If any year requires a strong drink, it’s 2021.
With over 20 million barrels of whisky maturing in Scotland (four for every single Scot), it’s no wonder that picking out the best option can sometimes feel like a challenge. Add in to the equation Scotch whisky’s reputation for being a little elitist and forbidding, and it’s easy to see why it can be tough to discover the perfect dram. Luckily, here at Whisky Loot, we’re all about guiding drinkers to the very best single malt whiskies for them.
Gone are the days when single malt Scotch whisky was an old boys’ club with language deliberately designed to bamboozle – the spirit is now as vibrant and exciting as any in the world, with a great variety of contemporary and innovative styles on show.
We’ll take you through the best single malt Scotches on the market, complete with tasting notes and key information about each dram. Before we get started though, it’s time for a bit of whisky 101.
Single Malt Scotch Whisky FAQs
What Does Single Malt Scotch Whisky Mean?First things first, what does single malt Scotch whisky actually mean? Well, “Scotch” is the easiest part to understand, this simply means that the whisky had to be entirely produced in Scotland, including any blending, dilution and bottling processes. “Single” means that it is the product of just one distillery – as opposed to a blended whisky, which can contain spirits from many different locations. “Malt” means it is made with 100% malted barley, unlike other forms of whisky, no other grains can be used in single malts. “Whisky” is the term used for all kinds of grain based spirits. There are a load of technical rules too, but that’s the basics covered!
It’s a common misconception that all Scotch whisky has that distinctive, smoky, peaty tang. But it’s simply not true! There are plenty of delicious single malt Scotch whiskies that have no peat or smoke whatsoever. Whilst peated whiskies are now produced across Scotland, the style is mostly associated with the Islay region – an island found to the west of mainland Scotland, and known as “the Queen of the Hebrides”. Read more about peat here.
Is All Single Malt Scotch Smoky?
What Are The Scotch Whisky Regions?
There are either 5 or 6 Scotch Whisky regions, with this a subject of fierce debate. The 5 included for certain are: Speyside, Highlands, Lowlands, Campbeltown and Islay, with the Islands region the one up for discussion (some people prefer to include them in the Highlands region). Whiskies of all styles are now produced in every region, but they are still a useful guide for finding drams that you enjoy!
Without further ado, and in no particular order, here is Whisky Loot’s list of the best Scotch single malt whisky brands to enjoy in 2021!
Whisky Loot’s 8 Best Single Malts To Try In 2021
A Speyside icon...
A dram worthy of being enjoyed any year, this bottling is an example of the Speyside single malt style. Located a little outside the whisky power-town of Elgin, in the charmingly-named hamlet of Fogwatt, Glen Elgin makes a fruity, lush style of single malt. Glen Elgin was the last of the great Victorian distilleries, and was the final new distillery to be built in Speyside for 50 years, when it opened in 1898.
This 12 year old expression has been matured in a mysterious selection of barrels, but shows some signs of Sherry cask maturation, with delicious fruit flavours, subtle nuttiness and oaky warmth. Throughout the years, the distillery’s spirit has been prized by blenders, particularly for use in the famous White Horse blend. The quality of this dram demonstrates why.
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And the story of Brora...
Another “Blenders’ Friend”, Highland distillery Clynelish has a fascinating story, which includes it doubling up, splitting in half and then superseding what would become one of the most iconic distilleries in Scotch whisky history.
Originally founded in 1819, a second distillery was added to the site in 1967, with the original mothballed. After a year, the first Clynelish returned to action under the moniker “Brora”. It would continue to operate alongside the new Clynelish, often producing peated whisky, until 1983 when it finally closed. Brora single malt whisky went on to become some of the most celebrated and sought after in the world, often selling for thousands of dollars a bottle. Eventually, the clamour that the distillery reopen proved too great for owners Diageo, who restarted Brora’s production to great fanfare in 2021.
Nevertheless, the remaining Clynelish makes a delicious, and rather unique spirit, with its hallmark waxy quality unlike any other single malt. The distillery’s flagship bottling, a 14 year old largely matured in former Bourbon barrels, perfectly demonstrates this quality – offering a subtle waxy citrus note, alongside beeswax and a touch of peat. How does the distillery create this incredible mouthfeel? Apparently, they never clean their spirit receiver!
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Not all Islay whisky is peated!
Yes, this dram is that rare thing: an unpeated whisky from Islay. Although most spirit from “the Queen of the Hebrides” possesses a distinctive smoky tang, Bunna (as it is affectionately known) forgoes this in favour of malty sweetness.
A large distillery with giant stills – the low fill level and high copper contact of which produce Bunna’s lighter style – Bunnahabhain has experimented with peated whisky in recent years, now accounting for about 20% of production.
