Single malt Scotch is often unfairly labeled as “fancy” or “expensive,” when in reality it isn’t. Sure, countless bottles of long-aged, highly acclaimed single malt Scotch whisky fetch thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of dollars. But this is the same for any form of whiskey–bourbon, rye, Canadian whisky, and of course Japanese whisky are all categories that have bottles selling for ridiculous prices.
That said, there are myriad affordable, great, nuanced single malt whiskies on the market just waiting to be discovered. To put it into perspective, over the five (or six depending, on your opinion) Scotch whisky regions, there are currently more than 140 distilleries operating in the country. That’s a ton of whisky and a great many value bottles to be found.
Not bottom-shelf swill that belongs more in your lawnmower than in a Glencairn glass, but long-aged, exceptional whiskies in the affordable price range of less than $100. Also, these affordable single malt Scotches don’t only come from brands you’ve never heard of. Some of the biggest names and trendy distillers–including Oban, The Macallan, Lagavulin, and Ardbeg–have bottles that fit the bill.
Caol Ila 12 Year
If you were to ask a whisky expert to tell you the best beginner Islay whisky, there’s a good chance you’ll get a few pointing you toward Caol Ila 12. The Islay distillery first launched this expression in 2002 and has become the go-to Islay entry-level expression in the years since. A nose of candied orange peels, vanilla beans, and light peat smoke draws you in before your first sip. Drinking it reveals caramel candy, vanilla, oak, orange peels, and more robust, peaty smoke. It’s a spicy, sweet, smoky way to dip your toe into the island known for its smoke monsters.
GlenDronach 12 Year
A few Scotch whisky distilleries are making a name for themselves in the way they incorporate sherry flavors into their single malts. One of the best is GlenDronach. Its 12-Year-old expression is matured in a combination of Spanish Pedro Ximénez and Oloroso sherry casks. The result is a sweet, warming, complex whisky with notes of dried cherries, raisins, candied orange peels, hazelnuts, vanilla beans, and sticky toffee pudding.
Ardbeg 10 Year
When it comes to smoky Islay whiskies, you can’t do much better than Ardbeg. The distillery has a few well-made whiskies that fall under the $100 level, but it’s difficult to not immediately grab a bottle of its flagship 10-Year-old expression. This non-chill filtered whisky is well-known for its complex palate of salted caramel, candied orange peels, shortbread, vanilla beans, and rich, robust campfire smoke. Sip it neat or with a few drops of water while you sit in front of a roaring fire.
Oban 14 Year
Oban is a coastal fishing town. On top of the sea-faring industry, it’s most known for its distillery. While the brand has a few expressions under $100, the best is its 14-Year-Old. Flavors of candied orange peels, toasted vanilla beans, sticky toffee, candied apples, and gentle wintry spices make this a warming, sweet, gently spicy dram you’ll look forward to on any unseasonably cool evening.
Cardhu 12 Year
If you’re a Scotch whisky novice, you might not have heard of Cardhu. Well, now is the time to change that. Its flagship 12-Year-Old expression is a great start. This Speyside single malt is known for its complex, rich flavor profile featuring notes of candied apples, caramel, orange peel, oak, vanilla, and just a wisp of peaty smoke. It’s such a balanced, nuanced whisky, you’ll want to savor it again and again.
Bruichladdich The Classic Laddie
Bruichladdich is one of the most well-known distilleries on Islay, but (unlike some of its counterparts) it makes a few whiskies that are actually unpeated. This includes the always flavorful, bargain-priced Classic Laddie. This 100% Scottish barley-made whisky was matured in American oak barrels. The result is a beloved whisky with notes of butterscotch, brown sugar, dried fruits, vanilla, honey, and salted caramel.
Craigellachie 13 Year
Often referred to as the “bad boy” of Speyside, Craigellachie has historically been one of the main single malts used in Dewar’s blended Scotch. It was finally released as a single malt on its own in 2014. This 13-year-old single malt is matured in ex-bourbon and sex-sherry casks before half is finished in first-fill sherry cask and the other half in first-fill bourbon barrels. This creates a nuanced, complex whisky with hints of toasted marshmallows, candied orange peels, vanilla beans, and gentle wintry spices.
The Macallan 12 Year Double Cask
When it comes to single malt whisky, there are few names more well-known than The Macallan. And while this beloved distillery offers many expensive bottles, its 12 Year Double Cask is surprisingly well-priced at under $100. It gets its name because it’s aged in a combination of American and European sherry oak casks. This creates a balanced, rich whisky with notes of cinnamon sugar, candied orange peels, honey, toffee, and oak.
Lagavulin 16 Year
While many brands opt for a 10-year-old or 12-year-old single malts to be their flagship expression, Lagavulin says, “why not sixteen whole years?” The iconic Islay distillery’s flagship expression is its 16-year-old whisky. Known for its almost herbal, smoky flavor as opposed to robust peat, it also features notes of dried cherries, vanilla, sherry, salted caramel, and rich oak. It’s a wildly complex whisky that probably should be more expensive (don’t tell them).
Aberlour 12 Year Old Double Cask Matured
This popular single malt whisky gets its name because it’s double cask matured in both traditional oak and season sherry casks. The result is a mellow, well-balanced sipper with flavors like candy apples, sweet sherry, dried cherries, chocolate fudge, vanilla beans, and spice. The finish is a nice mix of sherry sweetness and winter spices. Drink it neat, slowly, while you enjoy winter’s last gasp.