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The Best Scotch Whiskies We Drank In 2020, Ranked

Tracking down the best scotch whiskies of 2020 is definitely a fun activity, but it’s sure as hell not a cheap one. Partly because of import costs and tariffs and partly because to taste great — whether single malt or blended — scotch needs quality ingredients and time in the bottle. That level of craft costs money, as it should.

As UPROXX’s drinks coverage expanded this year, I tasted a lot of scotch whiskey in 2020. Now, with the year winding down, it’s time to name the best among them. For the most part, all of the bottles below were released this year. In a few cases, we shouted out the 2020 release of a classic expression. This isn’t a comprehensive list of every single scotch in the world — there are just too many to make that happen — but these bottles hit high marks, are accessible around the U.S., and taste really good (which is the most important metric).

Read on for the best 10 bottles of scotch whisky we drank in 2020.

10. Ardbeg Blaaack

Ardbeg

ABV: 46%
Average Price: $135

The Whisky:

Ardbeg is the peat-monster of peat-monsters from Islay. But their 20th-anniversary release of Ardbeg Blaaack was a stellar scotch for 2020, no “if you like peat” conditions need apply. This year’s juice was aged in Pinot Noir casks from New Zealand, adding a whole new dimension to the whisky.

Tasting Notes:

The nose opens with a matrix of mushroom umami and earthiness, cedar bark, lemon zest, ripe cherries, and a note of red wineberries. The palate of this dram is pure velvet, with plenty of peaty smoke, more of those vinous grapes, and a plummy note of oak.

Adding a little water, a dusting of dark cacao arrives with a mild spice and more of the oak. The end really embraces the berries, spice, umami, and peat as it very slowly fades away.

Bottom Line:

Yes, this is smoky, but it’s not a smoke bomb. There’s so much going on in the glass that you’ll want to give it time and focus. I recommend adding a little water or a rock.

9. Compass Box Hedonism Felicitas

Compass Box Whisky

ABV: 53%
Average Price: $190

The Whisky:

London blendery Compass Box consistently hits their whiskies out of the park with balance and excellence. This year’s release of Hedonism Felicitas celebrates the shingle’s 20th anniversary with a dialed-in grain whisky blend. The key is in the varied casks used to age the juice. In this case, re-charred American oak, ex-bourbon, and first-fill bourbon casks were married to create the whisky.

Tasting Notes:

You’re greeted with a nice dose of bourbon vanilla that leans towards a creamy pudding, with rich toffee balanced by toasted coconut. The taste really delivers on those notes, with the addition of caramel grains, warm oak, and a hint of red berry. The end lingers in all the right ways, marrying the bitterness, coconut, and buttery toffee.

Bottom Line:

It’s a little spendy for this, but this bottle really works wonders as a highball with nice, fizzy water and good ice. The water helps each note shine its brightest.

8. Glenmorangie A Tale of Cake

Glenmorangie

ABV: 46%
Average Price: $100

The Whisky:

This is an interesting dram. The juice was created to conjure up tastes reminiscent of pineapple cake by way of malty whisky. To accomplish this, Hungarian Tokaji casks were used in the aging process. The dessert wine casks bring sweetness while holding onto the integrity of the whisky.

Tasting Notes:

There are a lot of layers here, starting with tropical fruits — not unlike a hazy IPA — with a note of honey sweetness next to malts, nuts, and vanilla, orange oils, and a whisper of dried flowers. The dram then focuses on peaches, vanilla, cakey malts, pear, and a distant hint of mint. The end is medium-length and veers into more nuttiness with a mild dark chocolate bitterness, especially when you add in some water.

Bottom Line:

We really wanted to dismiss this as too sweet or too gimmicky but it’s a damn fine dram and pairs really well with the end of a meal dessert or cheese course. It also works well as a cocktail base, if you have that sort of money.

7. Bruichladdich The Classic Laddie

Bruichladdich

ABV: 46%
Average Price: $60

The Whisky:

The Classic Laddie is a unique whisky, almost bottle to bottle. The sweet malt juice is aged in American oak specifically picked to highlights the Scottish barley in the mash. However, you’ll need to look at the “code” on the bottle to figure out exactly which concoction you’re drinking, a nice touch that makes every bottle feel special.

Tasting Notes:

This is going to obviously vary by bottle, but expect tasting notes hovering around the following: Sea brine, orange oils, caramel malts, and a touch of cherry candies on the nose. The taste delves into the sea brine and then usually adds in spicy stewed apples covered in caramel sauce with a counterpoint of berries. The maltiness carries on the slow fading end with more spice, fruit, and sea salt.

Bottom Line:

This is a fun bottle to snag as a gift, given the uniqueness and the “nerd out” aspects. But it’s more than a gimmick — it’s a very easy-drinking whisky that works well as a sipper or mixer.

6. Johnnie Walker Green Label Blended Malt

Johnnie Walker

ABV: 43%
Average Price: $45

The Whiskey:

This much-beloved expression from Johnnie Walker is a “pure malt” blend. That means instead of being blended with single malt and grain whiskies — a la blended scotch whisky — it’s only a blend of malts from different distilleries in the Diageo stable.

In this case, that’s primarily Talisker, Caol Ila, Cragganmore, and Linkwood — all of which are at least 15 years old when they’re married.

