Single-malt Scotch—the products of individual Scottish distilleries—remain showpieces of the spirit world. To consumers, it’s still the bottle most likely to be given as a gift—to someone special, or to yourself.
To distillers, it’s often the pièce de résistance in a portfolio. As this month’s crop of top bottlings shows, Scotch whisky continues to evoke terroir, from delicate honey-and-floral Speyside to ferociously peated, briny Islay. Now more than ever, limited editions and single barrel Scotches make up a growing, but ever-shuffling part of the category—now you see em, now you don’t. No wonder some people collect single malts in libraries, travel to Scotland to try elusive offerings and keep fervent tasting diaries.
While Scotch distillers bear some of the most draconian restrictions in what can and can’t be used to make Scotland’s namesake whisky, there’s still no shortage of creativity. Some clever importers acquire barrels from distilleries that have shuttered or changed hands; meanwhile, distillers experiment with cask finishes, barrel woods or charring techniques. Consider Chef Daniel Boulud’s new bottling in conjunction with The Dalmore: made from three batches of Scotch (all from the same house, so still considered a single malt), each finished in casks that previously held wine or fortified wine, then blended together for a toothsome, remarkably food-friendly result.
With all of the industry buzz about flavored whiskies going on right now, it’s easy to forget how gorgeous and varied single malt Scotches can be—no flavorings required. Just amazing whisky and—since many of the best Scotches are bottled at cask strength—a good dose of water is all that’s required in the glass. Here are six recently rated top picks.
97 The Dalmore Selected by Daniel Boulud (Scotland; Whyte & Mackay, Miami, FL). This collaboration between Chef Daniel Boulud and Master Distiller Richard Paterson is predictably delicious. The bespoke spirit is made from Dalmore whiskies finished in casks that previously held Moscatel, Madeira and Port wine. It’s scented with orange peel and caramel, has luxuriously rich toffee and dark-chocolate flavors and finishes with berry notes. This dessert-like Scotch went on sale at retail stores in October and is also available at Boulud’s restaurants.
abv: 44% Price: $200
96 Glenfiddich 18 (Scotland; William Grant & Sons, New York, NY). Luxe and easy-sipping. Look for enticing notes of butterscotch, baked pear, cinnamon and clove on the nose and palate, swathed in just the right amount of smokiness.
abv: 43% Price: $90
96 Montgomerie’s Rare Select Island (Scotland; W.J. Deutsch & Sons-Blue Division, White Plains, NY). This single-cask Scotch was distilled at Tobermory in 1994 and aged for 18 years. Pale straw in color, it offers complex flavors, yet never loses its refreshing lightness and delicacy. Light peatiness gives way to delicate tropical-fruit notes, which in turn give way to a long, buttery vanilla finish.
abv: 46% Price: $72
95 Glenfarclas 105 Cask Strength (Scotland; Sazerac Company, New Orleans, LA). This Scotch is named for the proof (105) of a bottle that Chairman John Grant’s father, George S. Grant, bottled in 1968 as a Christmas gift for family and friends. Nut-colored, it has a markedly bold toffee aroma and lots of flavor and drama. Hazelnut, espresso and cocoa flavors linger, with hints of allspice and drying oak tannins. Though it needs more than a splash of water to arrive at a nuanced sippability, don’t hold that against this almost Bourbon-like beauty.
abv: 60% Price: $80
94 Auchentoshan Valinch 2012 (Scotland; Campari America, San Francisco, CA). Valinch means “whisky thief,” and refers to the overproof nature of this limited-edition product. Matured in first-fill Bourbon casks, this smoky Scotch is brisk and bright, with notes of peat, menthol, custard, vanilla and ripe banana—the distiller refers to it as an “alcoholic cream soda.” Even if you don’t detect the smoke in the aroma, which tends towards fresh apple and vanilla, it’s in full bloom on the palate.
abv: 57.2% Price: $60
94 Bowmore Islay Single Malt Scotch Whisky Dorus Mor (Scotland; Campari America, San Francisco, CA). This 10-year-old cask-strength Scotch is velvety, balanced and for peat-lovers only. Though golden in the glass, on the tongue it’s big and dark, showing notes of toffee and vanilla, then smoke, smoke and more smoke until it drifts gently away.
abv: 55.1% Price: $120