Finding the world’s best Scotch whisky is no easy task. To begin with, there’s so much of it already out there — with vintages in circulation from decades ago. Couple that with the fact that more and more whisky comes out every year, including seasonal drops, rare releases, brand one-offs, collaborations… It can all be pretty dizzying.
That’s where awards come in. They utilize expert drinkers to separate the wheat from the chaff. And when it comes to the awards circuit, the San Francisco World Spirits Competition is very highly thought of.
Because we review a lot of whisky around these parts, it’s always a little gratifying when whiskies we love get big medals. We definitely enjoyed a few of those moments this year. That doesn’t mean we’re never surprised, though. The great thing about these awards is finding new labels — some we’ve never even heard of — thanks to how vast both Scotch whisky as a style and the SFWSC are.
This year, a panel of expert judges adjudicated 1,276 drams of whisk(e)y. That’s a lot of nosing, sipping, and spitting to find a select few gems to anoint the “best.” The process is pretty straightforward and includes four days of blind tasting, a medal round of tastings, and a final round of tastings to pick the “Best in Class.”
Below we’re parsing the Double Gold medal-winning scotch whiskies from this year’s tastings that were also named Best in Class. To receive the much-coveted Double Gold medal, a whisky had to receive a gold medal ranking from every judge on the panel. Then those scotches were judged again to figure out which ones really rose above. If you want to give some of these whiskies a try yourself, click on their prices!
Best In Show Whisky/Best Distillers’ Single Malt Scotch, 20 Years And Older — GLEN SCOTIA 25 YEARS OLD SINGLE MALT
Average Price: $445
This year’s Best In Show Whiskey was from Scotland’s Campletown. The juice spent 25 years maturing in old bourbon casks before it’s vatted into first-fill bourbon barrels for a final touch of mellowing. The results are cut down with a little soft water and bottled at a very approachable 97.6 proof.
Tasting Notes (from the distiller):
Nose: Bracing Atlantic breeze gives strong maritime influence. Taste: Coastal air, red apple, and tangy orange peel with vanilla syrup and caramel sweetness. Finish: Long lingering sea salt with a spicy note of ground ginger.
At over $400 per bottle, we’re intrigued to find out if this lives up to the price (and hype it just received). That being said, Glen Scotia Victoriana — another multiple award-winning scotch — is a delight to drink. So we’re pretty confident this will live up to that “best in show” designation.
Best Distillers’ Single Malt Scotch, No Aged Statement — HIGHLAND PARK CASK STRENGTH
Average Price: $95
This yearly drop is part of a new line from the Orkney Island’s distillery. The juice is a blend of single malts that are aged exclusively in old American oak that previously held sherry. The barrels are married and bottled as is, to assure you’re getting all the nuance and flavor of their malts meeting that oak.
There’s a light sense of wildflowers on the nose with a rich vanilla husk that leads towards a touch of peat. The taste is surprisingly silken (for a cask strength) with rich and buttery toffee next to honeysuckle, eggnog spices and creaminess, and a small dose of orange zest as a counterpoint. The end holds onto the creaminess and spices as the peat just edges in with a whisper of resinous pine smoke.
We’re already pretty big fans of this bottle from way up in Scotland’s northern reaches. It’s edging toward the pricier end, but 100 percent worth investing in to expand your whisky palate.
Best Distillers’ Single Malt Scotch, Up To 12 Years — LAGAVULIN 8
Average Price: $65
This expression was originally released to celebrate the distillery’s 200th anniversary. The whisky was created to mimic the juice that was being bottled back in the 1880s, during a high point in Lagavulin’s history. The whisky became a modern hit and is now part of their core line.
There’s a sense of fried fish wrapped in newspaper that greets you on the nose, next to honey-lemon, dry and earthy malts, and a nod to chocolate-covered cherries. The taste brings a solid billow of campfire smoke with traces of dark chocolate, burning cinnamon sticks, dry mint, and burnt potato skins (yes, really). The end is long-ish and marries the tastes together, leaving you with the memory of drinking a dark mint-chocolate spiked espresso next to a smoldering backyard fire on a cold autumn night while somewhere in the distance the sea laps at the shore.
While this isn’t our favorite Lagavulin (that honor went to their recent Distiller’s Edition), we were kind of splitting hairs. Lagavulin remains one of the best introductions to both briny and mildly smoky whiskies on the shelf.
