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The 10 best single malt Scotch whiskies for 2021

Glenlivet illicit still

Last year we rolled out our selection of the ten best single malt Scottish whiskies to enjoy for 2020, and the piece proved to be such a hit with our readers that we’re repeating the trick for 2021. 

Twelve months ago we had no idea what a torrid year 2020 would turn out to be, and we hope that those folk who took us up on our recommendations found some comfort and escapism in the occasional sip of their chosen drams.  

We do know that 2021 is off to a gloomy start but, at least, we have optimism for better things to come. So perhaps this selection of old and new whiskies will bring not only the kind of boozy glow of contentment that can be an antidote to tough times, but will also be used in some cheering toasts to celebrate the good times that should be heading our way. We hope you enjoy our selection…

1.Best Peated Whisky

Ardbeg Wee Beastie, 47.4%

If we had to name our favourite whisky maker of 2020 then Ardbeg would be a strong contender. The Islay distillery is known for its heavily peated whiskies and perhaps, with us spending so long in lockdown, those intense flavours helped to transform us to a better place than most other whiskies.

Besides enjoying some of their familiar expressions, including the 10 year old whisky and the extra smoky On Oa, we’ve also quickly warmed to their newest core range addition – Wee Beastie. It’s only five years old (the ‘Wee’) but it hits you with a full force of flavour (the ‘Beastie’). It’s like entering a smoke-filled den of booze, with the peat permeating through the senses while the palette is given a good working over with hot, charred, spicy oak. 

Yet for all its ferocity it’s also a beastie that has a soft centre, with sweet notes of corn and some smooth honey mellowing it to a level that enables you to enjoy it neat. Impressive stuff for such a young ‘un. Approximate price £38


2.Best Whisky Discovery

GlenAllachie 15 Year Old, 46%

There are around 130 whisky distilleries in Scotland so it’s inevitable that some have completely escaped our attention. Until earlier in 2020, GlenAllachie was one of those and, having now sampled drams from across their range, we’re eager to spread the word to others for whom their whisky has also passed them by.

We’ve picked out the distillery’s 15 year old as the one to investigate first, not least because at under £60 it’s excellent value for a whisky that’s bursting with mature, Sherry-rich Speyside flavours. The Sherry notes come from Pedro Ximinez and Oloroso casks and they deliver lots of sweet raisin and warming gingery spice flavours, with a big hit of dark chocolate taking over towards the finish. It’s a smooth, fireside sipper and we’re looking forward to making up for lost ground by sipping more from the distillery this year. Approximate price £57


3.Best New Distillery

Nc’nean Organic Single Malt, 46%

We had been eagerly awaiting the first whisky from Nc’nean for a while and evidently were not the only ones – the first batch, released late in 2020, sold out within 24 hours. One of the main reasons the new distillery has created such a buzz is its determination to do things in a modern, sustainable way that contributes towards looking after the planet. That means, among other things, using renewable energy, recycling rainwater and working with organic barley.

It would seem that by looking after the planet, nature has returned the favour by helping Nc’nean create a fantastic whisky. Despite being young, the word that has frequently been used to describe it is ‘elegant’ – the oak spices work in harmony with the malty grains and some sweet citrussy and peachy fruit notes. Light and easy going, the distillery also breaks from the norm with its serving suggestion – simply mix with soda (which just so happens to be our favourite partner for whisky).

If you want further proof that this is a distillery that is comfortable to break with convention then take a look at the packaging – as stunningly elegant as the whisky itself. Approximate price £50


4.Best Bargain

Glen Moray Elgin Classic, 40%

Glen Moray’s entry level whisky is one you can find almost anywhere, often at a price so low you wonder how it’s possible to make a whisky that cheap (on occasions we’ve seen it for under £20). It’s light with a citrussy fruitiness, honeyed sweetness and unthreatening spices to give it some spark – easy to drink and fully deserving of its ‘entry level’ tag.

For those looking to further explore Scottish whisky, the Glen Moray distillery is well worth keeping an eye on as each expression they produce compares very favourably for price with similar products from elsewhere. Among their bottlings you’ll find a port cask finish for under £30, a 15 year old for under £50 and limited editions at equally reasonable prices.

We recently enjoyed a 14 year old sauternes cask-matured whisky, bottled at 59.6%, that has those citrus notes enriched with dark chocolate, the honey given a boost with sticky sweet grapes and the warmth from spices turned up a notch. For quality whisky on a budget, Glen Moray should always be one of your first ports of call. Approximate price £23


5.Best Cask Strength Whisky

Highland Park Cask Strength Release No 1, 63.3%

Highland Park’s whiskies have been among the most universally acclaimed for years, appealing to new and old whisky fans alike. It is therefore a welcome sight to see the words ‘Cask Strength’ stamped on the Orkney Island distillery’s latest release, to keep up with the surge in popularity for such whiskies.

