Best whisky (2021): top-rated whisky brands - single malt and blended
UPDATED: The best whisky to buy today - 22 to choose from.
Whisky is incredibly simple in ingredients and, in general, in the process of making it. The resulting product, however, is sublimely complex and comes in more variations than you can probably imagine. So, as we have found, choosing the best whisky is something of a tough task.
UPDATE: We have been busy taste testing more whisky to see if it's deserving of an entry on our best whisky guide and we have three new entries! The following are well worth a dram: Benriach - The Original Ten, East London Liquor - London Rye and Dalmore - 12 Sherry Cask Select.
We won’t get into it too much but whisky is typically from Scotland while others - spelled whiskey with an "e" - are from elsewhere, namely Ireland and America. However, you’ll see some exceptions like Maker’s Mark and Old Forester.
It’s the taste we’re concerned with, not how it’s spelled.
- These are the best gins from around the world
- If you are after American whiskey, then this is our best bourbon list
Here you’ll find a wide range of options spanning the globe. Not all whisky is a mouthful of smoke so if that’s not your thing, there are smooth Scotches and sweet bourbons to satisfy your tastebuds. Vote for your favourite below.
Additional taste testing: Marc Chacksfield
Best Whiskey 2020: the best whisky revealed
1. Cotswolds - Single Malt
England may not be famous for its whisky but if do fancy trying one, it should be this Cotswolds Single Malt. It may be the first ever whisky to be distilled in the Cotswolds but it's already award-winning - having won a gold medal at the 2019 Wolrd Whiskies Awards. Flavour-wise, the whisky is sweet and fruity from being matured in first-fill ex-Bourbon barrels and reconditioned in red wine casks. With notes of honey, orange marmalade and dark red fruits, it is very sippable. A great option if you're looking for a gentle introduction to the world of whisky.
2. East London Liquor - London Rye
English whisky is rare and English rye whisky is even more so, but East London Liquor has smashed it out the park with its 2020 London Rye release.
This uses 42% rye for plenty of spicy pepper flavour but it remains smooth and is by no means one dimensional. Aged in a combination of French oak, chestnut, STR (shaved, toasted and re-charred) sherry and bourbon casks there’s a lot going on including toffee apple, citrus peel and a hint of gooseberry.
3. Lagavulin - 16
Considered a classic around the world and favourite of Ron Swanson of Parks and Recreation, Lagavulin is not a whisky for the novice drinker.
It has an extremely smokey nose followed by an intensely rich and malty flavour with fruity sweetness. A long spicy finish rounds things off and makes Lagavulin a benchmark with which to compare all Islay whiskies.
It pairs particularly well with blue cheese.
4. Redbreast - 12
If you want something from Ireland, this single pot still whiskey from Redbreast is debatably the best you can get and comes highly recommended from Jim Murray and other critics. It has also won plenty of awards.
Like many Irish whiskeys, it is triple distilled making it oh-so smooth, and Redbreast has a rich and spicy body followed by a creamy finish.
5. Laphroaig - 10
This is from the Isla region of Scotland so it’s one for the peat heads out there who like a smokey tipple. The malted barley is dried by burning peat only found on the island.
Like Glenmorangie, the 10 year old is the original Laphroaig, and that drying process gives it a huge hit of smoke (really, prepare yourself) followed by tastes of seaweed and a medicinal herbal sweetness.
You’ll either love it, or hate it.
6. Glenfiddich - 21
For something dark, rich and complex, the Glenfiddich 21 year old single malt is an excellent choice. The whisky is finished in Caribbean rum casks for an unusual character and a deep amber colour. There are layers upon layers of flavour and when you think it’s done, you’ll discover another. The rum cask gives notes of banana, vanilla, ginger, dried fruit and more. It’s also rich with oak and leather.
7. Aberlour 12
Surprisingly affordable for a 12-year old scotch, Aberlour has aged this in both traditional oak and sherry casks.
It pours a deep amber and has a rich oaky flavour, but the sherry casks provide a fruity - we get a lot of plum notes - and a spicy element. It’s like Christmas cake distilled into a whisky.
