Reviews The Brewing Shed

The 10 best single malt Scotch whiskies for 2020

Experimental Scotch Whisky

This piece was originally destined for the iNews, but the troubled Independent newspaper pulled all of our commissions midway through working on them, leaving us with no beer money and a bunch of whisky samples rattling around our desks. Rather than abandon our research we decided to stick the piece on this site instead.

The Scottish whisky market is going through a bit of a change at the moment, with distilleries trying to keep up with innovative new boozes* from gin, vodka and rum producers. To do this they’re increasingly launching new products, releasing limited editions, rebranding portfolios and generally trying to shake things up to appeal to a new audience.

This list of whiskies features some of those new and limited edition releases from old and new distilleries, along with some more familiar drams that are hoping to attract more attention and boost sales. For whisky fans old and new, it looks like we have an exciting year ahead…


Bruichladdich, Port Charlotte 10, 50%

Islay’s Port Charlotte distillery is one of many that has been through highs and lows before eventually succumbing to the pressures of business and closing down, in this case in 1929, after 100 years in operation. But, unlike some, it may not be gone for ever. The distillery is currently owned by island neighbours Bruichladdich, albeit not currently in a working state. Instead, Bruichladdich makes whisky under the Port Charlotte brand at its own distillery, aiming to stay faithful to the kind of heavily peated whisky they imagine the original distillery would’ve produced.

Port Charlotte 10 was relaunched in 2018 and is bottled at 50% in bold, modern packaging that reflects Bruichladdich’s innovative approach, and it’s a belter of a booze: rich and complex with an injection of dry smoke from the first sniff to the long finish. It’s a smooth sipper but also has an oily tack to it, smacking stone fruit and peat into the palate and leaving it there for an age. To add to its richness there’s also some sweet ginger heat that builds as you sip, wrecking the taste buds for anything else you might consider drinking, but keeping them keen for another drop of this exceptional whisky. Approximate price £50



Wolfburn Aurora, 46%

We first came across Wolfburn’s whisky earlier this year and have enjoyed a few of their expressions, but this release is still our favourite. The distillery was founded in 2012 on a site in Thurso that previously produced whisky way back in 1821. Aurora has been matured in three different casks: second-fill quarter casks**, first-fill bourbon and first-fill oloroso. It’s light in colour and has a clean, light flavour – initially sweet vanilla and almond but drying out to reveal some warming spices. All that sweet lightness makes it easy to sip neat, with the rough edges of youth smoothed out by some sort of Scottish distillery magic. A new distillery that we’ll continue to keep our eyes on… Approximate price £47



Tomatin Cask Strength, 57.5%

Of late we’ve been noticing a steady increase in the number of cask strength whiskies entering more mainstream markets, which we think is a good thing. These high strength bottles generally offer more booze-per-pence and showcase each whisky’s full flavour, allowing the drinker to try them with maximum alcohol before diluting to their preferred level.

Highlands distillery Tomatin has been gaining lots of new fans over the last few years and this cask strength whisky, aged in sherry and bourbon barrels, has earned a place among its core range. We think it can handle a good amount of water (and a cube of ice) without diminishing its full flavours. It’s a particularly juicy kind of whisky, with vibrant sunshine fruits and sweet vanilla custard coating the palate. It flirts with a few deeper spices, which do their best to linger, and there’s also a buzz of ginger and a hint of fresh grass to enjoy, but it’s those crowd pleasing, full-on-juicy fruits that take up most of the limelight. Approximate price £55



The Glenrothes 10 Year Old, 40%

The Glenrothes distillery has been in operation for over 140 years but for a large part of its recent history it has escaped the attention of the general whisky buying public. Most of its whisky has been destined for blends, with only a fraction bottled as single malts. Since the late 20th century more effort has been given to the single malt market and, in the past few years, the distillery’s whiskies have been steadily rising up the popularity charts.

Previously, Glenrothes single malts were labelled as ‘vintages’, but last year the business decided to change policy and replace these expressions with a range of age-stated malts, from 10 years to 25 years, all grouped together as the ‘Soleo Collection.’ The 10 year old provides a great introduction to the Glenrothes distillery at a low price point.

Like the rest of the Soleo collection, it has benefited from interaction with sherry casks, possessing a sweet vanilla aroma and lemony lightness and a flavour as easy-going as any of the other popular Speyside whiskies. There’s a sponge-cake lightness throughout – one that is expertly baked and delicately drizzled with lemon (albeit a boozy kind of lemon) – which melts to a delicious mellow finish. If you haven’t done so already then it’s time to give Glenrothes a go. Approximate price £37



Smokehead Sherry Bomb, 46%

This whisky is quite obviously not aimed at the old guard of whisky traditionalists: it’s packaged in a black bottle with a shiny red skull staring out over distressed lettering. The original Smokehead (with gold skull) was launched in 2006 as a peated single malt from Islay, bottled by Ian MacLeod distillers – with the name of the actual distillery producing the spirit being a closely guarded secret – and this is the brand’s most recent limited edition release.

Sherry Bomb has the smoke-laden characteristics of the original whisky but they have been infused with sweet fruity flavours from oloroso sherry casks. It’s a big, boozy beast with a firey gust of smoke catching the nostrils and lingering for ages, even after the merest initial sip. A bold whisky with bold packaging that, although aimed at a more youthful market, isn’t one traditionalists should shy away from. Approximate price £65



Tamnavulin Double Cask, 40%

This year, Tamnavulin’s Double Cask has been our choice of whisky for gifts. It has only been available since 2016, so will be new to lots of people; it’s a bargain at around the £32 mark (and often dips below £30 in times of supermarket promotion); and it’s the kind of Speyside whisky that has a broad appeal.

