Judging by the bottles of Scotch on liquor store shelves 30 is the new 18. While distillers may be releasing ever older expressions (and charging more for them) I actually crave younger (and usually) cheaper single malts. Why? Young whiskies allow me to explore the nuance of the spirit before more powerful wood notes silence luscious flavors developed during both distillation and fermentation. (And if a distiller gets a young whisky right, it’s a signal that the aged versions are probably pretty good, too.) These younger single malts sit quietly on the shelves, overshadowed by their flashy limited-edition brothers created to win over U.S. drinkers by often using a literal boatload of American oak. I love bourbon, but I want my Scotch to taste like Scotch.
So, whether your shopping for yourself or looking for a gift, here are my favorite five single malts under $50 that you should no longer overlook. Slàinte!
Glenmorangie Original ($39)
Glenmorangie uses some the tallest, willowiest stills in Scotland, and their 10 year old is a testament to how the art of distilling makes its way into a dram. Only the lithe and light molecules float up and over their stills’ swan necks, like the tiniest birds who soar off the edge of the sea, flying so high that they become nothing more than specs against the clouds. These refined aromatics—floral and fruits in particular—create a truly elegant sipping whisky. I always have a Glenmorangie Original on my shelf at home.
Bowmore 12 Year Old ($50)
This little dazzler manages to deliver just enough peat without overpowering the sweet and violet notes reminiscent of the British candy Parma Violets. The juxtaposition of this slight floral-sweetness against the peat make this a fabulous whisky to serve to those who like peat, but only just a little bit. In fact, Bowmore is the brand I introduced to hundreds of happy travelers who said “I don’t like Peat” when I worked at the Scotch Malt Whisky Society in Edinburgh. It is also an exceptional pairing with oysters on the half shell, which makes a wonderful holiday treat.
Old Pulteney 12 Year Old ($45)
This Northern distillery in the little village of Wick—once the herring capital of Scotland—is an excellent example of an un-peated but drier and brinier single malt Scotch. Squat, flat-topped pot stills ensure that the spirit retains enough personality to please palates looking for something more powerful. I serve Old Pulteney to guests who want something without peat but with a little more “oomph.” This is also a wonderful dram to serve alongside seafood.
Deanston Virgin Oak ($40)
Don’t be thrown off by the name of this whisky. This bottle retains enough of a Scotch personality to make me happy. Deanston also doesn’t chill-filter and this single malt is a potent 92-proof, which is slightly higher than the other Scotches on this list. That’s just enough to give it a little extra “ping.” The distillery is powered by hydro-electric energy as well. I don’t know about you, but I feel great about buying whisky from a company that makes an effort to take care of the earth.
Highland Park 12 Year Old ($46)
I’ve shocked a few whisky fanatics by telling them I like my Highland Park 12 on the rocks– hell, I’ll plop a few cubes into the brand’s 18-year-old, too. Ice changes which notes “pop,” and in Highland Park it brings out soft vanilla notes that combine with a whiff of peat smoke. As the few cubes (or the one large one) slowly melt, I often reflect on the evolution of the dram’s flavors, which evolve and linger—all hallmarks of a wonderful Scotch. Highland Park is one of only two distilleries situated on the main island of the Orkney Archipelago at the top of Scotland.