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8 of the best single malt whiskies

Single malt Scotch whisky has a rich history, but it’s not as prolific as you may think - and yes you can drink it anyway you want, finds Rosalind Erskine.

Whisky production in Scotland dates back hundreds of years and has become one of the country's most famous exports - with over 1.14 billion bottles of the 'water of life' shipped out to countries all over the world each year. 

In law, a Scotch whisky must be Is produced at a distillery in Scotland from water and malted barley which have been "processed at that distillery into a mash, converted at that distillery to a fermentable substrate only by endogenous enzyme systems, fermented at that distillery only by adding yeast, and distilled at an alcoholic strength by volume of less than 94.8 per cent.

These rules protect the traditional manufacture of whisky, while the regulations also say that the drink must be matured in a Scottish excise warehouse for at least three years in oak casks no larger than 700 litres in size.

The rules also state that the whisky should "retain the colour, aroma, and taste of the raw materials used in, and the method of, its production and maturation."

What is single malt whisky?

There are two types of Scotch - single malts and single grain whisky. Single malt whisky is one that has been made at a single distillery in a pot still (the traditional method of whisky production that has been used for centuries), using a mash made from malted barley, water and yeast - and no other grains.

A single grain Scotch whisky is also made at one distillery (hence the single title), but which includes the grains of other cereals along with barley. It can be made using continuous, or column, stills - a technique which allows for cheaper and quicker production.

Then there’s blended whiskies, which can either be blended malts or blended Scotch whisky. Blended malt scotch whisky is a blend of two or more single malt Scotch whiskies from different distilleries.

Whereas blended Scotch whisky is a blend of one or more single malt Scotch whiskies with one or more single grain Scotch whiskies added to the mix.

Why is single malt whisky more expensive than blended? 

A single malt whisky takes years to mature as, although a legal Scotch can be released (and called a Scotch) after three years, many distilleries leave their single malts for at least 10 years. The maturation process also means a certain amount of the liquid will evaporate (the angel’s share) making it slightly rare and more expensive.

Also blended Scotch includes grain, which is cheaper to produce which will reduce the overall amount of this type of whisky. Single malts can also include a single cask bottling, which means all the whisky comes from one cask from one distillery. This makes the resulting release very rare, sometimes with only hundreds of bottles available and once it’s gone, it’s gone.

Here we take a look at 8 of the best single malt whiskies, from bargain buys to non-peated and those ideal for beginners.

Glen Moray Classic

Glen Moray Classic
Glen Moray Classic

Best budget single malt whisky 

Price: £23.25

Best for: those on a budget

This is a very drinkable whisky, and is a steal for a single malt. The liquid is aged for an average of seven years in ex-bourbon casks, most of which are first fill, giving it a sweet flavour that’ll also appear to those trying whisky for the first time.

Tasting notes: On the nose there’s a sweetness which is followed on the palate where you may also find apple, honey and slight citrus. The finish is medium with a hint of lemon.

Score: 5/5

Buy it here: Glen Moray Classic.

Aberlour A'Bunadh

Aberlour A'Bunadh
Aberlour A'Bunadh

Price: £82.95

Best for: best sherry cask single malt whisky

Aberlour's A'Bunadh (which is Gaelic for 'of the origin' or 'the original') is a sherry bomb, as it has been matured exclusively in Spanish Oloroso sherry butts, and it remains a  cult classic with a loyal fan base that have stuck by it, despite recent price hikes.

This is a cask strength whisky, which means no water has been added, so it’s strong but very drinkable. It’s also available in different batches, meaning that every bottle from each batch will offer something different.

Tasting notes: As with most sherry whiskies, you’ll find lots of Christmas cake on the nose - spice, raisins, clove and orange. On the palate you may find notes of dried fruit, ginger, cherry, dark chocolate and nutmeg..

Score: 4/5

Buy it here: Aberlour A'Bunadh.

Nc'nean Organic Single Malt

Nc'nean Organic Single Malt
Nc'nean Organic Single Malt

Price: £45.46

Best for: non-smoky single malt

Recently launched, Nc’nean’s Organic Single Malt is the first whisky released to the public by this new, independent distillery.

Organic, made with renewable energy and bottled in the UK’s first-ever 100 per cent recycled clear glass bottle, the whisky showcases Nc’nean’s commitment to protecting the environment.

Nc’nean’s whisky is made from organic Scottish barley whose natural yields and rich soils contribute great depth of flavour, and gentle fermentation and distillation accentuate the delicate, fruity flavours in the spirit.

The whisky achieves its signature body and sweetness from having been left to mature for three years in selected ex-Bourbon and specially treated STR ex-red wine barrels. Each barrel has been chosen by Nc’nean for the distinct flavours the wood contributes to the whisky.

Tasting notes: On the nose there’s vanilla and hints of pepper while on the palate there’s apples and pears. The finish is sweet and spicy.

