Life

A Shelf Full Of Classic Scotch Whiskies, Blind Tested And Ranked

I love some good Scotch whisky. But let’s face it, there’s plenty of shit on the shelf intermixed with the good stuff — yes, even the bottles that make it all the way across the pond. That said, I’d argue that you’re more likely to grab a good scotch than a bad one these days, because so much of the lower-end stuff doesn’t make it stateside. Still, the fact is there’s a lot to sort through and no one wants to pony up for a dud.

To help you find gems, I’m grabbing ten (modern and old-school) classic Scotch whiskies from my shelf and putting them to a blind taste test. I’m keeping things classic but pretty high-end this go around. I’ve tasted nearly 500 individual whiskeys so far this year and I wasn’t in the mood to taste shitty whisky today. Instead, I grabbed some serious icons of the past few decades and, in some cases, the past century or two. I didn’t really think about price points. I mostly thought about “oh yeah, that’s a good old whisky, let’s see how it stands up against this one.” I ended up grabbing eight killer unpeated bottles and then I threw in a peated 21-year-old and a newer crafty unpeated single malt ringer for good measure because … why not?

The lineup today is:

  • Chivas 18
  • Balblair 15
  • Aberlour 16
  • Glenfiddich 21
  • Aberfeldy 18
  • Bruichladdich Bere Barley
  • Glenmorangie Nectar d’Or
  • Arran 18
  • GlenDronach 18
  • BenRiach The Twenty One

Let’s see which bottle wins!

Also Read: The Top 5 UPROXX Scotch Whisky Posts of The Last Six Months

Part 1: The Tasting

Classic Scotch Blind
Zach Johnston

Taste 1

Classic Scotch Blind
Zach Johnston

Tasting Notes:

This opens with a rush of berries — tart, sweet, dried — that leads to bright malts, mild dark spices, and a hint of toffee sweetness. Going back to the nose after the taste, there’s a very thin echo of dried flowers. On the palate, there’s a note of chocolate-covered raisins that gives way to dried rose petals, sweet malts, and a hint of shortbread with dashes of vanilla and lemon. The end is slightly thin but has plenty of that bright fruit to carry it through to a satisfying finish.

Taste 2

Classic Scotch Blind
Zach Johnston

Tasting Notes:

Honey and marzipan greet you as ginger-infused dark chocolate and lemon/honey malts round out the nose. The palate leans into the marzipan with a hint of heather and spiced malts working their way back to that dark chocolate. The end has a honey candy sweetness but drops off pretty abruptly.

Taste 3

Classic Scotch Blind
Zach Johnston

Tasting Notes:

A hint of oak char mingles with a box of dates, walnut shell, and a whisper of roses pressed into old books. A spiced plum jam drives the palate along with plenty of malty spice and sweet wood, kind of like an oak stave dipped in mulled wine. The finish leans into a honeyed sweetness with a hot and spicy apple cider vibe on the slow and silky finish.

Taste 4

Classic Scotch Blind
Zach Johnston

Tasting Notes:

This is very “perfume” driven on the nose with plenty of sticky toffee pudding — the dates, nutmeg, toffee, vanilla, everything — leading to a hint of cherry bark and old leather. The palate has a thin line of cream soda with more of that floral perfume, woody cinnamon-apple, and a bit of sultana and prunes. The finish leans into the florals and honey as a waft of freshly baked banana bread floats past and the creaminess amps up towards a kind of a Key lime pie vibe.

Taste 5

Classic Scotch Blind
Zach Johnston

Tasting Notes:

This opens with a lush and creamy honey, cream soda, dried red berries packed into a cedar box, and a touch of marzipan. Fresh berries and cream drive the palate as a slightly dry grassy nature hits the mid-palate with dry cedar and some rum-soaked raisins. The finish has a bit of a dried apricot vibe that leads back to that lush honey with more dried sweetgrass and marzipan rounding things out.

Taste 6

Classic Scotch Blind
Zach Johnston

Tasting Notes:

It takes a moment but the nose eventually reveals sweet orange blossoms next to marzipan, mulled wine, apricot jam, and a thin whisper of mint chocolate chip ice cream. The palate leans into the apricot and jam and mint chocolate with a note of chocolate-covered raisins leading to a whisper of dried banana chips and Irish soda bread. The finish adds a flake of sea salt to everything as spiced malts and minty yet creamy chocolate last the longest on the end.

