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9 of the best Scottish whiskies: our favourite Scotch brands

Whisky is no longer seen as an old man’s drink, but it is a classic. Here Rosalind Erskine picks 9 of the best scotch whiskies that’ll appeal to beginners and seasoned drinkers alike.

Published: August 26, 2022

Whisky is, and always will be, synonymous with Scotland. It’s our national drink and the history of whisky is interwoven with the history of the country - with its rises, falls, illegal nature and cultural wealth in flux with that of our nation.

Scotch whisky history

Whisky production in Scotland is thought to date back several hundred years to when invading Romans brought the art of winemaking to the country.

The issue of a lack of grapes was dealt with in monasteries and farmhouses by substituting barley to make the first form of the distinctive spirit. Illegal distilling was rife, which is why you’ll find so many Scotch whisky distilleries hidden away within the hills (especially in Speyside), and the moonshine being made held no resemblance to today’s drams.

It was in 1824 that The Glenlivet owner, George Smith, applied for the first licence to distil and since then whisky has become one of Scotland’s best-known brands, distinct from the ‘whiskey’ produced elsewhere.

How much is whisky worth to the Scottish economy? 

Whisky took a downturn in popularity in the 80s and 90s, with many distilleries closing their doors for good. But in the last few years, whisky fortunes have changed. Old and rare releases, along with independent bottlings, have become extremely sought-after, and new distilleries (and re-opening of lost distilleries) are popping up regularly. 

This popularity can be seen in monetary terms, as over 1.14 billion bottles are sent around the world each year, accounting for 75 per cent of all Scottish food and drink exports. Annually, Scotch Whisky exports are worth £3.8 billion to the Scottish economy, with the entire industry bringing in a hefty £5.5 billion.

Is Scotch the same as Scottish whisky and what’s whiskey?

Whiskey, whisky, Scotch. One drink, many names, so what are the differences? Whiskey, whisky and Scotch all refer to the same drink with the main difference being regionality, and the country, or countries the whisky is produced in.

Whiskey with an 'e', mainly refers to whisky produced in the US (Canada uses the Scottish spelling), such as Bourbon and Rye, and Ireland, such as brands like Jamieson's and Bushmills.

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Whisky without the 'e', refers to whisky made in Scotland, and other countries who produce whisky in a similar style to Scotland, such as Japan and France.

Scotch however, refers only to whisky made in Scotland, and is a term most popularly used in film and TV, particularly in America, to differentiate it from Bourbon or American whiskey.

A Scotch whisky must be Is produced at a distillery in Scotland from water and malted barley which have been "processed at that distillery into a mash, converted at that distillery to a fermentable substrate only by endogenous enzyme systems, fermented at that distillery only by adding yeast, and distilled at an alcoholic strength by volume of less than 94.8 per cent.

How many whisky distilleries are there in Scotland? 

Right now, this will depend on when you’re reading this article as there are many being built, some awaiting planning and new plans for new distilleries being unveiled on what seems like a monthly basis.

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As of July 2022 there are over 130 malt and grain whisky distilleries (138 to be precise), making Scotland the greatest concentration of whisky production in the world.

Whisky drinkers now

Whisky drinkers are now younger and more diverse. This has driven a shift in messaging from the industry to slowly change perceptions of whisky as an old man’s drink. Cocktails and highballs are du jour, and the days of enjoying a single malt on its own or over ice being the only acceptable way to drink whisky are slowly ending.

With this in mind, we take a look at 9 of the best Scotch whiskies, from single malts, to blends and those ideal for beginners. As we’re fond of saying, there’s a whisky for everyone, you’ve just not found your favourite yet.

The Glenmorangie 10 year old

The Glenmorangie 10 year old
The Glenmorangie 10 year old

Best single malt scotch whisky for beginners

Lochlea release Harvest Edition single malt whisky

Price: £36.95

Best for: beginners

This classic whisky has set a high standard for Highland drams, which are often overlooked by their more popular Speyside cousins. The Glenmorangie is a well balanced, warming, not too strong whisky, which will appeal to those who want to try a dram neat for the first time.

Tasting notes: On the nose there’s vanilla and orange while on the palette you may find honey, malt, apricots and banana. The finish is fruity and light.

Score: 4/5

Buy it here: The Glenmorangie 10 year old

Johnnie Walker 12 year old black label

Johnnie Walker 12 year old black label
Johnnie Walker 12 year old black label

Best blend

Price: £25.99

Best for: your favourite whisky cocktail

When picking a whisky for a cocktail or to try as a beginner, it has to be Johnnie Walker black label. There’s a reason this whisky and brand has stood the test of time, and is recognisable (and available) all over the world. Made from about 40 different whiskies, Johnnie Walker black label is known for its mellow smokiness.

Tasting notes: On the nose there’s hints of citrus and pepper. On the palate you may find cereal, toffee, hints of wood smoke and more citrus. The finish is fruity.

Score: 4/5

Buy it here: Johnnie Walker 12 year old black label

MacNair’s Lum Reek Peated 21 Year Old

MacNair’s Lum Reek Peated 21 Year Old
MacNair’s Lum Reek Peated 21 Year Old

Price: £125

Best for: Something different

This award-winning blended malt (created by whisky legend and master blender at The GlenAllachie, Billy Walker) is made with Islay and Speyside peated malts, combined with older GlenAllachie to create a rich dram.

MacNair's Lum Reek 21 year old was voted Worlds Best Blended Malt 2020, and is aged in Oloroso, virgin oak and red wine casks.

Tasting notes: On the nose you’ll find the oak and wood smoke, which turns to earthy peat on the palate where you may also find dark chocolate, pepper and spice. The finish is rich, with honey and bonfire embers.

