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Happy Holidays to all of our readers who prefer malt over corn! This guide should help point you in the direction of some of the season’s best bottles to look for at your local stores for that special Scotch-loving someone in your life.
Let me start by saying that if the individual you’re buying for has told you what they want, I would recommend getting what they want, especially if they aren’t particularly adventurous in their drinking habits. Don’t be a Grinch this Christmas because you “know better!”
Now on to the list! I’ve broken this down into price ranges tentatively referred to as “Lower” (~$40 or less), “Middle” ($50 to $70), and “High” (~$100 or more) along with an “Independent Bottler” (IB) section if you want to branch out a bit for your holiday shopping.
In each range, I’ll try and highlight both peated and unpeated offerings (smoky versus non smoky). The goal here is to recommend bottles that are generally available and not special releases/single casks that you won’t be able to find. Keep in mind that this is a US based list and will have US based pricing and availability.
While we’re on the topic of pricing, Scotch in the US has seen an unfortunate increase in prices. Initially this was due to tariffs which were suspended in June of 2021 but prices continue to remain high possibly due to increased shipping costs, remaining stock purchased during tariffs and maybe a little bit of importer greed.
Regardless, finding decent Scotch at low prices has become an increasingly difficult and frustrating task. Scotch lovers know the struggle, yet we will persist.
Lower Price Range (Around $40 USD or less)
The most difficult category to find recommendations for, low end scotch useful for much of anything other than mixing has become a rarity, however, there are still some bottles out there that can be sipped neat but won’t hurt your feelings when your “giftee” makes Hot Toddies out of them.
Johnnie Walker Black (very lightly peated)
A classic blended scotch, Diageo mixes grain whisky and single malts to create a bottle that packs good flavor for ~$30 USD. This is a whisky for someone looking to “get into Scotch.” It won’t bowl you over with depth, but rather provide an unobtrusive gateway to the wonder that is Scotland’s greatest invention.
Compass Box Kings Street Artist (unpeated)
Whisky Maker John Glasser has created a nice little gem in the Kings Street blends. The Artist’s blend is unpeated and contains a healthy amount of single malt whisky in the recipe.
More nuanced than Johnnie Walker Black, the King Street blends have more depth and character and are bottled at 43% ABV. They are also a bit more respected because they do not use chill filtration or caramel coloring. If the person you’re buying for is interested in a smokier Scotch, Compass Box Kings Street Glasglow (peated) is the one to get.
Glenlivet 12 Year (unpeated)
The only single malt in the “Lower Range” category, Glenlivet is similar to Johnnie Walker in that it is not a challenging whisky to appreciate.
Instead it showcases approachable malt flavors and serves as a solid introduction to unpeated single malts. Glenlivet should be available for less than $40 USD, but if you can’t find it try the similarly flavored and priced Glenffidich 12 Year (Okay, so there are two single malts in the low end category).
Middle Price Range (Between $50 to $70)
The mid range affords us the opportunity to dive into some excellent single malts that go under the radar. But before we do, I have another blend to recommend. Compass Box Orchard House (unpeated) is a new release in 2021 and blends together some excellent single malts from Clynelish, Linkwood and Benrines that make up the majority of the whisky.
Bottled at a respectable 46% ABV, this blended malt does not use chill filtration or added coloring and lives up to its name by providing a flavor profile filled with fresh fruit while still showcasing its base distilleries’ unique profiles.
Arran 10 Year (unpeated)
This flagship single malt from Arran is packed with sweet, delicious whisky. Aged in a blend of ex-bourbon and sherry casks, the 10yr showcases citrus, toasty malt and salted hazelnuts and comes bottled at 46% ABV and does not use chill filtration or coloring.
Benromach 10 Year (lightly peated)
This whisky is a great introduction to peated malt. Benromach uses Highland Peat which comes off as more farm-y and earthy than Islay’s peated malt.
The 10 Year is refined in its use of peat because the smoke is distinct yet doesn’t overpower the dram. It’s filled with earthy character, vanilla sweetness and herbal spices. Bottled at 43% ABV this whisky isn’t chill filtered but most likely has some caramel coloring in it.
Ardbeg 10 Year (peated)
If the person you’re buying for loves aggressive, peaty scotch, then look no farther than Ardbeg 10yr (peated). Bottled at 46% ABV, this single malt from Islay packs an absolute wallop of meaty, smoky, maritime peat which inundates its malty, fruity character. If your giftee likes a more medicinal peat, swap this out for the similarly angry and readily available Laphroaig 10yr (peated).
