This definitive guide to affordable Scotch explores everything you need to know about the world’s most popular single malt whisky, including important regions and the best bottles you can buy under $100.


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Table of Contents
Editor’s Picks
Introduction
What Makes a Good Scotch?
Whisky Regions
Is Scotch Still Relevant?
Best Scotch Under $50

Best Scotch Under $75

Best Scotch Under $100

Editor’s Picks

Best Value Scotch: Aberfeldy 12

Best Scotch Under 100 Aberfeldy 12

Verdict: If you like Dewar’s blended whisky, you’ll love Aberfeldy. This award-winning single malt Scotch is the largest component of the Dewar’s blend, and carries the same easy-drinking flavor profile. This isn’t as refined as the other Scotch on this list — and the price reflects this — but it is super smooth, almost to a fault, with a clean mouthfeel and hints of fruit. It’s good to break out for its utility.

Region: Highlands
ABV: 40%
Average Price: $42

Best Peaty Scotch for Price: Ledaig 10 Year

Best Scotch Under 100 Ledaig 10 year gear-patrol

Verdict: Ledaig 10 Year comes from the Tobermory distillery, which was once named the Ledaig distillery. As opposed to the Tobermory single malt, the more popular Scotch they produce, the Ledaig is more heavily peated and made in smaller batches. By far the harshest of the cheaper offering on this list, the Scotch opens strong with peat, then moves to pepper and leather at the finish.

Region: Isle of Mull
ABV: 46.3%
Average Price: $55

Best Islay Scotch: Lagavulin 16 Year

Best Scotch Under 100 Lagavulin 16 year gear-patrol

Verdict: It’s hard to say anything bad about this Scotch. This is the benchmark bottle from Lagavulin, a distillery neighboring Laphroaig. While Laphroaig packs more smoke, Lagavulin keeps the peat in check and presents a balanced, dry Scotch that’s sharp, with toffee on the nose and light sweetness on the palate that gives way to leather and campfire.

Region: Islay
ABV: 43%
Average Price: $77

Introduction

There once was an indecisive man stranded in the middle of Scotland. From where he stood, he could set off in any direction and find good Scotch: straight south to the light, fresh Lowlands; straight north to the fruity Highlands; up to the caramel-y region of Speyside in the northeast; or down to peaty, seaweedy Islay off the southwest coast. Just before he could set off, though, a man behind him asked him to move his shopping cart. Because he was just standing there, blocking the aisle in the liquor store.

There once was an indecisive man stranded in the middle of a liquor store.

We’ve all been that man. Selecting a Scotch — or just a whisk(e)y in general — is hard. To know your preference is to have the shelf space and wallet to purchase dozens of Scotch whiskies to taste one after another, picking out what you like and don’t like. So to facilitate a confident order, and cut down the time spent drowning in decisions at a liquor store, we asked a few Scotch experts some basic questions about Scotch and then compiled their recommendations for under $100 a bottle: something of quality, but nothing that would break the bank. We’ve included their responses among these, the ten single malts you should cut your teeth on.

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Our Experts

The-Scotch-Experts-Gear-Patrol-

From Left: Tommy Tardie is the owner and operator of The Flatiron Room, a New York City restaurant that operates a whiskey school, Charles MacLean has written ten books on Scotch whisky, including two, Scotch Whisky and Malt Whisky, that were short-listed for Glenfiddich Awards, and Stephanie Moreno is the spirits director and editor at Distiller, an app about whiskey.

What Makes a Good Scotch?

According to Tommy Tardie, the owner and operator of The Flatiron Room, a New York City restaurant that operates a whiskey school, good Scotch starts with the nose. “I like something that’s big and aromatic,” he says. “Not so heavy on the ethanol and not so light that you smell nothing. A good nose sets my palate up for what I’m about to sip — a kind of ‘foreshadowing.'”

The next test: mouthfeel. “I like a Scotch that really engages all of my mouth,” Tardie says. “I’m not looking for ‘heat’ here … I’m looking for interaction with my taste buds, the sides of my cheeks the back of my throat, etc. I want a nice balance between the wood and the grain.”

Finally, there comes the finish. “The longer and more complex finish helps differentiates a ‘good’ whisky from a spectacular one,” Tardie says. “My favorite whiskies have long finishes that evolve over time. They may start out with hints of chocolate and orange peel and later evolve into sweet peat smoke. I like that. When I teach classes I always emphasis paying attention to the finish… this is what you are paying for with great whisky.”

