There’s a whole lot of single malt scotch out there. Big brands tend to make headlines when they drop big bottles, which, in turn, means a lot of lesser-known bottles of scotch remain underappreciated or underhyped. That’s especially true if you’re not in Scotland or not entrenched deeply into the world of Scottish single malts.
Our focus today is underhyped single malt scotch whisky. We’ve gathered a quorum of whisky experts — whisky distillers, whisky bottlers, whisky judges, booze writers, and whisky ambassadors — to shout out the bottles of single malt from Scotland that they think need a little more love on the international whisk(e)y stage.
The ten single malts below may already be on your radar. Or they may not. Either way, these are bottles of the good stuff that our experts think are worth seeking out, giving a try, and maybe adding to your whisky rotation.
Oban 18 — Nate Ganapathi, Whisky investment consultant and founder of Single Malt Daily
Distillery: Oban Distillery, Oban, Highlands
Average Price: $150
Oban, a west highland malt, is always a great choice. One of the many many distilleries owned and operated by Diageo, makers of Johnnie Walker, this staple to any whisky collection fits in perfectly with its other siblings: Lagavulin, Talisker, and Caol Ila. One of the smallest distilleries in Scotland, everything they touch turns to gold! A delicious malt that often goes under the radar, Oban 18 expands upon the quintessential home bar piece in the 14.
It has a few similarities to Highland Park with regards to its taste (sweet, citrus, smoke). A more muted smoke than its younger counterpart with brilliant vanilla custard and some hints of sea salt. This is also one of the best bang-for-your-buck bottles on the market.
Inchgower Aged 27 Years — Ervin Trykowski, Global New Age Scotch Whisky Ambassador
Distillery: Inchgower Distillery, Buckie, Speyside
Average Price: $300
Not so much underrated as unsung! Inchgower is a magical single malt whisky. It’s a fruity Speyside malt with a whisp of salt tang that’s usually associated with the heavier styles of Scotch. This makes it a unique liquid and a great starting point for someone looking to explore coastal malt whisky.
The distillery was founded in 1871 and sits on the site of a ghost distillery, Tochieneal. It even uses the same equipment. As such, releases are few and far between (other than their 14-year Flora and Fauna). Plus, Inchgower is often reserved for special releases like the 27YO from 2018. It’s also featured in the blended malt Claddach from the same year.
It’s awesome juice, from a solid distillery, with a complex character. What more do you want?
A huge amount of barley sweetness, fruit sweets, cedarwood, hay, blossom, and a touch of chocolate. On the palate, a hit of citrus (first lime, then orange), ginger ice cream sweetness flanked with tannin, and salt finish. It’s awesome on the rocks and as part of a cocktail, a Morning Glory fizz or a sour are my two favs.
Glenfarclas Aged 12 Years– Jared Himstedt, Head Distiller and co-founder Balcones Distilling
Distillery: Glenfarclas Distillery, Ballindalloch, Speyside
Average Price: $55
The topic of over and underrated whiskies is a tricky one, the landscape changes so fast. Yesterday’s underdog can be tomorrow’s darling if it gets traction with an influential group or club or wins in a spirits competition. That said, I still have a go-to that I feel is underappreciated and has been for some time: Glenfarclas 12.
The allure of being independent and family-owned and their continued use of direct fire stills adds a layer of romance to the Glenfarclas brand. We have so many other sherried single malts — some subtle and some completely over the top — and this little gem has always struck me as being better and more interesting than some pricier and higher profile brands.
The value is there.
It’s a dram that starts with the expected sherry notes. Some varnish on the nose, nutty, vinous, just the right amount of sulfur. Maybe a hint of heavy cream and a crisp, almost eucalyptus, evaporativeness. It’s expressive for 43 percent ABV, with a creamy and coating texture. Grain and soft oak sweetness join the nuts and fruit mid-palate before a nice pop of acid and citrus meets you at the finish.
Glenfiddich 12 — Gillian Murphy, Tullamore DEW Ambassador
Distillery: Glenfiddich Distillery, Dufftown, Speyside
Average Price: $50
In 1963, Glenfiddich became the first single malt scotch whisky to be exported out of Scotland, essentially establishing the category as we know it. As the youngest expression in the Glenfiddich range, I find that The Glenfiddich 12-year-old Single Malt is often overlooked for its older, more elusive siblings. That’s a real shame.
Glenfiddich 12 offers a truly refreshing dram which can be enjoyed by all. The whisky is matured for 12 years in Olorosso sherry and American oak casks before being married in specially designed, uniquely sized oak tuns for nine months.
This dram really reminds me of freshly cut pears! It’s fresh and fruity on the nose; sweet, creamy, and malty on the palate and has a long, smooth, and mellow finish.
Speyburn Aged 10 Years — Bobby Childs, founder of Adventures in Whiskey
Distillery: Speyburn Distillery, Aberlour, Speyside
Average Price: $34
Lots of single malts out there get tons of attention, but there are even more that fly under the radar, especially here in the States. Speyburn 10-year-old is definitely a whisky that doesn’t get the credit it rightfully deserves.
Given its pleasing aromas and captivating flavors, it’s a perfect everyday pour. As important as that is, the $30-ish per bottle asking price is what really cements this malt as a must-have. Find me another 10-year-old whisky as delicious as Speyburn for that price!
It’s matured in a combination of ex-bourbon barrels and ex-sherry casks. The distillery bottles Speyburn 10-year-old at 43 percent ABV, which is a great sipping proof.