8. Nikka - Whisky From The Barrel
Don’t underestimate a blended whisky from Japan with an understated bottle. Nikka From The Barrel punches above its weight. At 51.4% you might think it is barrel-proof but it actually isn’t.
It packs in so much body and flavour for the price, this is one of the biggest bargains you’ll find in the whisky world. It’s finished in barrels after the blending process and there are layers upon layers here from butterscotch all the way to tobacco.
9. Woodford Reserve
This is a musthave bourbon and a great place to start if your new to the American tipple. It’s a sour mash straight bourbon made on Kentucky's oldest distillery site.
Not only does it have an above average amount of rye in the mash at 18%, it’s unusually triple distilled so it’s smooth but has an intricate flavour of spices, coffee beans, vanilla and a slight burnt oak smokiness.
10. Glenmorangie - 10
Put simply, this should be part of every home bar. Glenmorangie’s 10 year old, aka ‘The Original’, is a true classic single malt Scotch. It’s simple and soft to drink yet has a complex and slightly sweet flavour with a burst of zesty fruit and delicate floral tones.This is one to give friends as a gateway whisky.
11. Darkness 8
What used to be a very limited release is now a core range whisky. This 8-year old single malt is aged in ex-bourbon barrels followed by sherry casks. These are smaller than normal, meaning more surface area to impart character to the whisky.
The nose is full of candied orange peel and spice leading to flavours of biscuit, fruit and nuts. Add touch of smoke on the finish and you have a very well-rounded and moreish scotch.
12. Old Pulteney - 12
This is the standard Old Pulteney but don’t write it off based on that. This is a delicious 12-year-old single malt Scotch at a surprisingly affordable price. This multiple award winner offers an excellent balance of light delicate flavours like apple with a deeper, salty and spicy finish.
Produced in the coastal town of Wick, Caithness, Old Pulteney is one of the most northerly mainland distilleries.
13. Bulleit - 95 Rye
It’s called ‘95’ because the mash is made up of that percentage of rye, the remainder barley. That’s a really high ratio, so while the original Buillet is a classic bourbon, we like the rye version for its spicy flavour.
Unlike scotch, bourbon is sweeter and here you get toffee and maple flavours. It’s still smooth enough to drink neat but try using it for cocktails like an old fashioned for that extra level of flavour.
14. Fettercairn - 12
Aged for 12 years in American Oak ex-bourbon casks, this Scotch has an amber honey colour and a delicately-balanced taste of tropical fruit, clove and ginger, before a finish of treacle toffee and sultanas. This ‘fruit cake’ finish is particularly distinctive of Highland Scotch, and the Fettercairn distillery can be found in the foothills of Cairngorms - where it has been since 1824.
This single malt was also awarded a silver medal in 2019’s International Spirit and Wine Competition, so you know it’s not just us who likes it.
15. Ardbeg - 10
We're big fans of Ardbeg and the 10 year old is one of the peatiest whiskies released from the distillery. There is a wonderful warmth from the whisky, with the peaty smoke lingering long after your first sip. There's a dexterity to the taste, too, with it hitting you with a mellowness, then spiciness and ending on sweet toffee notes. If you want a way into Islay whiskies without breaking the bank then you can do no wrong with this one
16. Glengoyne - 10
Glengoyne has been doing well in recent months, helping out those of us that are in lockdown or self isolating. It's been offering jigsaws on its site with selected bottles of its whisky. We tried this one while completing one of its puzzles and it's a creamy delight. It initially fills you with a bourbon-esque taste, replacing this with candied fruit and red apples and ends up with hints of custard. For the price, this really is a great dram.
17. Dalmore - 12 Sherry Cask Select
This latest offering from The Dalmore is a stunner. Together with Tevasa, Vasyma and Paez, Master Distiller Richard Paterson created a bespoke sherry blend to season selected oak finishing casks for a specific flavour profile.
The result, aside from The Dalmore’s classic dark chocolate, is a rich blend of orange, ginger, caramel and spices including cinnamon. The sherry casks give it a vibrant sweet lemon cake finish.