Score: 3.5/5 

Buy it here: MacNair’s Lum Reek Peated 21 Year Old

Balvenie Double Wood 12 Year Old

Balvenie Double Wood 12 Year Old
Balvenie Double Wood 12 Year Old
Best smooth scotch
Price: £41.95

Best for: a smooth dram

One for beginners and sherry fans, this whisky can be found in most bars and is extremely smooth. Launched in 1993, you can enjoy it on its own or in a long drink, such as a highball, where the sweetness can balance out soda. This whisky began maturation in an ex Bourbon barrel before being finished in a sherry cask to give it a rounder, fruitier flavour. 

Tasting notes: Christmas cake on the nose, and palate, along with honey and vanilla. The finish is sweet yet spicy.

Score: 5/5

Buy it here: Balvenie Double Wood 12 Year Old

Dalmore 15

Dalmore 15
Dalmore 15

Price: £83.95

Best for: autumn drinks

This 15 year old is a classic from The Damore, and has spent 12 years in ex-Bourbon casks before being finished in Matusalem, Apostoles and Amoroso sherry casks, making it a complex, warming dram that is ideal for when the seasons change.

Tasting notes: On the nose there’s hazelnuts and spice, which develop on the palate into full blown Christmas cake with toffee and cherries. It has a long, sweet finish.

Score:5/5

Buy it here: Dalmore 15.

Bowmore 15 Year Old

Bowmore 15 Year Old
Bowmore 15 Year Old

Price: £62.95

Best for: whisky aficionados 

Matured in an combination of both bourbon and sherry casks, the final three years of this whisky's cask life are spent in an Oloroso sherry wood giving it an intriguing mix of toffee, fruit and peat that will have you coming back to tease out different flavours each and every time.

Tasting notes: On the nose you’ll get the sherry cask influence, with sweetness from vanilla, coconut and dark fruits. On the palate there’s rich fruit, peat smoke, blackcurrant and spiced ginger biscuits. It finishes with rich notes and a linger of smoke.

Score:4/5

Buy it here: Bowmore 15 Year Old

Benromach 21 year old

Benromach 21 year old

Price: £124.49

Best for: toasting a celebration

To mark the worldwide release of Benromach’s new look, the Speyside distillery has launched a new permanent addition to its core range – the Benromach 21 Year Old - and it’s well worth the price tag. Matured exclusively in first-fill sherry and bourbon casks, the 21 Year Old is a rounded, well balanced whisky that is sure to become a classic.

Tasting notes: This whisky leads with sherry aromas followed by the taste of subtle spice, raspberry and Seville orange, with a soft smoky finish.

Score: 5/5

Buy it here: Benromach 21 year old.

Glasgow Distillery Malt Riot

Glasgow Distillery Malt Riot
Glasgow Distillery Malt Riot

Price: £24

Best for: budget buy

Last year, the Glasgow Distillery Company introduced Malt Riot – a blended malt Scotch whisky – to its range.The new release is a selected blend of handpicked single malts from across Scotland, with the distillery’s Glasgow 1770 Single Malt at the heart of the spirit.

The whisky is inspired by the malt tax protests that took place in 1725. These started in Glasgow, then spread across the nation, where protesters came together to demand the tax on malted barley be overturned.

Tasting notes: On the nose there’s a hint of vanilla and spiced orange. On the palate you may get zestier orange notes as well as tropical fruits and ginger. The finish continues with this spicy ginger note.

Score: 3.5/5

Buy it here: Glasgow Distillery Malt Riot

The Sassenach

The Sassenach
The Sassenach

Price: £79.95

Best for: a sipping whisky

Outlander star Sam Heughan released The Sassenach blended Scotch in late 2020, after revealing it was a dream of his to have his own whisky. A sell-out success, the fruity and complex whisky is back on sale in the UK. It has won multiple double gold awards from places such as the San Francisco World Spirits Championship and the New York World Wine and Spirits Competition.

Tasting notes: On the nose you’ll get honey and a hint of cinnamon while on the palate that honey sweetness is more intense, with notes of butterscotch, more cinnamon, apricot and raisin. The finish is long and sweet with a fruity note.

Score: 5/5 

Buy it here: The Sassenach

Interested in all things whisky? Check out our round-ups of the best whiskies on the planet

Best whisky glasses: from crystal to tumblers, budget to Glencairn, from Amazon to ASDA
9 of the best Scottish whiskies: our favourite Scotch brands
Best Islay whisky: from Ardbeg to Laphroaig, the Islay whiskies you need to try
Best rye whiskey: ideal rye for a Sazerac, Manhattan, or simply neat
Best peated whisky: from Speyside to Islay, the peaty whiskies to please
8 of the best single malt whiskies
Best expensive whiskies worth the price tag: Macallan, Glengoyne, Tobermory, Glenfiddich
Best supermarket whiskies: best whisky buys from Lidl, Aldi, Morrisons and Tescos
Best blended whiskies: is it worth buying blended whisky? The best brands
Best world whiskies: from cheap to expensive, the world whisky brands you have to try
Best Irish whiskey: from cheap to expensive, single malt, blends, and smoky
Best Speyside whiskies: from single malt to blended, M&S to Glenfiddich
Best English whiskies: the English whisky brands worth buying
Best Japanese whisky: our expert guide to best brands, from single malt, blended, under £50, to best-selling

This article contains affiliate links. We may earn a small commission through items purchased through this article, however this does not affect our editorial judgement.

Known for cake making, experimental jam recipes, Champagne and gin drinking (and the inability to cook Gnocchi), Rosalind writes for The Scotsman on all things food and drink related as well as hosting Scran, The Scotsman's food and drink podcast.

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