Speyburn 10 starts with hints of subtle sweetened malt, caramel chews, and a floral top note. Ripe nectarine, vanilla, and spice notes make an appearance with a little airtime. On the palate, honeyed malt is complemented by candied orange peel, stewed orchard fruits (think pear), pie crust, and vanilla bean. The clean, slightly dry finish features butterscotch and the slightest oak note.
It’s a Speyside single malt that beautifully captures a classic whisky profile at a very affordable price. You can’t beat that.
Old Pulteney Aged 12 Years — Adam Levy, Alcohol Professor, and founder International Spirit Competitions
Distillery: Pulteney Distillery, Pulteneytown, Highlands
Average Price: $48
I believe one of the most underrated distilleries in the Highlands is Old Pulteney in Wick. Wick, in its earlier glory, harbored the largest herring fleet in the world. The town became so unruly with drunken sailors that at one point it was ordered to become a “Dry Town.” Sailors looked at that distillery every day, longing to satisfy their thirst, with night watchmen standing guard ensuring the casks stayed safe.
The Old Pulteney 12 is a true maritime malt. It is aged in ex-bourbon casks and has a deeper amber color than one would expect for a 12-year-old.
When you bring it to your nose, you almost feel transported to the edge of the sea as brine fills your nostrils. Through the brine comes a light touch of honey and vanilla to bring balance to the nose. When you taste, you feel the malt presence in your mouth with a light spice and honey as it moves around. The finish is a smooth, long finish but not syrupy.
The dram ends on light smoke, spice, and the expected faint hints of the sea.
Aberfeldy 20 Exceptional Cask Series — Greg Dillon, founder of Great Drams and Drinks Producer of the Year 2019
Distillery: Aberfeldy Distillery, Aberfeldy, Highlands
Average Price: $190
Aberfeldy is a distillery nestled in the Highlands of Scotland. They are famous for being the spiritual home of Dewar’s and are still owned by the brand today. Lead by Master Distiller Stephanie Macleod, they are well known for their high-quality malt. This malt was first distilled in 1998 and has been matured in bourbon casks for 16 years, before being transferred to sherry casks to finish for four years.
The nose begins with notes of honey, caramel, and oak. Sherry spices appear with dried fruits and a lovely moist Christmas cake note. It’s rich and warming. Citrus fruits give it a nice liveliness and crystallized orange peels add a wonderful sweetness.
The palate is full of caramel and honey with a hint of vanilla oak. Coffee and dark chocolate give it a nice edge. The bitterness is excellent against the sweetness. The mouthfeel is smooth and brings out a lot of chewy dried fruit notes. Marzipan and Christmas cake continue through the sip.
The finish is bold with cinnamon and vanilla.
Mortlach Aged 20 Years — Ewan Gunn, Senior Global Brand Ambassador for Diageo Scotch Whiskies
Distillery: Mortlach Distillery, Dufftown, Speyside*
Average Price: $220
*This brand is owned and distributed by Diageo — so Ewan is, admittedly, making a homer pick here.
Mortlach has been admired and respected by those “in the know” for decades — by the people who actually make whisky, including distillers and blenders. However, apart from a small cult following within the malt whisky cognoscenti, it seems to fly under the radar.
Mortlach 20 for me strikes the perfect balance of rich, powerful, elegant, and complex. It’s one of the finest examples of Speyside whisky you’ll ever encounter.
This whisky has it all. It’s robust and rich, elegant, and intriguing. On the nose, there are notes of dried fruit, cedarwood, leather, barbecue ribs, and cocoa nibs. On the palate, these carry through along with aromatic spice, berries, jam, and a touch of ginger. The flavors and aromas are beautifully integrated and perfectly balanced, making this a truly exceptional whisky that deserves to be savored.
The Glenfiddich Project XX — Naomi Leslie, The Balvenie Ambassador East USA
Distillery: Glenfiddich Distillery, Dufftown, Speyside
Average Price: $88
The Glenfiddich Project XX is a delightfully unique whisky that I don’t believe has been spoken of enough in recent years. It was created at the distillery in Scotland by Malt Master Brian Kinsman and twenty of the industry’s leading experts. Each person chose a cask that stood out to them and these casks were married together to create this delicious spirit.
Due to this distinctive creation process, the whisky is very complex. At its core are the warm, fruit flavors you expect from any Glenfiddich whisky but, as you savor it, the spirit opens up to reveal notes of baking spice, toffee, and a touch of anise brightness. It then has a long finish that circles back around to those classic candied citrus notes Glenfiddich is renowned for.
Caol Ila Aged 12 Years — Zach Johnston, Deputy Editor UPROXX Life and host of Expression Session
Distillery: Caol Ila Distillery, Port Askaig, Islay
Average Price: $80
Caol Ila — pronounced “Cull Eela” — was a revelation to me when I tried it last year (thanks to Ewan Gunn’s recommendation in a small Edinburgh whisky bar). The distillery hides away on a small Islay bay. They pull their malt from the historic Port Ellen peat-fueled malting floors. The water is sourced from Loch Nam Ban as the water from the lake meaders past the distillery towards the briny sea. The result is a perfect marriage of Islay malts and seaside atmosphere in each sip.
The nose opens with a nice rush of citrus fruitiness next to moments of old leather, olives, and almond with a very distant hint of mouthwash mint. The fruit edges away from citrus towards sweeter notes as the sip mellows into hints of dried flowers, leather, and brine with an easy-going billow of smoke in the background. A light sourness arrives late as a counterpoint to the sweetness as this sip slowly fades away.