Speyside whisky is one of the most revered styles on the planet. It’s also one of the most ubiquitous regional styles from a relatively small area. All of Speyside is situated inside Scotland’s Highland region, yet Speyside is home to about 50 distilleries and responsible for around 50% of all Scotch whisky made. That alone means it’s high time to highlight some serious Speyside single malt Scotch whisky worth checking out, especially for beginners.
While “Speyside” sounds pretty black and white, it’s a lot greyer than, say, a peated Islay whisky. The term “Speyside” is pretty loose since, legally, any brand in Speyside can all their whisky either a “Speyside” or a “Highland” whisky, based on their own whims. To clarify, any Speyside whiskey can be called a Highland one, but not the other way around. The Macallan is famously in the dead center of Speyside but labels their juice as “Highland” whisky. Aberlour — right outside of Speyside’s whisky capital, Dufftown — labeled its whisky as “Highland” until very recently. Now it’s a “Speyside” whisky. Marketing teams have more power over labeling than you’ll ever believe.
But we’re not here to talk marketing semantics and legal details. We’re here to talk whisky, damn it! Speyside is a special place for whisky thanks to a relatively drier climate (for Scotland) that’s close to barley fields, seaports, and a supply of very soft water. Speyside famously has a very low mineral content in its aquifers, making for a super soft and supple whisky. Moreover, Speyside’s whiskies are (very) generally unpeated, and lean into soft orchard fruits (especially apple and pear), dried fruits, soft spices, nuttiness, and honey sweetness. Naturally, there are a million variables at play, from mildly peated whiskies to special barrel finishings, but that’s the general gist.
Now that you know what a Speyside whisky generally is, let’s find you the perfect beginner’s bottle for your bar cart. I like all of these bottles, so the reviews are going to be positive across the board. It’s on you to look at the tasting notes and decide where to dive in.
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10. Glenfiddich 12
Average Price: $47
This is an entry whisky to Speyside and single malts in general. The juice is aged in a combination of used American and European oak before it’s married, rested, proofed with Speyside’s iconic water, and bottled.
This dram is creamy like a vanilla pudding with a bright pear orchard vibe, some mild toffee, and hints of sweetgrass next to mild oak. That leads towards a very easy and soft woodiness with a touch of candied pear and more vanilla cream before hints of soft cinnamon spice poke up in the background with those soft malts. By the end, it’s clear how light and approachable this whisky is as that pear, vanilla cream, and mild spice slowly fade away, leaving you with a silken mouthfeel and just enough malts and toffee.
This is a great place to start a Speyside journey. The malt is deeply hewn and carries the signature flavors of the region. I find it a little watery on the finish, so I tend to mix cocktails with this more than using it as a sipper. It’s a great foundation to build a nice drink on.
9. Aultmore 12
Average Price: $66
This tiny whisky is part of their Last Great Malts range from Dewar’s. The juice is a rare release from a distillery that releases bottles every few years (this bottle dropped back in 2014).
The nose bursts forth with notes of ripe apples and pears next to a seriously creamy vanilla base with touches of orange blossoms and soft cedar bark. The palate wraps those apples and pears into a soft and buttery puff pastry with plenty of soft spice and brown sugars as the vanilla thickens into a pudding with the florals, becoming slightly more dried towards the mid-palate. The finish hoists those stewed apples and pears onto center stage as the mild spice gently fades away.
The Bottom Line:
This is a great pick if you’re already a fan of Dewar’s blended whiskies. It’s a clear progenitor of that flavor profile that’s wholly distinct. It’s also a little rarer, which makes it a nice grab if you’re looking for something a little less instantly recognizable.
8. The Balvenie DoubleWood Aged 12 Years
Average Price: $70
This is the whisky that launched the “double aging” trend back in 1982. This unpeated single malt spends 12 years mellowing in ex-bourbon casks before it’s transferred to ex-sherry casks for a final maturation of nine months. Finally, the whisky is vatted in a “tun” where it rests for three to four months before proofing and bottling.
Soft and floral honey mix with a hint of vanilla extract, sweet red berries, and wine-soaked oak. The palate meanders through light touches of marzipan with a hint of cinnamon and fields of plum trees with a whisper of tree bark and leather lurking in the background. The finish lets the spicy malt kick in with a dose of hot cinnamon and honey tobacco.
This is another great, subtle entry point to the region. The palate basically hits all of the classic notes while staying light and inviting. That said, this is much more of a cocktail base than a sipper too. This with a little egg white, honey syrup, and citrus makes a hell of a sour.
7. Speyburn Arranta Casks
Average Price: $45
Arranta translates to “bold” and this whisky leans into that. The juice is aged for an undisclosed amount of time in first-fill ex-bourbon casks (that means this whisky was the first thing to go into those casks after they were emptied of bourbon). Those barrels were then vatted, proofed, and bottled without filtration.
Pear candy and honey lead the way on the nose toward woody spices, light leather, and a hint of sour apple skins and stems. The palate is sweet and malty with a drive from pear flesh to pit, skin, and tree with floral honey and wet coconut leading to a hint of creamy vanilla sauce dusted with cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice. The end leans into pears soaked in honey and nutmeg with a hint of old porch wicker and worn leather gloves on the finish.