18. Benromach - 15
We've had this one for a while now and have been savouring every last drop. This 15 year old has it all: a Speyside that's silky going down with hints of chocolate and fruitcake, ending up with a lingering fruity aftertaste. There's a massive waft of smoke, too, that envelopes everything, and the sherry casks it's been maturing in adds to the complexity of the tast.
19. Sazerac Rye
If you've never had a rye whiskey then the first thing that will surprise you is just how smooth the taste is - and none more than Sazerac Rye. Made in New Orleans, and part of the Buffalo Trace Distillery, this is a rye to be savoured. It's smooth with no bite, with orange notes and peppery spice, and should be enjoyed on its own or with a little bit of ice. If you are to mix, then this is a fantastic basis for an old fashioned or the famous Sazerac cocktail which mixes in absinthe and bitters.
20. Elijah Craig - Barrel Proof
For something special of the bourbon variety, you’re in good hands with this small batch Kentucky straight from Elijah Craig. It was bottled at a whopping 63.5% which is actually, somehow, one of the weaker editions.
There’s plenty of vanilla and maple flavour but a spicy heat from the booze, too. This won the whisky of the year 2017.
21. Benriach - The Original Ten
With master blender, Dr Rachel Barrie (aka the First Lady of Scotch) onboard, Benriach has relaunched its portfolio with new recipes and branding.
The Original Ten is the flagship and is an extremely approachable whisky with bags of vanilla sweetness and the fresh crispness of apples and pears. A touch of dried fruit rounds things off nicely and peat heads can opt for The Smokey Ten to get that smoky phenol fix.
22. Ailsa Bay - Sweet Smoke
As the name suggests, this whisky perfectly balances the profile of a sweeter Scotch with smokiness, making it perfect for those wanting to find a middle ground between mainland and Islay.
This is the first distillery to have precision methods so Ailsa Bay is made to an exact 022 peaty parts and 019 sweet parts per million. It is also the only whiskey to be ‘micro matured’ in small Hudson Baby Bourbon casks for six to nine months before moving to American Oak.
5 Whisky Tasting Tips
“There is only one way to properly drink whisky,” says Richard Foster founder of The English Whisky Society which is putting on the first English Whisky Festival, is whatever way you enjoy it.
“If you want to mix Coke or Soda water with it, or slosh in tonnes of ice, be my guest. However, years of hard work have gone into making great whisky, so if you want to first experience what the distiller and blender intended, follow these easy steps to taste, before you waste:
1. Take a look at the colour in your glass
“It's surprisingly revealing looking at the viscosity, colour & darkness of a dram before you've nosed or sipped it. Over time you can start to tell things like age and cask type just by looking at a Whisky - or, if you're like me, you just enjoy swirling it dramatically a few times before step two…
2. Carefully nose the glass
“Don't thrust your sniffer straight in there - remember this is high-alcohol booze and all you're going to do is burn your olfactory senses with alcohol vapour. Rather, waft the glass across your nose from a few centimetres away and gradually bring it closer until you hit the sweet (or sour / smokey) spot. Different parts of your nose also pick up different scents so keep moving the glass for a full olfactory experience.”
3. Take a sip
“Don't be shy, get a good glug of the liquid and swoosh it round your mouth. Again you'll taste different flavours across your tongue. When you do swallow, take your time and savour the 'finish' at the end, some drams keep providing warmth and flavour well beyond this moment, so don't rush onto the next sip too quickly (and always drink responsibly!).”
4. Make up your own tasting notes
“You may have read about sun-charred leather chaps on a rodeo cowboys boots, or strange combinations of fruits, kids sweets or even unsavory descriptors used to describe the smell or taste of whisky. Don't worry, everyone's receptors are different and no two people smell alike (unless twins do, who knows) - the point is, most tasting notes are made-up anyway. It's fun trying to discern some of the components of the scent / taste or finish, but if all you get is ‘whisky’ - as long as you're enjoying it, don't worry too much with this dark art. As with anything, practise makes perfect (again with the responsible drinking!). 5. Time to add that mixer…
...just don't let me see - unless it's a Smokey Coke with a heavily peated whisky and a premium cola, in which case, make me one too!
