Best whiskey 2020: top-rated whisky brands - single malt and blended
UPDATED: The best whiskey to buy today - 14 to choose from.
Whiskey 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 whiskey is something of a tough task.
UPDATE: Award-winning single malt Tomatin is holding the world's first virtual whisky festival on 4 April. The event will be live-streamed from 2-5pm (BST) on their YouTube channel and will feature brand ambassadors for whiskies including Glen Moray, Paul John, Arran, Tomintoul and Kilkerran. If you fancy getting involved, be sure to follow the hashtag #LockdownWhiskyFestival and share what dram you're drinking. Whisky influencer Aqvavitae will also be hosting the livestream and asking questions throughout the event to give you even more insight into the whisky you love to drink.
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.
Best Whiskey 2020: the best whisky revealed
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. 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.
7. 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.
8. 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.
9. 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.
Based in Caithness, it is produce from the most northerly distillery in Scotland.
10. 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.
11. 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.
12. 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.
13. 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.
14. 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.
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.