Single malt Scotch can and should be enjoyed year-round (yes, there is a such thing as the perfect summer single malt Scotch), and the vast selection can be dizzying. They range from light and smooth to powerfully bold and everywhere in between. Each one has a personality all its own largely based on the whisky region of Scotland it’s made in, just like those who partake.
The most popular names get ample circulation at bars, restaurants, and at home, and sometimes they’re worth the hype. But just like any other brand name products, the big Scotch names are the beneficiaries of great marketing, word of mouth, and front and center appearances at hotel bars and company holiday parties. Just like anything else in life, there are whiskies out there that aren’t as popular as the bigger names yet are the unsung heroes of the whisky world.
These are the most underrated, overrated, and budget-friendly whiskies out there, and all of the below have been tried personally (more than a few times). Disagree? Well, everyone is entitled to their personal favorites and opinions, but this list is a great start.
The Most Underrated Scotch
It’s hard to overstate how good this cask-strength Speyside whisky is. A’bunadh is dark, rich, and full-bodied, but it’s shockingly smooth to drink even at 60% ABV. Aged exclusively in Oloroso Sherry casks, Aberlour A’bunadh is complex from front to back with prominent nuts and raisins on the nose and a long and delightfully spicy finish. In between, the palate is sweet, spicy, and nutty. It’s superb all by itself with virtually no harshness or burn, but cutting it a little makes it open up even more. Don’t ever toss ice in, or else.
Laphroaig 10 is an Islay single malt that often shows up on overrated lists, but it’s truly one of the best bargains in whisky. For a little more than $50, you get a whisky that’s full on both the nose and has flavor to the point where it sends some folks running. It also happens to be a seasoned whisky lover’s dream based on its smoky, peaty, and briny goodness that’s been the staple of the distillery for over 75 years. If you want something mild, look elsewhere. When you’re ready for a truly full-bodied single malt with an interminably long finish, look no further.
Caol Ila 12 Year
Caol Ila gets overshadowed by the bolder Islay whiskies, but it’s no less worthy. Don’t be dissuaded by its prevalent use in blended whiskies like Johnny Walker. Caol Ila 12 straight up might just be the perfect gateway for beginners looking to enter the realm of peaty whiskeys. The smoke and peat are present but not potent, and there’s a healthy mix of citrus, peppermint, and fresh cigar wrapper on the nose, followed by mild honey sweetness, pepper, and malt on the palate. The long finish is a gem. Even seasoned whisky drinkers will give you the nod when you break this out for a dram or two.
Glenmorangie Nectar D’or
Consider this the equivalent of a French saison beer when compared to a big IPA. It’s not like the smoky, peaty Scotches that get more than their fair share of attention. Instead, the elegant Nectar D’or delivers a subtle but nonetheless pleasurable dram experience. Nectar D’or has been aged in American White Oak ex-Bourbon barrels further aged in ex-wine barriques from Sauternes, France where sweet wine is made. The result is a lovely sweetness with hints of spice and dryness and then some citrus, malt, and coconut to further entertain. It’s so damned good, the bottle will be gone before you know it.
The Most Overrated Scotch
Don’t get me wrong. I adore Macallan 18. The 18 Year Old Sherry Oak from 2020, especially. It’s refined, smooth, and packed with deliciousness in the form of pronounced sherry, orange zest, toasted oak, and dried fruit flavors. There’s a ton going on, but some might call it a bit too smooth. I nursed a bottle verrry slowly over the course of three years, but I have to say it’s not worth the now incredibly steep asking price.
Highland Park 12
Highland Park 12 is good but not great. Don’t let the fancy bottle that debuted in 2017 lure you. What’s more, it seems to have morphed over the years, and it’s no longer as wonderful to experience as it was a decade ago. Aged for at least 12 years in ex-Oloroso sherry casks and ex-bourbon casks, the full-bodied whisky has citrus, chocolate, dried dark fruit, peat, and sherry traveling from nose to palate. There’s also some char, wood, and smokiness near the end that drops off and feels incomplete for a powerhouse. It’s still a decent whisky, but it lacks balance.
Glenfiddich 12 Year
I call this entry-level whisky overrated because of its sheer ubiquity. While I wouldn’t refer to it as the Bud Light of single malt, it certainly is available just about everywhere you go. There’s some apple, honey, and malt on the palate, but there’s a distinct lack of complexity in Glenfiddich 12. You can easily drink it neat or with a splash, and it’ll do in a pinch. Just don’t look for your palate to be wowed. Keep it in your home bar for noobs or mixers because it’s quite affordable, but don’t look for it for true single malt intimacy.
Dalmore 12 Year
While the rich amber color is beautiful and enticing, there’s just too much of a sweet finish on this whisky. Toffee, cream, and caramel emerge on the palate, but too much sugary raisin that’s present in the long finish is cloying. The silver stag-festooned bottle might be a strong lure, but don’t stare it in the eyes. There are better Highland single malts for less money.
The Best Budget-Friendly Scotch
You’d be hard-pressed to find a better sherry-aged whisky for affordable bourbon money. Not only is it smooth and flavorful, but it’s also full and fresh at the same time. Aged for 12 years in white oak, ex-bourbon, and Spanish sherry casks, Tomatin 12 oozes caramel, honey, and oranges on the nose, followed by rich sherry, vanilla, and some fresh herbs on the palate. Get a case while you’re at it.
If you’re looking for one of the best easy-drinking Scotches around, Aberfeldy 12 fits the bill with its non-peaty profile. Aged 12 years in ex-bourbon, ex-sherry, and re-char oak, Aberfeldy 12 issues forth vanilla, honey, and bread on the palate. It’s consistently good and Dewars drinkers who dabble in single malt may recognize it since it’s the biggest contributor to the blended Scotch.
A bona fide peat bomb, Ardbeg 10 is not for the weak of palate–the opposite of the aforementioned Aberfeldy. Don’t let the light hue fool you. This is one powerful whisky. Smoke, peat, and brine emerge from the get-go, but the complexity is upped nicely by fruit and vanilla. It never gets out of sorts and tastes balanced from front to back with a beautifully long finish.
Deanston 12 Year
The perfect example of a single malt made for summer sipping. Deanston 12 is a Highland dram with hay, malt, and toffee on the nose, followed by cream, honey, malt, and vanilla on the palate. The crisp finish is one to be savored in the warmer months with a splash of water. The shocking price combined with the obscure distillery name is all the more reason to keep it a secret.