Bunnahabhain 12 Year (unpeated)
Is another Islay recommendation, but unlike it’s smoky brothers, this single malt is unpeated. Utilizing a blend of sherry and bourbon casks, Bunnahabhain 12yr is bottled at 46.3% ABV without coloring or chill filtration and has a unique flavor profile: there’s dried fruit, toasted nuts, sweet vanilla and hints of seaweed. It’s a uniquely Bunnahabhain profile that is easy to love.
Hazelburn 10 Year (unpeated)
This Campbeltown single malt comes from the wonderful Springbank distillery. Although this bottle is unpeated it still has a lot of potent character nicely balanced by bourbon barrel notes.
It’s bottled at 46% ABV and goes without coloring or chill filtration. This is a great option in the mid price range for your slightly more adventurous recipients.
Unfortunately, a trend in price creep on Springbank’s US bottles may soon push this malt beyond a price worth paying, but if you can still find it for ~$65, it’s worth every penny!
Higher Price Range (Around $100 or more)
You can buy Johnnie Walker Blue, or you could get a couple of the bottles on this list and enjoy some more variety… and frankly, better whisky. Spending around $100 USD opens up your options to some really delicious whisky and will allow your giftee to explore older expressions from distilleries they enjoy.
Kilkerran 16 Year (lightly peated)
We’ll start with another Campbeltown malt, Kilkerran 16 Year (lightly peated). A sister distillery to Springbank, Kilkerran’s recent 16 Year release is a lot of fun with a unique flavor profile.
Earthy with distinct diesel/fuel like notes, the peat here is less smoky and more… well, “weird” in the best sort of way. Aged primarily in bourbon barrels (96% bourbon, 4% marsala), they influence the malt nicely, adding scads of fresh fruit but don’t drown out Kilkerran’s feisty spirit. Great whisky for someone who wants a bit of a challenge with their dram.
Laphroaig 10 Year Cask Strength (peated)
If Laphroaig 10 is angry, then Laphroaig 10yr Cask Strength (peated) is apoplectic. It is an absolute monster of a peated dram. This single malt is not for the faint of heart and conjures up images of scuttled medical vessels and flaming fruit forests with every sip.
This bottle is sold in annual batches, each with its own ABV, but rest assured that whichever bottle you buy it will be at cask strength, non-chill filtered or colored and unapologetically delicious. If you can’t find the cask strength version, a nice and readily available substitute is Ardbeg Corryvreckan (peated). Similar in potency, this dram exchanges Laphroaig’s medicinal character for heavy spice notes.
Ardbeg Uigeadail (peated)
We love high strength Ardbeg bottles and Uigeadail is no exception! A heavily peated and heavily sherry-influenced beast, “Oogie” as it is affectionately called by its fans offers a great blend of classic Ardbeg peated malt with pleasant sherry character. Not for the faint of heart, this is bottled at ~54% ABV and packs a wallop!
Bunnahabhain 18 Year (unpeated)
Is everything you like about the 12yr bottling, but with more depth and a weightier mouthfeel, Bunnahabhain’s malt character is more restrained after 18 years in oak, but still present.
The sherry influence is dialed up with pleasant notes of toasted nuts, leather and tobacco all at an approachable, 46.3% ABV. This can be hard to find in some regions of the US, so if you can’t find it, look for GlenAllachie 18 Year or Glendronach 18 Year instead.
If you’re looking to buy something that offers a bit of a twist or a unique iteration on a scotch drinker’s favorite distillery, the Independent Bottlers (IBs) can offer just that for your more adventurous giftees.
If you don’t know what an Independent Bottler is, think of them as companies that travel around Scotland asking distilleries if they can sample some of their barrels and buy the ones that they really like.
They bottle those barrels up one at a time (instead of blending them together like most Scotch producers will do) and sprinkle them throughout stores in the United States. Be warned that IBs are very hard to find in most location and only the largest and most well stocked liquor stores will carry them.
This is not an exhaustive list, but Independent Bottlers like Duncan Taylor, Alexander Murray and Signatory offer both cask strength and proofed down bottles of whisky from a myriad of distilleries.
These are trusted names and take great pride in finding the best and most unique barrels from distilleries all around Scotland. Additionally, A.D. Ratray, Cadenhead’s, Blackadder and Single Cask Nation can be a bit more difficult to find, but are also right up there in terms of quality Independent Bottlers. If these are available in your area, look for a bottling from one of your Scotch drinker’s favorite distilleries (ask them this beforehand). I doubt they’ll be disappointed.
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