Score: 5/5

Buy it here: Nc'nean Organic Single Malt

Benriach The Original 10

Benriach The Original 10
Benriach The Original 10

Price: £37.95

Best for: beginners

This whisky is an ideal introduction to Benriach’s signature style and richly layered Speyside Single Malt. The whisky is a marriage from three casks - bourbon barrels, sherry casks and virgin oak - that were matured for at least ten years. This combination combined with Benriach's fruity spirit makes for a great tasting and easy-drinking smooth whisky.

Tasting notes: The whisky has layers of orchard fruit, honeyed malt and toasted oak, all interwoven with a subtle trace of smoke. On the nose you’ll get vanilla, cedar and soft fruit. On the palate there’s orchard fruits, buttery pastry, cream and earthy peat. The finish is sweet.

Score: 4/5

Buy it here: Benriach The Original 10.

Aberfeldy 12 year old

Aberfeldy 12 year old
Aberfeldy 12 year old

Price: £35.90

Best for: those that like a sweeter dram

This whisky is a smooth, fruity dram that’s ideal for sunny days. It’s also a great introduction to this Highland distillery, for those that are keen to try. Aberfeldy is the heart of the very moreish Dewar’s blend, but has no problem holding its own in this sweet malt.

Tasting notes: This whisky features a unique honeyed sweetness paired with notes of spiced vanilla, fudge and pineapple.

Score: 4/5

Buy it here: Aberfeldy 12 year old.

Glen Scotia Victoriana

Glen Scotia Victoriana
Glen Scotia Victoriana

Price: £64.89

Best for: those that like cask strength whisky

Glen Scotia Victoriana is a cask strength single malt ideal for the whisky connoisseurs. With its rare character and maturity finished in deep charred oak, the Victoriana is a smooth single malt whisky.

Bottled in the traditional way straight from the cask and without filtration, its subtle wood and vanilla flavour is enhanced by a full- bodied spicy fruit aroma and mildly smoky aftertaste.

Tasting notes: This single malt offers a full-bodied palate with initial hints of oak, crème brûlée and caramelised fruits, leading to rich dark chocolate and blackcurrant palate.

Score: 4/5 

Buy it here: Glen Scotia Victoriana.

Caol Ila 12

Caol Ila 12
Caol Ila 12

Price: £41.95

Best for: peated whisky lovers

One for the peaty Islay whisky fans, this classic from Caol IIa is somewhere in the middle of the peatiness scale with a full body and brininess that adds depth. It’s perfect for warming you up on a cold night as it is for sharing by a campfire on a warm summer's night.

Tasting notes: On the nose you’ll get the smoke which develops on the palate, where you may also find an oiliness. The finish is long and peppery.

Score: 3.5/5

Buy it here: Caol Ila 12

Lindores Abbey

Lindores Abbey
Lindores Abbey

Price: £42.99

Best for: history buffs

The first whisky from Lindores Abbey Distillery was made available for purchase by the public on July 2 2021 to rave reviews. Lindores Abbey is the officially recognised site of the first recorded distillation of Scotch whisky in 1494. This whisky was aged in ex-bourbon, ex-sherry, and STR ex-Burgundy red wine casks, giving it a rich yet light flavour.

Tasting notes: Malty on the nose, while on the palate this whisky is creamy and smooth with some spiciness and fruitiness. The finish is medium and fruity.

Score: 5/5

Buy it here: Lindores Abbey.

Interested in all things whisky? Check out our round-ups of the best whiskies on the planet

Best whisky glasses: from crystal to tumblers, budget to Glencairn, from Amazon to ASDA
9 of the best Scottish whiskies: our favourite Scotch brands
Best Islay whisky: from Ardbeg to Laphroaig, the Islay whiskies you need to try
Best rye whiskey: ideal rye for a Sazerac, Manhattan, or simply neat
Best peated whisky: from Speyside to Islay, the peaty whiskies to please
8 of the best single malt whiskies
Best expensive whiskies worth the price tag: Macallan, Glengoyne, Tobermory, Glenfiddich
Best supermarket whiskies: best whisky buys from Lidl, Aldi, Morrisons and Tescos
Best blended whiskies: is it worth buying blended whisky? The best brands
Best world whiskies: from cheap to expensive, the world whisky brands you have to try
Best Irish whiskey: from cheap to expensive, single malt, blends, and smoky
Best Speyside whiskies: from single malt to blended, M&S to Glenfiddich
Best English whiskies: the English whisky brands worth buying
Best Japanese whisky: our expert guide to best brands, from single malt, blended, under £50, to best-selling

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Known for cake making, experimental jam recipes, Champagne and gin drinking (and the inability to cook Gnocchi), Rosalind writes for The Scotsman on all things food and drink related as well as hosting Scran, The Scotsman's food and drink podcast.

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