5 Recommended Single Malt Scotch Whiskies under $50
We’ve tried a few hundred single malts at this point, so we finally feel qualified to recommend whiskies. Before we get into the recommendations, few parameters:
- All the whiskies are readily available; nothing on the list is impossible to track down. It’s impossible to do this exhaustively, so we’re picking whiskies that you can find in K&L, Total Wines, or Whisky Shop, the three liquor stores we frequent in the SF Bay Area. That said, you can track most of these whiskies down pretty easily.
- We’re recommending a few different styles of single malt scotch. It’s good to have variety!
Whisky 1: Bruichladdich The Classic Laddie: $49.99
Why Michael recommends it
Bruichladdich Classic Laddie is an unpeated whisky from Islay, which means the thing most people think of, when they think of Islay whisky, is missing. What’s left is a somewhat easier to examine example of what this distillery’s bottlings are all about. The bottle sticks out; it’s a beautiful teal color, and it’s widely available. It’s un-chill filtered, which means that the whisky isn’t cooled down to remove impurities, so you get a fuller flavor. It’s also free of coloring, so the natural straw color is all its own. We gave the whisky a 7.5 (really high for us).
Stats: 50% ABV, non-chill filtered, color free. Aged in “American Oak,” i.e. ex-bourbon casks. No age statement. 100% Scottish Barley.
Nose: Salted bread, lemon, blackberries, honey, malty beer, chocolate and terroir and fresh peat moss.
Palate: Funky, salted caramel, some pepper spice, mangos, and sweet corn.
Medium finish, with a lingering citrus and tropical fruit aftertaste.
7.5/10. Complex. This unpeated offering is an excellently stripped-down representation that gets to the core of Bruichladdich’s salty sea-side storeroom walls which impart much of the distillery’s unique taste.
Total Wine $49.99.
Whisky Shop: $62.99
Whisky 2: Laphroaig 10
Why Sylvia recommends it
The big bad boy from Islay, Laphroaig is probably the most polarizing whisky in the single malt world. For good reason, it sticks out. When we visited the distillery they were touting a marketing campaign featuring quotes from the distillery’s visitors. The quote “it tastes like a burning hospital” still sticks with me years later.
Many seasoned whisky drinkers make a mistake by not recommending Laphroaig 10 to new drinkers. Liking or disliking smoke is a personal preference that isn’t solely determined by whether someone is a new or experienced whisky drinker. The stereotype of the Laphroaig lover as a 60+ year old heavily bearded monosyllabic fisherman sometimes misses the mark. I, an unbearded and well-read Asian woman, hosted a party of my contemporaries a few years ago which featured a tasting of half a dozen whiskies. The result? A unanimous preference among the young Asian women who emphatically voted for Laphroaig in a blind tasting. My hypothesis, perhaps a nostalgic association for the high percentage of Asians who grow up drinking Lapsang souchong tea, which features a similar flavor profile, namely a deliciously smokey burning hospital. Bottoms up!
Stats: 43% ABV, aged in ex-bourbon casks.
Total Wine: $35.99
Whisky Shop: $59.99
Whisky 3: Highland Park 12
Why Michael Recommends It
Highland Park is my personal favorite whisky. I find it’s the perfect mix of smoke, salt, caramel and plum flavors. Highland Park’s whiskies are lightly peated, but the peat is heathery and is much different from Laphroaig’s, which is much saltier and heavier. This light dusting of smoke and heather flowers is one of my favorite attributes of Highland Park’s whiskies. It’s lighter and sweater than something like a Ben Riach, which has similar levels of peat in their malt.
Highland park is based in Kirkwall, Scotland, situated in the sparsely-populated Orkney archipelago off Scotland’s northern coast. The distillery is located off the North coast of Scotland. The sparsely populated islands are home to a set of 5,000 year old settlements, and two very fine Scotch whisky distilleries, Scapa and Highland Park. Highland Park is the northern most Scotch distillery in the world.
Highland Park was originally founded by Magnus Eunson, a butcher and whisky smuggler, who was caught illicitly distilling on the site in 1798. He eventually went legit, acquiring a distillation license in 1826.
Stats: 43% ABV, aged in a mix of ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks. Like most other whisky distilleries, they don’t break down the exact formulation of what share of whisky is aged in ex-sherry or ex-bourbon, and it likely varies from batch to batch.
Total Wine: $49.99
Whisky Shop: $54.99
Whisky 4: Kilchoman Machir Bay
Why Sylvia Recommends It
Kilchoman (“Kill-ho-man”), “Islay’s Farm Distillery” is located on the island’s western side. Machir Bay features a blend of bourbon and sherry cask whiskies which is one of the core expressions of this tiny (only 2 wash stills and 2 spirit stills) family-owned distillery. The Machir Bay is the only Kilchoman release under the USD$50 mark, but it punches well above its weight class; it has a savory salty profile with butterscotch notes that I personally enjoy a lot. One warning – this is a peated whisky, and peat smoke is polarizing, this is not for everyone. If you’re not a “smoky” whisky fan or if you’re buying a scotch as a gift, I’d go for one of the more universal profiles on this list (e.g. Glenmorangie or Highland Park).
But if you want to try something that’s considered a whisky nerd’s brand – Kilchoman is a great choice. It’s the “indie” brand that does their own floor maltings and are known for their prolific experimentation with a variety of different cask finishes. At specialty scotch stores, you may find a variety of single cask releases Kilchoman has done in collaboration with store or distributors. The sheer number of these collaborations can be staggering considering how small the distillery is, and if you like the Machir Bay, I’d definitely recommend springing for one of these collaborative cask strength bottlings next.
Total Wine: 45.99
Whisky Shop (50ML Mini): $15.99
Whisky 5: Glenmorangie Lasanta
Why Sylvia Recommends It
Glenmorangie is highly accessible and well-liked by amateurs and connoisseurs alike. The whiskies tend toward palate-pleasing cask finishes that lend some sweeter chocolatey notes. We reviewed their Signet (~$240 bottling) very favorably – it’s liquid dessert.
Wine Enthusiast is also a major Glenmorangie fan, as is Jim Murray (writer of Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible). WhiskySponge.com once posted a satirical article called “Bidding for Jim Murray’s Whisky of the Year Closes Next Week”, listing among the awards “up for grabs” was “Glenmorangie of the Year”, in light of his affinity for the brand. Side note: while Jim Murray is a well-known reviewer, you may also choose to ignore what he thinks. While many consider him a douchebag, others simply regard him as a panama-hat wearing, sexist, self-proclaimed guru that allegedly only eats bland foods, abstains from sex, and refuses housekeeping before his tasting sessions in the service of his self-vaunted palate and the integrity of his own high praise. Jim, c’mon buddy, is that really why you’re not getting laid?
Lasanta is Glenmorangie’s sherry cask (Oloroso and Pedro Ximinez) finished bottling (others include the port finished – Quinta Ruban – and a Sauternes cask finished – Nectar d’Or). Personally, if you can shell out an extra $20, I’d recommend springing for the Nectar d’Or. Sauternes cask-finished whiskies are atypical and can be quite a treat: their profiles can include honey and vanilla icing.
Total Wine: $48.99
Whisky Shop: $54.99