This is a nice pour that works as well as a sipper as it does as a cocktail base. When I say, “sipper,” I mean that in an on-the-rocks application. It’s just an easy drink all around, with a nice depth to it and a little extra kick thanks to those slightly higher ABVs.
6. The Glenrothes Whisky Maker’s Cut
Average Price: $83
The bulbous bottle from The Glenrothes is all about the sherry. The expression spends an undisclosed amount of years in first-fill sherry casks. When those barrels are just right, the whisky is then batched and vatted before being proofed down only slightly.
The nose bursts forth with butterscotch. Once that fades, hints of worn leather, orange peels, and nutmeg mix underneath that butterscotch nose. The palate is nutmeg-forward with a spicy orange zest kissed with dark chocolate and vanilla. The end feels a bit like eggnog laced with orange zest and vanilla with a spicy warmth.
This is a nice example of a bold sherry cask on a Speyside whisky. Those layers of orange zest and dark chocolate run deep with a decent sweetness from top to bottom. That said, I tend to use this for on the rocks or highballs with a dash of Angostura bitters (which adds a nice accent to the spices).
5. GlenAllachie Aged 15 Years — Taste 4
Average Price: $98
This Speyside single malt is aged in ex-Oloroso and Pedro Ximenez sherry casks for, you guessed it, 15 years. Those barrels are selected for their distinct flavor profile and vatted, proofed, and bottled without filtering.
Apple juice slowly boils down to a cinnamon-spiced apple sauce on the nose as a hint of dry firewood sneaks in. The palate is part warm malts and part sweet orchard fruit with a hint of burnt orange and more of the dry wood. The end is light but carries a hint of warm spice and sweet fruits.
This is another great sherry-casked whisky. This is a tad subtler than the bottle above but carries a very similar flavor profile, hence they’re right next to each other on this list, and both are kind of the middle of the road taste-wise.
4. The Singleton of Glendullan 18
Average Price: $93
This Speyside whisky rests mostly in ex-bourbon casks. The final product adds in a few barrels from Europe to mellow out the heavier bourbon barrel flavor notes. That blend is then cut down to a low 80 proof for bottling.
The nose opens with hints of cedar and winter spice underneath caramel candies, roasted almonds, and a hint of stewed orchard fruits. The palate primarily carries on those flavors with a subtle hint of bourbon vanilla and spicy tobacco warmth attached to the maltiness with an echo of dark chocolate-covered hazelnuts. The finish leans into the cedar and tobacco with a slightly mineral water base.
This isn’t as washed out on the finish as a lot of other 40% ABV whiskies. That’s kind of a miracle. The overall vibe is very accessible, making this a very solid and easy sipper with a rock or two.
3. Mortlach 12
Average Price: $61
The Beast of Dufftown hails from a tiny yet beloved Speyside distillery. The actual whisky is also made on their smallest still, nicknamed “Wee Witchie.” That juice then goes into ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks for 12 years. Finally, those whiskies are married, proofed, and bottled.
This is subtle yet engaging with a nose of almost burnt toffee next to bright red berries, mild spice, hints of oak, and a bit of cedar. The palate leans into the berries by becoming jammy with more of that toffee and a mild sense of spicy tobacco arriving late. The end is long-ish with a plummy chew next to that tobacco and malty spice.
These top three are all great picks and each carries a unique profile. When it comes to Mortlach, you’re getting an introduction to a whisky drinker’s distillery. A glass of this over some rocks is a great sip. A cocktail made from this is a great cocktail. This is versatile juice that brings serious depth.
2. Aberlour A’bunadh
ABV: 56.2% (varies)
Average Price: $95
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 Oloroso sherry casks exclusively. The juice then goes into the bottle at cask strength, unfussed with.
That sherry plumminess is evident right up top, with hints of bright orange oils, clumps of dark chocolate, honey, and nuts, and a hint of oak. The taste shines with notes of dark, ripe cherries, prunes, more bright orange zest, dark chocolate, and a good measure of svelte vanilla. The slow finish leaves you with a creamy mouthfeel next to bitter chocolate next to sweet cherries and plums, all of which lead towards a warming spice on the tongue at the end.
This whisky has the biggest flavor profile on the list, but it misses out on the number one slot because it’s not necessarily the most unique profile. This is classic, thick, and deep. It’s amazing on its own but makes on the best Manhattans money can buy (or a Rob Roy if you will). All of that said, you need to be ready for a big and bold whisky with serious depth. There’s no lightness here, but there are some serious rewards for your senses.
1. Cragganmore Distiller’s Edition
Average Price: $89
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.
Fennel leads to dried fruits — sultanas, prunes, dried fig — and fresh apples on the nose with a hint of tartness and skin. The taste, on the other hand, leans into sweet oak, pear candies, fresh figs, and a softness that’s almost hard to believe. The end is full of sweet fruits — think ripe pears, green tomatoes, and star fruit — and has just the right touches of soft oak, oily vanilla, and savory green herbs as it fades towards a final note of wet wicker right after a rain storm.
This is everything you want from a Speyside whisky plus a wonderful whole other galaxy of flavors. Overall, this (and the Aberlour above) are the bottles I have on my bar cart right now with backups at the ready. This over a single rock is bliss.