Taste 7

Classic Scotch Blind
Zach Johnston

Tasting Notes:

Vanilla and lemon oils combine on the nose for a classic shortbread feel that counters soft malts and a hint of milk chocolate powder. The palate is all about the creamy and buttery toffee sauce with wintry spices mingling with silky vanilla pudding and plenty of dried red fruits. The finish has a slight edge of spice attached to the malts — think mild nutmeg and cinnamon — that gives way to a creamy and shortbread-filled finish.

Taste 8

Classic Scotch Blind
Zach Johnston

Tasting Notes:

Blueberry pancakes smothered in butter and maple syrup lead the way and is supported by apple cider and cinnamon sticks. Overripe peaches and orange zest pop on the palate with a hint of dark yet creamy chocolate. The mid-palate sweetness fades into a mulled-wine-soaked oak stave with stewed peaches next to slightly spiced dark chocolate bars.

Taste 9

Classic Scotch Blind
Zach Johnston

Tasting Notes:

This is very grassy from the jump with a mix of dates, blackberry jam, and burnt orange peels rounding out the nose. The jam arrives on the tongue as stewed plums with allspice and clove mix with almond cake dusted with powdered sugar leads to chocolate malts. That nuttiness drives the finish toward more of those silky chocolate malts, freshly chopped apple and cherry wood, and a mix of dark berries, almonds, and spice layered into a bespoke dark chocolate bar on the very back end.

Taste 10

Classic Scotch Blind
Zach Johnston

Tasting Notes:

This bursts with fresh Band-Aids from afar — hello, Benriach The Twenty One!

Those fresh and plasticky bandages are supported by cream soda, a hint of rum-raisin, slight nuttiness, and a dash of old potpourri. The palate carries on through the drug store with that Band-Aid vibe as creamy vanilla and soft chocolate malts interact with spicy minced meat pies, walnut coffee cake, and a hint of floral candle wax. The finish drops off pretty quickly, leaving you with old Band-Aids, burnt vanilla pods, and a touch more of that cream soda.

Part 2: The Ranking

Classic Scotch Blind
Zach Johnston

10. Balblair 15 — Taste 2

InterBev

ABV: 46%

Average Price: $126

The Whisky:

This is a classic Highland single malt with a modern twist. These bottles were just relaunched in 2019 with age statements. Their 15-year was aged in both ex-bourbon and ex-sherry before marrying, proofing, and bottling in nice, squat bottles.

Bottom Line:

This had serious potential until the finish. It just sort of disappeared at the end. For me, that makes this a good place to start the ranking. That said, this whiskey is still a good cocktail base to build upon.

9. Glenfiddich 21 — Taste 4

Glenfiddich 21
William Grant & Sons

ABV: 40%

Average Price: $230

The Whisky:

Rum casks and sweet single malts are a great match. This whisky starts off by mellowing for 21 years in ex-bourbon casks before that juice is transferred to Caribbean rum barrels for a final rest. That whisky is then blended and proofed down for bottling.

Bottom Line:

Huh… I expected this to be much higher. But that perfume-driven nose was a lot today. It’s not that it didn’t land, it was just a little too dailed up and overwhelmed the incredible nuance of the rest of the sip, which is pretty damn fine.

8. Arran 18 — Taste 8

Isle of Arran Distillers, Ltd.

ABV: 46%

Average Price: $154

The Whisky:

This is classic, old-school whisky making from the Isle of Arran (right next to Islay). The juice is aged in a mix of sherry casks for 18 years before it’s vatted, proofed, and bottled without filtration or any other fussing.

Bottom Line:

This was on track for a high ranking. Then it just sort of petered out on the back end and I forgot about it a bit. It goes to show: Always finish strong.

7. Glenmorangie Nectar D’Or — Taste 7

Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy

ABV: 46%

Average Price: $85

The Whisky:

This dram from Glenmorangie is a much-loved Highland malt. The juice is matured in ex-bourbon barrels for an undisclosed number of years. The whisky is then transferred to French Sauternes barrels which held sweet dessert wines where it spends two more years finishing.

