share their go-to lesser-known bottles the help us make it through the long, cold winter.
The Dalmore King Alexander III
Demetrëa Dewald, lead bartender at Bar Mateo at Zinc Café in Los Angeles
The Dalmore King Alexander III Single Malt Scotch Whisky is an often-overlooked Scotch created by one of the most legendary distilleries in the world. With a perfect blend of zesty orange, creamy chocolate, and tropical fruits, this complex spirit is like none other.
Smooth and well balanced with the vanilla aroma that The Dalmore is known for. Not always easy to find, but always worth the hunt.
Average Price: $269.99
Glendronach Revival 15
Hayden Miller, head bartender at Bodega Taqueria y Tequila in Miami
If someone is looking for a lesser-known bottle, I always point them towards Glendronach. Glendronach Revival is a well-rounded, sherry-forward bottle that always pleases.
Average Price: $139.99
Kilchoman Machir Bay
Alex Tack, bartender at Rex 1516 in Philadelphia
Kilchoman’s Machir Bay scotch is one of my favorite Islay scotches, most of which sort of play second fiddle to Laphroaig, Ardberg, and Lagavulin. It’s matured in both sherry and bourbon barrels, so while the intensely peaty, briny notes typical of the region are intact, they’re softened a bit by the choice of aging receptacles.
Average Price: $59.99
Andy Printy, beverage director at Chao Baan in St. Louis
One of my favorites, but definitely not on the mainstream radar, is Lismore 18. The nose is light, with citrus and dry lumber. On the palate, it gets a lot more interesting — with lots of toffee burnt graham cracker and a touch of smoke. The finish is light barrel and char.
With a $40 price point, it’s hard to beat.
Average Price: $45.99
Justin Moses, wine director at Sand Valley in Nekoosa, Wisconsin
Glenmorangie is the cornerstone of any Scotch lineup. But one of their lesser-known offerings is the Glenmorangie Signet. The secret here is malted chocolate barley. Normally, this is reserved for breweries that specialize in stouts and porters, but here it lends the same espresso and dark chocolate notes to a blend of 35-40 year single malts.
It’s certainly worth the splurge.
Average Price: $249.99
Gavin Humes, bartender at Scratch|Bar & Kitchen in Encino, California
Ardbeg Uigeadail is maybe not the most obscure, but for people who love Lagavulin or even Laphroaig, Ardbeg is underappreciated. It’s got the intense smoky quality that many people are looking for in Scotch, but it has a nice fruity quality on the front palate that really works for me.
Average Price: $74.99
Kilchoman 100% Islay
Brandon “Habi” Habenstein, bartender at The Kitchen & Bar at Bardstown Bourbon Co. in Bardstown, Kentucky
I’m a huge fan of Kilchoman 100% Islay. They are the first Scotch producer I’ve seen tackling the “grain to glass” approach head-on. For this particular bottling, they grow their own barley, malt it, cook it, ferment it, distill it, age it, and bottle it all on-site! Malting is an entire industry to itself.
That type of passion is not only inspiring but pretty much always ends up with fantastic products for consumers.
Average Price: $94.99
Courtney Cantrell, bartender and assistant manager for Old Hickory Whiskey Bar in Pensacola, Florida
Though it has only been around since 1995, the Isle of Arran distillery is one of the few independent distilleries in Scotland and is also one of my top contenders. Near Campbeltown, the Isle of Arran offers one of my favorite single malt Scotches, the Arran 10 year. This Scotch has a nice, creamy mouthfeel, yet offers tartness and notes of honey with developing complexity from sip to sip.
Average Price: $61.99
GlenDronach 18 Allardice Sherry Cask
Tommy Cummins, head buyer at The Umbrella Project in London
For that winter warmth, I would reach for a bottle of GlenDronach 18 Allardice Sherry Cask. It was named after the distillery’s founder. If you are going to name something after its founder, it wants to be something you’ll dream of — and boy will you dream of this!
Aged all its life in Oloroso sherry, when pouring this dark rich liquid into your favorite drinking vessel, the air will be punctuated with the smell of black forest gateau — cherries, raisins, dark chocolate, and toffee. This is a drop that needs to be respected. Once this full-bodied show-stopper passes your lips, buckets of plums, cinnamon, and allspice come rushing at you. Then comes the chewing. This special drop is one to pour to impress your partner’s father (or mother, for that matter).
They won’t have a bad word to say about you after they’ve been turned into this.
Average Price: $154.99
Buchanan’s Black & White
Freddy Yanez, bartender at Unreserved Beer Garden in Orlando
Black and White from Buchanan’s distillery, also imported by Diageo, is a high quality yet affordable Scotch. It’s very good to mix or enjoy broken with a splash of water
Average Price: $79.99