How To Buy Whisky: A ShortList Guide
What you should look out for when buying and drinking whisky...
What makes a good whisky?
A simple enough question, though perhaps one without a simple answer. It all comes down to your personal preferences. There are certain preconceptions around whisky - Scotch, in particular - that it always has overwhelming flavours of smoke, oak and tobacco. And, while you’ll definitely find these notes in many whiskies - especially in those from the Islay region of Scotland - many Scotch also have flavours of citrus, vanilla and toffee.
The Scottish Lowlands are where you’ll find fantastic flavours of grapefruit, while Speyside whiskies are full of fruity notes such as apples and pears. If you have a sweeter tooth, Bourbons might be more your thing, with many having notes of vanilla, chocolate and honey.
How much should I spend on a bottle?
The price of whisky varies anywhere from £20 to the hundreds and thousands, so it can be hard to know what’s worth paying for and what isn’t. In general terms though, the longer a whisky has been ageing, the more it’s probably going to cost. This is simply because of how many hours distilleries have put into them, and how long they have to wait for the whisky to age. Most of these whiskies are left in barrels for over 20 years, so it can become a very time-consuming process - something the price often reflects.
For a younger 10 or 12 year Scotch expect to pay anywhere between £25-£45, while you can easily pay upwards of £100 once you’re looking at whiskies that have been aged for 15 years or more. Blended, Irish and Bourbon Whiskies tend to be slightly cheaper, and you’ll easily find a decent bottle around the £30 mark. If you’re planning to mix your drink, one of these is your best bet. The single malt and aged whiskies are best enjoyed neat or with one single ice cube.
Should I add ice?
There are plenty of traditional whisky drinkers who frown upon adding ice to your whisky. In fact, ice can be a great way of diluting whiskies and making it a bit more palatable. We’d suggest adding one large ice cube to your dram of whisky for the best results. These Ticent ice cube trays are a great size for these sort of ice cubes, and they even do spheres if you want to make your whisky extra special.
If you’d prefer not to add a whole ice cube to your whisky, we’d suggest experimenting with adding a couple of drops of water into your drink. That may make some scotch drinkers balk but adding a small amount of water has been found to ‘open up’ the whisky bringing out completely different notes from your typical dram.
If you’re partial to a splash of Scotch every now and then, we’d also suggest getting your hands on some whisky stones. These Sagaform Whiskey Stones are cut from recycled granite and are designed to cool down your drink without diluting it. They’re reusable so you simply wash them each time after use and then place them back in the freezer ready for your next drink.
What Is best to mix with whisky?
If you’d prefer to drink your blended or Irish whiskey with a mixer. There are a couple of options for you to consider. Ginger ale, cola and soda water are the most common pairings, though there are more bespoke mixers coming into the market including Sekforde Botanical Mixer. This sparkling water mixer has been created specifically to complement the flavours of whisky with flavours of Scilian orange, rosemary and spicy oak.
London Essence Ginger Ale is also a fantastic option if you like whiskies with a bit of a kick. Irish Whiskey and Ginger Ale is a classic pairing because the mixer adds sweetness while still bringing out the spicier notes in the whiskey. Soda Water is also fantastic if you prefer a longer drink. Double Dutch Soda Water is an award-winning brand that uses natural spring water from the North of England. Soda water still has a bitterness (as opposed to tonic water, which is sweeter) so it pairs well with all blended and Irish Whiskies as well as Bourbon.
The final option is a cola - the pairing you most likely had as a newly-turned 18-year-old. We would avoid the cheap 30p cola you were probably drinking then, but there are some more premium brands - such as Fentiman’s Curiosity Cola - that are great for mixing with blended whiskies. It’s a small batch cola and has a more herbaceous flavour than most big name brands. A great option if your whiskey has the sweeter notes of honey, vanilla and caramel.