Aged in sherry-seasoned American oak the spirit is bottled straight from the cask at a rather high 63.3% ABV, allowing the drinker to add water until it meets their individual palate’s requirements. It’s an exciting melange of heady aromas and flavours, with sweet syrup and caramel, soft smoke, vanilla and a host of exotic spices. And if that wasn’t enough, there’s also a juiciness that you imagine could only come from a freshly squeezed chocolate orange. Approximate price £55


6.Best Organic Whisky

Benromach Contrasts: Organic, 43%

In 2020 Benromach 15 was one of Scottish whisky’s big hits with the public (and us – we described it as ‘mightily impressive’ in a review a year earlier). And we think the Speyside distillery might have another hit on its hands with a UK Soil Association accredited organic whisky.

It has actually been around since 2006 when it was the world’s first certified organic single malt Scotch whisky, but it has now been given a smart new package and is being thrust a little more into the limelight. Fifteen years on and the choice of organic whisky is still very thin on the ground, although there are encouraging signs that this is changing (see Nc’nean above).

Benromach Organic has been matured in Virgin American Oak that gives it a few peppery flourishes, while the sweet malt flavours shine through with every sip. There are some soft juicy fruit notes to be enjoyed and it has a creamy, almost oily texture, while the finish is oak with a dusting of dark chocolate. Approximate price £50


7.Best classic whisky

Talisker 10 Year Old, 45.8%

If whisky can evoke a sense of place, then few do it better than Talisker. The distillery’s home, the Isle of Skye, is remote and rugged; a land that is always under the spell of its coastal environment, carving a landscape that can be both fearsome and beautiful.

Talisker’s 10 year old whisky has many prominent hallmarks of a coastal Scottish dram: the heavy peat character contains the essence of the ancient land while a salty edge evokes the sea, spraying the senses with the sweet freshness of refined coastal air. It’s also full of dense grain and spicy pepper flavours that surge through the mouth like an elemental force of nature.

For lots of people this bold, full-flavoured spirit is exactly how a Scottish whisky should taste, and it gathers a raft of new fans every year. We think it’s the perfect dram to contend with whatever 2021 hurls in our direction and is one of the whiskies no collection should be without. Approximate price £38


8.Best Limited Edition 

The Glenlivet 12 Year Old Illicit Still, 48%

The Glenlivet is one of the most famous and biggest selling single malt whisky brands in the world (currently number 2). Central to the brand’s history is the story of George Smith, who made whisky illegally until becoming the first person to own a license for distilling whisky following 1823’s excise act.

This new release sees the current Glenlivet team take inspiration from George Smith’s story by creating the kind of whisky that he might have been producing before gaining that license. The basic characteristics are the same as the brand’s popular 12 year old whisky, with its typically Speyside fruity character to the fore, but the strength has been upped a notch and it’s non-chill filtered – which some would argue makes it an even purer whisky.

If this sounds like an enhancement to an already top class dram then snap up a bottle sharpish – it’s a limited edition whisky and won’t be around forever. Approximate price £50


9.Best Small Batch Whisky

The Balvenie Tun 1509, Batch 7, 52.4%

The Balvenie is one of our favourite distilleries for both its core range products and special releases. The 12 year old Doublewood is a go-to whisky, rich in sherry oak and the perfect after dinner dram, while their annual Tun 1509 release is something many whisky fans look forward to with eager anticipation. 

Each year, various whiskies are hand picked from The Balvennie’s archives to spend at least 3 months in a traditional ‘oak marrying vat’, and the release carries the name of that vat on the label – the most recent release, Batch 7, being ‘Tun 1509’. 

Batch 7 contains whisky from a whopping 21 casks: 10 sherry butts, four American oak barrels and seven hogsheads (reconstructed bourbon barrels with extra staves). It’s a rich whisky with a huge amount of fruity depth and a good dosing of zingy ginger. Instantly warm and toasty, loaded with flavour and dripping with syruppy flavours of oranges, raisins and honey. Approximate price £300


10.Best Port Cask Finish

Glenmorangie The Quinta Ruban 14 Year Old, 46%

In our selection of the ten best Single Malt Scotch Whiskies for 2020 we highlighted Bruichladdich Port Charlotte 10 as one of our top picks, declaring it “a belter of a booze.” Towards the end of 2020 it picked up one of the most prestigious awards around, The Whisky Exchange Whisky of the Year, as voted for by the retailer’s customers.

Runner up was a port cask finished whisky from the popular Highland distillery Glenmorangie, who regularly seek out interesting flavours from casks, such as their unusual IPA Single Malt Whisky. The Quinta Ruban is a super smooth 14 year old whisky that has taken on some of the port’s sweet richness and infused the spirit with delicious cocoa, sunshine fruit flavours and a tingle of warmth. It’s also exceptionally good value, making it an ideal option for anyone looking to make a first foray into port cask whisky, besides being an excellent choice for those who are already fans of port finished flavours. No wonder it scored so well with the whisky buying public. Approximate price £52


Prices are correct at time of publication

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