Bottom Line:

I kind of expected this to rank higher too but here we are. Again though, this was a perfectly nice dram. It just didn’t quite grab my attention. And once I moved on, there were just more exciting sips to be had.

6. Bruichladdich Bere Barley 2011 — Taste 6

Bruichladdich Bere Barley 2011
Rémy Cointreau

ABV: 50%

Average Price: $93

The Whisky:

These expressions from Bruichladdich have been dropping for over a decade, so this is more of a modern classic. Anyway, the whisky in the bottle is hewn from Bere Barley grown up on the Orkney Islands by five different farmers. That grain is sent to Islay where the team at Bruichladdich creates this one-of-a-kind whisky.

Bottom Line:

I enjoyed this. It was a tad thinner than some of the other bottles ranked next on this list but still very well-made and interesting. This is definitely something I like coming back to.

5. Chivas 18 — Taste 1

Pernod Ricard

ABV: 40%

Average Price: $79

The Whisky:

Chivas 18 is the brand’s signature high-end blend. The whisky is built around a specially made Strathisla 18 single malt. That juice is supported by 20 other single malts from around Scotland with various casking processes, but those are kept under wraps.

Bottom Line:

The mid-point of these always feels like a bifurcation point. But this is more like, “Yep, this is pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty good.” In the end, this feels like the perfect on the rocks pour.

4. BenRiach The Twenty One — Taste 10

Brown-Forman

ABV: 46%

Average Price: $300

The Whisky:

This whisky from BenRiach is a combination of peated and unpeated malts. The whiskies are then aged for 21 years in ex-bourbon barrels, ex-sherry casks, virgin oak casks, and former Bordeaux red wine casks. Those are then blended after their two-decade rest and proofed with that soft Speyside water.

Bottom Line:

I expected the only peaty on the list to rank lower. But this really brought the magic. Yes, it was medicinal but there was so much more layered into it that stood out and lasted.

3. Aberlour 16 — Taste 3

Pernod Ricard

ABV: 40%

Average Price: $113

The Whisky:

This small Speyside distillery has been producing quality whisky for over 200 years. This expression is aged 16 years in both ex-bourbon and ex-Olorosso sherry casks. It’s then married and proofed with soft Speyside water from the Highlands and bottled.

Bottom Line:

This is some good goddamn whisky. Look, this and the next two all could have been tied for number one. If I pick them apart this didn’t have quite the uniqueness of the next two … but that’s me splitting some seriously microscopic hairs.

2. GlenDronach 18 — Taste 9

GlenDronach 18 Alladrice
Brown-Forman

ABV: 46%

Average Price: $189

The Whisky:

This Highland whisky is a local tradition of sorts, dating back to the brand’s origins in the 1820s. The whisky in the bottles is hewn from barrels of at least 18-year-old whiskies. The maturation is done exclusively in hand-picked Olorosso sherry casks from Spain.

Bottom Line:

That grassy nose was a beautiful break from the other drams on this list. It was bold and intriguing. And then the rest of the sip lived up to those attributes and delivered a fun yet deeply flavored whisky that felt like a journey.

1. Aberfeldy 18 — Taste 5

Bacardi

ABV: 43%

Average Price: $135

The Whisky:

This release is a masterclass in finishing a whisky. The whisky is first aged for 18 years in refill bourbon and sherry casks. Then the whisky is transferred to first-fill red wine casks from Pauillac, Bordeaux. The whisky is then proofed with the soft water from a local, gold-flecked river to a very accessible 86 proof.

Bottom Line:

Yeah, this was beautiful. It’s nuanced, unique, and so easy to drink. I wanted to pour another of these and actually drink/enjoy it. Immediately.And that’s always a good sign.

Part 3: Final Thoughts

Classic Scotch Blind
Zach Johnston

That Aberfeldy 18 has some serious staying power. So do the GlenDronach and Aberlour, by the way. I’ll say it again, all three were pretty much tied for first, and I had to split some serious hairs to rank them.

What surprised me the most about this ranking was where some bigger hitters ended up. I was pretty surprised to see the Glenfiddich 21 fall so low today. Likewise with the Nectar d’Or — both of those are bottles I’d reach for without hesitation when I know the label. But that just goes to show the power of the blind taste test!

×