It can be filed in the easy-to-drink category, with light malts, an orangey freshness and some sweet spices from its sherry cask finishing. But it’s not quite as simplistic as that description sounds – it has some fruit pudding depth to give it interest without it ever becoming heavy. If you’ve got a friend you think might like whisky but doesn’t know where to begin, a gift of this could well set them on their way. Or if you fancy a cheap treat for yourself, then you’ll do well to better it. Approximate price £32



Kininvie Works, Single Malt Scotch Whisky KVSM001, 47%

The Kininvie distillery was originally set up in 1990 by William Grant & Sons to help cope with demand for Balvenie whisky, but it’s now showing its experimental side to the public with the release of three new spirits in a new collection badged ‘Kininvie Works’. These new products are a single malt (KVSM001), a single grain (KVSG002) and a blended malt (KVSB003) with each bottle presented in a starkly functional cardboard package constructed for ease of mailing and to be 100% recyclable. The labeling is of the clinical pharmaceutical kind, designed to emphasise the content’s experimental nature, and contains every drop of information relating to the whisky making process that a whisky nerd could wish for.

For the single malt the experimentation is a triple-distillation – a feature more common among Irish whiskey than Scotch – with the resulting spirit being aged in ex-Bourbon casks for five years and bottled at 47%. This process has produced a Speyside whisky that is floral and fruity and… that’s all we’re going to reveal: we think part of the fun of enjoying something experimental like this is discovering what it’s like for yourself. And at just £35 for a 500ml bottle it’s well worth checking out. Approximate price £35



Arran Machrie Moor Cask Strength 56.2%

We recently took part in a big whisky tasting session, featuring randomly procured drams from around the world. It was no organised event, just a social gathering in Dorset with whisky and crisps. As we drank, each bottle was placed in a line on the table, positioned according to how the consensus rated it. At the end of the evening, Machrie Moor Cask Strength sat at the front of the queue, denoting its position as our number one whisky of the session.

Named after a mythical bog (Scots have created myths about everything) on the Isle of Arran, Machrie Moor used to be a limited edition release but, in 2018, both a 46% bottling and this cask strength whisky were added to the distillery’s core range. It’s a peated whisky that offers great value and is one that may appeal to folk who would normally shy away from smoky booze. The effects of the peat, although instantly apparent, do most of their work in the background, allowing a vibrant fruitiness and grassy freshness to come to the fore with hints of vanilla and spice mingling with the smoke. It certainly hit the mark with our broad range of tasters and we reckon its fanbase will rapidly expand. Approximate price £60



GlenDronach 12, 43%

GlenDronach’s recent history is littered with multiple sales of the business, bits being closed down, a total closure in 1996, and a relaunch in 2002. Now with a bit of stability, and owners who know how to promote the brand, GlenDronach has a much greater profile than it has enjoyed in a long while.

Their 12 year old is the one you’re most likely to come across, a rich and fruity whisky that has been aged in Pedro Ximinez and Oloroso Sherry casks. It’s the kind of whisky you’ll see described as an ‘after dinner’ dram – with enough flavour, depth and sweetness to battle through your last meal and see you through the evening. Chewy raisins and toffee lead the flavour descriptions and there’s also plenty of mature, woody spice to enjoy. It feels like the kind of whisky that should live high on an oak-panelled library shelf, waiting for a special occasion when you can rub off a layer of dust from the bottle and slowly pour, while sinking into a leather armchair. But we’re just as happy to nab it from the kitchen cupboard, sup from the sofa and imagine we’re in loftier surroundings instead. Approximate price £42



Gordon & McPhail, Mr George Centenary Edition 1956 from Glen Grant Distillery, 51.7%

This is a new release that we’ve not tasted, and we’re unlikely ever to do so. That’s because it retails at £5,000 per bottle and, no matter how good we think this website might be, it doesn’t earn us the thousands required to splash out on such expensive booze (and neither is anyone going to run up a massive expenses claim form by sending us a sample). But we’re featuring it because it’s always worth being reminded of how ludicrously expensive whisky can be – putting some of our bargains into context – and it has an interesting tale behind it.

The ‘Mr George’ in the whisky’s name refers to George Urquart, a key member of the family that founded world famous whisky bottlers Gordon & McPhail, who would’ve been 100 this year. Back in December 1956, Mr George laid down a hand-selected first fill sherry butt from one of his favourite distilleries, Glen Grant. To mark the centenary his grandson, Stuart Urquart, has picked this cask for bottling. For your money you get one of only 235 bottles, a glass decanter and wooden presentation case. We have no idea what it tastes like but our spies are using words like ‘stewed dates’, ‘dark chocolate praline’ and ‘charred oak.’ It may be beyond most people’s reach but, despite the price, we reckon it’ll get snapped up. Approximate price £5,000

*For ‘innovative’ read ‘daft ingredients that no-one else has tried before’, such as caviar or bones. Yes, really.

**Quarter casks are a quarter the size of standard casks so have a higher wood-to-spirit ratio, which accelerates the effects of maturation.

Prices are correct at time of publication

For whisky recommendations from around the world check out our feature on five unusual whisky producing countries.


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