This week, I was lucky enough to get to blindly taste single malt Scotch whiskies between 20 and 25 years old. It was a serious learning experience. The biggest thing I learned? 20-year-old single malt scotch is way easier to drink than 20-year-old bourbon. Whereas the bourbon can get more intense with all that age, single malts tend to soften dramatically while still holding onto their flavor profiles.
So while the bourbon sweet spot is often 8-12 years (with some exceptions), with scotch you don’t have a really firm upper limit.
Considering that we’re talking about single malts that spent a long time in barrels, you won’t be surprised to find that there was no price factor in this blind tasting. These bottles range from $200 to $900 — if you can find them at all. Also, I wasn’t guessing which was which. I know most of these well enough to make that a breeze. There’s no misidentifying an Ardbeg or Oban, for instance. Still, doing a blind helped me to trust my palate rather than a label.
What’s always interesting about these blind tastings is how these drams change when stacked up against something you don’t usually taste them with. Little nuances pop up that may have not been there before while flavor notes you thought you really liked can disappear. It’s a fun experiment in whisky tasting that always brings about new knowledge. Click the prices to order the expressions that look best to you.
Let’s get tasting!
Part 1: The Taste
There’s a clear sense of honey on the nose with dried fruit, malts, and light oak. The taste leans into the honey and malts while a sweet red berry flourish arrives. There’s a hint of butter toffee next to those whisky malts.
This is mildly malty with hints of tobacco spice, dried and candied fruits, and a bit of light molasses sweetness. There’s a body of the slightest dark chocolate chili note that leads towards a whisper of sourness at the end.
There’s a clear smokiness but it’s more akin to a smoked stonefruit that’s started to harden a bit. The taste has a honeyed apple nature with an oaky chew that leads back to a very faint wisp of that smoke again.
It’s almost like smoked almonds without the salt.
This has a real malty nature with hints of sweet oak, boardwalk-style salted caramel in wax paper, and a hint of chewy sweet fruit. The body has a dark chocolate/hazelnut vibe that’s like the best bespoke Nutella cut with a touch of toasted coconut and a hint of mint. This is also pure velvet on the tongue and leaves you with notes of sweet yet spicy oak.
This is very light and approachable with a hint of pear candy drawing you in and developing on the palate. Notes of worn leather, spicy tobacco, and light malts really blend well with that pear/apple candy sweetness and a touch of vanilla.
Cream, smoked toffee, lemon pith, and ashes from a campfire open this one up. Then there’s this real sense of potting soil that’s still in the plastic from the garden shop next to uncooked smoked bacon rashers with a slightly sour edge leading back to that cream. Finally, hefty/ spicy tobacco chewiness brings about a full-on head buzz — it’s a wild sensation.
Part 2: The Ranking
6. BenRiach The Twenty One Four Cask Matured (Taste 3)
Average Price: $185
This newly-released 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.
I’m not a peaty whisky drinker, but I actually was kind of underwhelmed by the thin smoke in this dram. I need the peat to be earthier and smokier, with a bit of fat to it. This didn’t have those qualities.
5. Aberfeldy 20 Exceptional Cask (Taste 1)
Average Price: $190
This special release from last year spent 20 years mellowing in re-fill bourbon and sherry casks. Then the prime juice was married and filled into hand-selected Sauternes sweet wine casks from France for a final year of maturation. The results hold onto the signature honeyed heart of Aberfeldy while adding more sweetened nuance to the dram.
In the end, it’s light and approachable but left me a little cold this time around. Also, I’m a big fan of their 18-year Expecptional Cask, released last year, thanks to deeper notes of cedar and tobacco which are muted in this dram.
4. Mortlach 21 2020 Rare By Nature (Taste 2)
Average Price: $835
Mortlach is a Dufftown icon. The juice in this bottle are single malts that are small-batched and then refilled into former Pedro Ximenez and Oloroso sherry seasoned casks for final maturation. The whisky was then bottled at cask strength, allowing you a full vision of what was in the barrel.
This is really interesting. However, that sourness came out of nowhere and kind of threw me off. It could be from oxidization in the sample bottle I have… Tough to say.
Still, this is a damn fine whisky that really shines.
3. Cragganmore 20 2020 Rare By Nature (Taste 5)
Average Price: $200
Cragganmore is another Speyside classic. This one-off expression from last year is a mix of single malts aged in refill casks and new oak with a fresh char for 20 long years. The juice is then bottled at cask strength.
This really hit well today. And, like the Mortlach above, it’s baffling that these are both “cask strength” given how delicate they are. That pear candy undercurrent hit the right spot of fruit and sweet with such a soft touch.
It really is like drinking the softest whisky you can think of while still holding real texture and flavor.
2. Ardbeg 25 (Taste 6)
Average Price: $900
The newest expression from Ardbeg also happens to be their oldest expression (in the core line). The whisky is the epitome of peat on Islay. What makes this expression so special and extremely rare is that it was distilled and casked when Ardbeg was on its knees as a company, in the early 1990s. They simply weren’t making that much whisky back then and there’s hardly any of it left.
This is a one-and-likely-gone whisky.
I was really sort of blown away by this. It was such an unexpected gathering of flavors that didn’t seem to make sense at first, then combined to create something more than the sum of its parts. I mean come on! Cream and raw strips of bacon with potting soil and campfire embers!?
It sounds so ridiculous, and yet here we are. Plus, that final buzz really was something. If I was a peat-head, this would probably have landed at number one in this ranking.
1. Oban 21 (Taste 4)
Average Price: $480
This whisky from 2018 is much-sought-after. The classic juice from the tiny Oban Distillery spends 21 years resting in a combination of used European oak barrels in Oban’s small warehouse nestled between a black rock cliff and the lapping of the sea. The juice is then married and bottled at cask strength, capturing all the nuances and uniqueness of Oban in the bottle.
Yeah, this is the shit. It’s just so well-balanced, nuanced, and easy to drink that it’s almost criminal it costs what it does. It’s also shocking every time I read the ABVs and realize this is cask strength. I literally have to look two or three times to assure that I’m reading the ABVs correctly … it’s that f*cking smooth and soft.
Part 3: Final Thoughts
There’s a certain pain to knowing that the whisky you’d love to drink as an everyday sipper is so far out of your budget. Still, that Oban 21 is really one of the best whiskies out there of any style. If you get a chance to drink some, don’t hesitate.
All of that being said, that Ardbeg 25 was the biggest surprise. It’s really … just interesting and new and kind of fun. But again, you’ll have to get one soon, as it’ll sell out very soon.
In the end, this wasn’t about accessible bottles you can just run out and buy. This was about learning, expanding, and taking a moment to appreciate just how beautiful a great dram of Scotch whisky really can be.
As a Drizly affiliate, Uproxx may receive a commission pursuant to certain items on this list.