Tasting Notes:

The sip has a softness to it that lends itself to cedar boxes, wineberries, sharp black pepper, vanilla beans, and a note of freshly-cut green grass. The palate holds onto the softness of the cedar and adds in a tropical fruit edge with a wisp of dried roses. The end is very measured and just long enough to savor, with the cedar, fruit, and warming spice leading towards a final note of distant smoke filtered through an atmosphere of sea brine.

Bottom Line:

Okay, this isn’t a “new” 2020 release, but it’s still one of our favorite drams of the year by a pretty big margin. This is also our favorite bottle from Johnnie Walker. It’s very drinkable, works in a cocktail, and really shines in a highball with fizzy water and ice.

5. Cardhu Aged 11 Years — Rare By Nature Collection

Diageo

ABV: 56%
Average Price: $106

The Whiskey:

This whisky has a huge following… in Spain.

Well, the Spanish whisky drinkers onto something. The juice is a blend of single malts from Cardhu that spend eleven years aging in new American oak, refill American oak, and ex-bourbon casks before it’s blended and bottled at cask proof with no fuss.

Tasting Notes:

There’s a subtle butterscotch whiff on the nose with a clear spicy baked apple essence next to a hint of cedar. The Christmas spices kick up as worn leather, bright fruit, creamy vanilla, and a buttery toffee deliver on the palate. The end is shortish, with a creamy buttery nature balanced with fruit, spice, leather, and wood.

Bottom Line:

This release from Diageo’s 2020 Rare By Nature Collection was a revelation. This really is just a damn fine dram of whisky that really blooms in the glass with a little water or a rock. If you’re going to try something new, try this.

4. Aberlour Double Cask 18 Years Old

Aberlour

ABV: 43%
Average Price: $143

The Whiskey:

Aberlour is one of those distilleries that quietly puts out wonderful whisky after wonderful whisky, year after year. Their current release of the “Double Cask” 18-year-old is a shining example of the craftsmanship at play up in Speyside. The juice is aged in both ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks for 18 years before they’re blended and brought down to proof.

Tasting Notes:

Ripe stone fruits mingle with butter toffee, butterscotch candies, and a note of orange oils on the nose. The taste really delivers on the peach and adds in cream drizzled with honey that leads towards a jammy body, spiked with mildly spicy oak. The finish spends its time rolling through your senses, as the creaminess leans into vanilla with plenty of fruit, spice, and oak.

Bottom Line:

This is where it gets hard. There’s no real reason this or any of the following scotches aren’t “number one” besides personal preference. This is such a wonderfully satisfying sip of whisky with a splash of water or a rock. It’s a dram you’ll automatically slow down with.

3. The Balvenie DoubleWood Aged 17 Years

The Balvenie

ABV: 52.4%
Average Price: $160

The Whiskey:

The Balvenie is iconic in two ways. One, the distillery is one of the only ones in the world where everything from growing the grain to making the barrels are all done in house. Two, The Balvenie’s Malt Master, David C. Stewart, is credited with creating the “finishing” barrel process in whisky. With this expression that means the juice is aged in American oak for 17 years before spending six to 12 months finishing in ex-sherry casks.

Tasting Notes:

Green apples next to bourbon vanilla shine alongside a sense of nutty sherry oak and mild honey sweetness. The taste meanders towards a Christmas cake full of spice, dried fruits, candied fruits, and toasted nuts with an oaky depth and vanilla creaminess. Rich toffee, oak, spice, and fruit lead towards a slow-paced finish.

Bottom Line:

This is some refined freaking whisky. It’s such an easy sipper that you might find you’ve downed most of the bottle without noticing. Make sure to add some water or an ice cube to really let it bloom in the glass.

2. Aberfeldy 18 Year Exceptional Cask

Aberfeldy

ABV: 43%
Average Price: $170

The Whiskey:

Dewar’s Master Blender and Master of Malt, Stephanie MacLoed, hand-selects casks that are truly exceptional. In this case, this expression spends 17 years in refill American oak before going into first-fill Pauillac wine casks from Bordeaux.

Tasting Notes:

That classic Aberfelfy honeyed nature is lurking beneath a real sense of soft cedarwood with hints of berries, worn leather, tobacco, vanilla, and red grapes. The taste holds onto the cedar and spicy pipe tobacco as the honey and berries balance out those notes with a hint of essential oils. The end is long, deliberate, and full of that wood, tobacco, fruit, and honey.

Bottom Line:

This was a contender for our favorite single malt release this year, overall. It’s just so damn drinkable with a little water to open it up. There are no rough edges at all, just soft whisky goodness all around.

1. Talisker Aged 8 Years — Rare By Nature Collection

Diageo

ABV: 57.9%
Average Price: $120

The Whiskey:

This special release in Diageo’s Rare By Nature Collection is a rare and great whisky. The juice is classic Talisker that’s finished pot still Caribbean rum casks. The result is a marriage of the smoky and briny signatures of Talisker, amped up by the deeply sweet notes of a nice Caribbean rum.

Tasting Notes:

You’re greeted with sea brine, campfire smoke, pears, and a hint of molasses. The taste then marries all of those notes into a sense of standing next to a brisket or whole hog smoker late at night (with the sea not far off) as hints of fatty smoke, caramelizing brown sugars, and plenty of salt combine to make a whole. It sounds heavy, but the end is light in every way, making it very easy to drink as the sip quickly fades with all that smoke, brine, fat, and brown sugar in play.

Bottom Line:

This might be our favorite whisky this year. It transports you straight to the Scottish Islands by way of Charleston or the Hill Country of Texas BBQ joints with serious history. Don’t forget to add a little water to open it up.

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