If you don’t know much about Scotch whisky, you might assume every bottle is a peaty smoke bomb. But peat smoke is only a defining characteristic for whiskies from Islay — Lagavulin, Ardbeg, Laphroaig, etc. — with a few mainland exceptions to the rule. Other Scotch regions are defined more by notes of vanilla, dried fruits, and caramel.
That sweet, buttery caramel is the flavor we’re most interested in today. But how exactly does a Scotch whisky end up with a pronounced caramel aspect to it? In the simplest terms, it’s all about the wood. Aging in charred casks releases vanillins into the spirit — giving your favorite Scotch its toasted oak, vanilla, and caramel flavor notes (in different increments depending on how the expression is aged).
To help you track down bottles of Scotch whisky that lean into sweet caramel, we asked a handful of bartenders for their input. Check out their choices below and get sipping — then try counterbalancing these picks with some smoky drams.
The Dalmore 18
Pablo Guerrero, food and beverage manager at Azabu in Miami
The Dalmore 18, with vibrant nutty, dark chocolate, and caramel flavors is my pick. Any spirit can have caramel color added to it, but that does not affect its flavor — this is the real thing.
Average Price: $229.99
The Balvenie Caribbean Cask
Dennis Shea, beverage director at Tony & Joe’s Seafood Place in Washington, DC
Try The Balvenie Caribbean Cask. It’s aged in oak barrels and then finished in barrels they previously held Caribbean rum in making it even smoother and sweeter than typical Balvenie.
Average Price: $76.99
Hayden Miller, head bartender at Bodega Taqueria y Tequila in Miami & Fort Lauderdale
Heavier flavors coming with double-barrel aging is a nice compliment to the peat. Aberlour A’bunadh is a nice heavy bottling that mellows a bit with ice to dilute, very heavy on the caramel.
Average Price: $87.99
The Balvenie Doublewood
Benjamin Pozar, bartender at Fogo de Chao in Philadelphia
If caramel is the flavor you’re looking for, you’d be better off with bourbon, but in terms of Scotch, I’d go with The Balvenie Doublewood. That has the creamy caramel flavor you’re looking for.
Average Price: $69.99
Harleston Green Blended Scotch
Charles Hardwick, former bartender at The Aviary in New York City
There’s a smaller brand called Harleston Green that I really like for this note. It’s a three-year-old blended Scotch. Definitely nice strains of caramel and toffee on the finish.
Average Price: $24.99
Compass Box Hedonism
Denise Padin’ Cuevas, bartender at Siro Urban Italian Kitchen in Orlando
Hedonism by Compass Box. This Scotch has notes of caramel vanilla, coconut, and toffee. It is great for a Scotch drinker who is not a fan of heavy peat and heavy smoke.
Average Price: $99.99
Daniel Burns, bartender at Elixir in San Francisco
Tamdhu 10 is a nice Sherry finished Speyside malt with super-rich flavors of brown sugar and caramel. It’s a great whisky to drink on a rainy night with some nice milk chocolate.
Average Price: $76.99
Johnnie Walker Black Label
Israel Meléndez Ayala, bartender in San Juan, Puerto Rico
For the fans of caramel in Scotch and its complex taste, I’d go with Johnnie Walker Black Label. Fill your glass and bring it to your nose. You’ll get the vanilla hints with figs together with the taste of creamy toffee caramel lingering on the tip of your tongue — but the dram ends with some smokiness.
If you are an aged rum drinker, you’ll like Black Label Johnnie Walker for its taste and similarities.
Average Price: $22.99
The Dalwhinnie 15
Aaron Polsky, former bartender at Harvard & Stone in Los Angeles
The Dalwhinnie 15 is known as “the gentle spirit,” and with good reason. It’s light and balanced, so the caramel isn’t overwhelming like it is in some richer malts, but it goes down light and smooth and would be a good contrast pairing with a dessert.
Average Price: $78.17
Glenmorangie Nectar d’Or
Isaac Rice, lead bartender at Urban Farmer in Philadelphia
Glenmorangie Nectar d’Or because of its Sauternes cask finish. Regular Glenmorangie already has some light caramel notes in its flavor profile. This cask finish adds even more notes of subtle sweetness like honey, vanilla, butterscotch and kicks up the caramel as well.
Average Price: $73.99
Auchentoshan Virgin Oak
Gabriel Urrutia, USBG bartender in Miami
I love the Auchentoshan Virgin Oak. The interaction between new wood and Scotch is magical. It imparts a perfect caramel and vanilla flavor that is unforgettable.
Average Price: $145.99
This is the perfect Scotch for fans of sweet whiskies. It’s filled with creamy caramel, vanilla, and a nutty sweetness. A subtle kiss of smoke brings it all together in perfect harmony.
Average Price: $59.99