This small batch 12 year old is an excellent example of the distillery’s traditional house-style, having been largely matured in ex-Sherry casks. Notes of ginger (the Bunna hallmark), Sherried dried fruits and mocha offer a compelling and delicious profile. If you think Islay is all about the peat – this is definitely a dram that will challenge your preconceptions.
Don’t just take our word for it – this review from Whisky Looter Ganixd says it all: “This is now in my "top shelf Scotch" list. Not being a peat smoke fan at all, this Scotch is just to my liking. Just as the description says it is warm (at 46.3%) but it does welcome with a beautiful smooth complex flavour.”
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Whisky and rum – a match made in heaven!BenRiach is a perhaps underrated single malt whisky brand, flying under the radar to produce some delicious drops! The distillery is found a little outside the Speyside whisky-town of Elgin, and close to neighbours Longmorn and the aforementioned Glen Elgin. Here, an aromatic style of spirit is produced, perfectly suited to rum casks.
This particular bottling has enjoyed a very lengthy maturation of over two decades, the majority of which is spent in former Bourbon barrels, before a finish in rich dark rum casks. The result is a rather remarkable whisky – featuring funky tropical fruit flavours typical of Caribbean rum casks, and an undertone of stone fruits, vanilla, intense oak and vivid maltiness.
Tried this combo of Caledonia and the Caribbean already? Leave a review here.
A Lowland dram of perfect balanceThe local distillery of Scotland’s historic capital city, Edinburgh, Glenkinchie makes Lowland spirit of a rare quality. Long fermentation, clear wort (the sweet barley water used to make whisky) and massive stills produce a light single malt, though cold-water worm tub condensers add a little depth.
This 12 year old bottling is the distillery’s flagship expression, and has been matured in former Bourbon barrels, allowing the whisky’s natural qualities to shine through. Drinkers can expect flavours of manuka honey, creamy oak, vanilla and toffee. In many ways, this is an archetypal Lowland single malt: light, gentle and refreshing.
A jewel of Diageo’s Classic Malts series, this is a dram that will transport you to one of Europe’s great capitals, despite any border restrictions.
If you’ve tasted this lovely Lowlander before, leave a review here.
A classic dram from a traditional distilleryIn 2021, we all need a treat, and there are few drams more decadent than this well aged, Sherry cask whisky from Glenfarclas. The Speyside distillery enjoys an enviable reputation for doing things the right way – they remain family owned and independent, and never use artificial colouration in their whisky. Due to the local micro-climate (which is extremely cold) the distillery enjoys a very low “Angel’s Share”, meaning they can offer mature whisky at much more reasonable prices.
Like most Glenfarclas whiskies, this drop has been aged in Spanish Oloroso Sherry casks. Oloroso is a medium-dry style of Sherry, with its barrels prized by whisky-makers for their ability to add flavours of dried fruit, nuts and spices to maturing single malts. So it proves with this bottling, which is produced in the hallmark “Christmas Cake” style of Glenfarclas.
Glenfarclas 17 Year Old serves up plentiful juicy ripe plums, dried fruits, jammy berries, vanilla and baking spices. A terrific winter warmer, or a great option for capturing the feel of a Scottish Christmas!
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A maritime malt from one of Scotland’s most northerly distilleriesThis whisky is filled with a sense of place. The name Huddart is taken from the street on which the distillery is found, in the town of Wick in the far northern Highlands. This fishing port is so remote, that for a long time it was only accessible by boat.
Old Pulteney is known for its strangely shaped, flat-topped stills, the result (rumour has it) of a distiller misjudging the height of the roof, and having to slice the top off his stills. Combined with worm tub condensers, this makes for a rather weighty style of single malt.
Old Pulteney Huddart has been matured in casks that previously held heavily peated whisky. The result is a smokier take on Pulteney’s typically coastal malt, featuring notes of green apples, briny salted honey, and subtle bonfire smoke. An excellent alternative to Islay malts, this is a subtly smoky rendition of the classic Highlander’s spirit.
Had Huddart? Give it a review here.
Aussie owned distillery experiencing a rebirthFrom one extreme to the other: Bladnoch is one of the most southerly distilleries in Scotland, found extremely close to the border with England.
This bottling takes its name from the Buddhist concept meaning “rebirth”, a nod to Bladnoch’s reopening in 2015 following 6 years of closure. The distillery was saved from obscurity by David Prior, an Australian businessman who had made his fortune in the yoghurt industry. Bladnoch is thought to be the first Scotch whisky distillery to be owned by an Australian.
Samsara has been matured in a combination of former Bourbon barrels, and Californian Red Wine casks, resulting in a complex and sophisticated Lowland single malt. This whisky serves up notes of ripe plums, dried fruits, vanilla, toffee and red wine tannins.
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Not enough options for you?We get it. Even the most comprehensive list isn’t going to offer everything you want. That’s why we put together our subscription service, which offers a wide variety of whiskies from around the world, delivered directly to your door each month.
Sign up to either our Explorer’s, or Advanced memberships here.
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