Single malt. The words evoke such reverence amongst most whisky drinkers. Class, refinement, sophistication, wealth. But what about great single malt Scotch on a budget?

Perhaps we should first examine what a single malt is. Simply put: It’s whisky pot-distilled at a single distillery using 100-percent malted barley. Such simple regulations and ingredients, however, can still lead to extremely wide-ranging aromas and flavors. When looking at Scottish single malt, specifically, the spirit’s character can be determined by everything from location to aging, the use of peat (or not) to the types of barrel finishes and so forth.

There are no exact rules for what barrels single malt Scotch need be aged in. Much of it utilizes ex-bourbon barrels, the most widely available barrels in the world as bourbon itself is only allowed to fill them one time. Sherry-seasoned barrels are also popular for aging, often used as a finishing vessel. Time in the barrel is critical as well. Single malt Scotch must be aged at least three years, though most make it to at least a decade before hitting shelves. (With a $50 cap, the oldest in our tasting was 13.)

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there are six distinct Scottish whisky regions, each with their own typical profile—whether that’s the lighter, fruitier whiskies of the Highlands or the extremely peaty offerings from Islay. All these areas have their standouts, though, so it often comes down to personal preference.

That’s part of why we wanted to organize this tasting: To offer a diverse handful of affordable Scotches that present an opportunity to find out what profile you gravitate to, without breaking the bank. With many of our single malts coming from producers who have been in the game for over a century, it was no surprise that quality was high across all 24 bottlings we blind-tasted.

For the tasting, PUNCH’s editorial staff was joined by Aaron Goldfarb, a frequent PUNCH contributor on the topic of whisk(e)y and craft beer. Below are our top five picks, each from a different region, which, taken together, offer a snapshot of the spectrum of affordable Scottish single malts in various flavor profiles.

 

Our Top Five

Glenmorangie The Original 10 Year

This ten-year-old Highlands expression was a slam-dunk selection in a sea of solid contenders. Aged in first- and second-fill American white oak bourbon barrels of their own design, it leads with savory, umami aromatics. It’s round on the palate with notes of angel food cake and chocolate ganache balanced by bracing acidity and a hint of iodine. An exceptionally well-made, balanced whisky that is a perfect introduction to the category.

  • Price: $38
  • ABV: 43 percent

The Glenrothes Vintage Reserve

An intriguing bottling of up to ten different vintages, some as old as 1989, this Speyside single malt leads with strong oloroso sherry notes on the nose (it’s been aged in a variety of barrels, including ex-bourbon and ex-sherry). It’s rich and savory on the palate, with notes of sugar cookie and butter cream. Perfect for the casual Scotch drinker looking for a break from bourbon.

  • Price: $45
  • ABV: 40 percent

Springbank 10 Year Old

One of the few Scottish distilleries not owned by an international conglomerate, this family-run Campbeltown distillery isn’t as well known in the States as it should be. The distillery malts, kilns and mills their own barley (a rarity these days) and does not chill-filter. This bottling, their youngest, is lightly peaty on the nose with notes of “a freshly opened can of tennis balls” (in a good way); it’s full of warm spice and a creamy note—which one taster likened to aged riesling—on the palate, all backed up by a long, briny finish.

  • Price: $48
  • ABV: 46 percent

Highland Park Magnus

This new, non-age-statement bottling from the well-known (but off-the-beaten-path) Orkney outfit is a solid intro the brand. It’s pretty and high-toned, showing notes of stone fruit and hay and a touch of peat. It’s well-balanced on the palate with an intriguing tension between big notes of caramel and “birthday cake” and high-toned acidity.

  • Price: $39
  • ABV: 40 percent

Ardbeg 10 Year Old

This Islay distiller’s flagship offering is a smoke bomb, but it’s hardly one-note. Distilled by industry mastermind Dr. Bill Lumsden—who does double duty as Glenmorangie’s whisky-maker as well—the complexity here is undeniable. The panel found the nose quite spicy, with notes of jalapeños and roasted poblano peppers balanced by sweeter notes—buttered biscuit, fresh dough—and a distinct mineral freshness.

  • Price: $45
  • ABV: 46 percent

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