Best Distiller’s Single Malt Scotch, 13 To 19 Years — TALISKER 18
Average Price: $170
Being called out as the Best of Class in 2021 by SFWSC is not too surprising for this amazing bottle of whisky from Talisker. This is a classic single malt that also happens to hold the title of “Best Single Malt Whisky in the World” from the World Whiskies Awards. The iconic juice is rendered in Talisker’s bespoke stills and then spends nearly two decades resting in both ex-bourbon and ex-sherry barrels, like most of the true classic single malts.
This is subtle. The nose has a light yet clear sense of ripe plums, orange oils, buttery toffee, and an almost sour apple next to a distant whiff of briny campfire smoke from one beach over. The orange oils remain on the palate as eggnog spices peek in gently, with hints of that butter toffee driving a rich silkiness. The smoke remains in the distance as the spices warm your senses and the meaty fruit takes the edge off on the slow and satisfying fade.
This happens to be our favorite Talisker, full stop. This is probably the one bottle we’d always argue is worth every penny of that high price. It’s a milestone on any whiskey drinker’s journey that’ll take you to new heights every time.
Best Blended Malt Scotch Whisky — MACNAIR’S 21 YEAR OLD LUM REEK PEATED MALT
Average Price: $140
This single malt from the famed Glenallachie Distillery in Aberlour is probably better known for providing juice for iconic blends like Chivas. This blend marries peaty malts with sweeter Speyside malts to create a sherry and red wine-forward dram of whisky.
Tasting Notes (from the distiller):
Nose: Aristocratic peat smoke with dark chocolate and fudge. Taste: Tobacco, leather, cedarwood, and waves of peat reek with oodles of cocoa, vanilla, honey, and spices.
We often call out our love for a saucy dram of Chivas. Since this helps form the backbone of that scotch, we can’t see not digging this too!
Best Blended Scotch, No Age Statement — COMPASS BOX GLASGOW BLEND SCOTCH WHISKY
Average Price: $40
Compass Box Whisky is all about creating very sippable blends of scotch. This blend is Scotland in a bottle. It’s 67 percent Highlands, Speyside, and Islay married to 33 percent Lowland whiskies aged in first-fill and refill bourbon, first-fill and refill sherry, and finished in specialty French oak.
There’s a plummy nature that’s counterpointed by a subtle yet clear peaty smoke on the nose. The taste really basks in the plummy and nutty sherry aspects, while touching on a lighter vinous note and plenty of berry sweetness. The end is medium-length, with hints of that fruit next to a dailed-in smokiness.
Compass Box consistently wows with its masterful blends. Usually, those bottles can reach triple-digits in price pretty quickly. That’s why we really dig this expression — it’s affordable without sacrificing any depth of flavor.
Best Blended Scotch, Up To 15 Years — DEWAR’S CARIBBEAN SMOOTH
Average Price: $24
Rum cask finishing is nothing new, but it is all the rage. This blend from Master Blender Stephanie Macleod is a marriage of 40 whiskies that are vatted and finished in Caribbean rum casks. That final maturation gives the whisky a smooth feel, making it the perfect cocktail base.
There’s a clear sense of burnt brown sugars and grilled pineapple on the nose, with hints of cloves and vanilla and maybe some dry grass. The taste edges towards a dark molasses rumminess with a touch of dried fruit, more cloves, and a slight mango sweetness. The end really embraces the rummier aspects while holding onto the tropical fruitiness on a fast fade.
This really is an excellent mixing scotch. It works wonders in a tropical fruit-centric highball or even as a replacement in Daiquiri or Dark ‘N Stormy. We know, blasphemous … but still delicious.
Best Blended Scotch, 16 Years & Older — DEWAR’S DOUBLE DOUBLE 27 YEAR OLD
Average Price: $100 (half bottle)
Master blender Stephanie Macleod created another masterpiece through this “Double Double” four-step aging process. Step one: aging single malt and single grain whiskies for 27 long years. The malts are then blended, the grains are blended, and they both rest again. Next, all of that is blended together in a vat and rested. Finally, the juice is finished in ex-Palo Cortado sherry casks.
You can really tell this has an Aberfeldy backbone with a floral honeyed nose that imbues summer breezes full of fragrant flowers. That floral honey leads to an almost lemon-honey vibe with hints of cinnamon and cedar next to light pear tobacco and dry grass. The end turns into pure silk as the florals, honey, pear, and spice slowly … massage your tongue as it fades away.
This is a phenomenal dram of whisky that’s worth the hype and the price. It’s so easy to drink while also holding onto a real character that feels authentic to its Highland roots full of wildflower fields in the summertime.
As a Drizly affiliate, Uproxx may receive a commission pursuant to certain items on this list.