Whisky Regions

“There are five, arguably six, whisky regions of Scotland,” Tardie says — the Highlands, the Lowlands, Speyside, Islay, Campbeltown (and the Islands). “In my mind, each represents a style of whisky that I tend to go for based on my mood, the season or a particular taste I’m looking for,” he adds. “On a cold, snowy night my choice is Islay for their signature peated whiskies.” Ardbeg, Lagavulin, Bruichladdich, Laphroaig, Bowmore. “On a hot summer day I may go for a lighter whisky from the Lowlands or the Highlands. A nice Glenmorangie that has had lots of interaction with their very tall copper still delivers a light, smooth, balanced whisky that is very satisfying on a sweltering day. With this said, most regions produce various styles of Scotch, so even limited to one region you’ll still find enough variety to satisfy diverse palates.”

Is Scotch Still Relevant?

Single malt distilleries are opening throughout America and both bourbon and rye continue to climb in popularity. While there is certainly increased competition for shelf space, it’s important to remember that more Scotch whisky is sold around the world than all the ‘non-Scotch’ put together, says spirits writer Charles MacLean.

“Scotch is not ‘under threat,'” MacLean says. “Whisky makers go to great lengths to create the flavors they want. It is not a haphazard process, it is driven by high craft, often passion and, increasingly, science. One style of whisky is not better than another; they are different by design. I welcome the increase in malt whisky distilling around the world since it offers consumers broader choice, expands interest in the category and encourages exploration. Malt whisky drinkers, like wine drinkers, are pluralists: they don’t stick to one “brand” — they would be crazy to, with such a range of flavors to choose from.”

Stephanie Moreno, the spirits director and editor at Distiller, an app about whiskey, shares this perspective. “Scotch isn’t going anywhere nor do I think they need to be making any drastic changes,” she says. “Quality Scotch can transport you to Scotland whether you’ve set foot there or not. That should never change. I think what is changing are people’s perspectives about whisky in general. Scotch isn’t just for your grandfather; women and younger generations are drinking whisky at increasing rates and their curiosity will naturally lead them to try whiskies from around the world. I think that’s a good thing.”

Flavor-Driven Labelling vs Age Statements

Recently, there have been certain changes to the marketing of Scotch. In some cases flavor-driven labelling has taken the place of age statements. What other changes have you observed in how Scotch is produced and sold, and how do you feel about it?

“The move towards removing age statements has been driven by a shortage of older whiskies. Generally, one must assume that NAS (No Age Statement) bottlings are younger than those bearing an age statement. The industry maintains that it wants consumers to judge for themselves, based on flavor, rather than assuming that older is better. This is a fair comment, but consumers still prefer to justify their purchase by age. In recent years we have seen a large number of super-premium releases, sometimes at exorbitant prices — beyond the reach of most consumers, and aimed at collectors, oligarchs and the super-rich. This is a shame, but reflects the shortage of very old whiskies (30 plus).” — Charles MacLean

“I think that Scotch producers have been focusing on a couple of things. Sherry-finished or sherry-aged whiskies are very approachable and appeal to a younger demographic or those that are making the change from bourbon to Scotch. On the flip side of that, peated whiskies aren’t going anywhere. Bigger, bolder, and younger whiskies are coming out at an extraordinary rate. I don’t have an issue with a loss of age statement on whiskies, but what I do have an issue with is the loss of a brand or distillery’s sense of identity. Limited edition bottlings are increasing in number and while I don’t mind them experimenting, I’d like for brands to get back to their roots. One distillery or brand shouldn’t try to be all things for everyone. The sense of place, or terroir, is getting lost.” — Stephanie Moreno

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Best Scotch Under $50

Best Scotch Under $75

Best Scotch Under $100

Best Scotch Under $50

Best Bang for Your Buck: Aberfeldy 12

Best Scotch Under 100 Aberfeldy 12

Verdict: If you like Dewar’s blended whisky, you’ll love Aberfeldy. This award-winning single malt Scotch is the largest component of the Dewar’s blend, and carries the same easy-drinking flavor profile. This isn’t as refined as the other Scotch on this list — and the price reflects this — but it is super smooth, almost to a fault, with a clean mouthfeel and hints of fruit. It’s good to break out for its utility.

Region: Highlands
ABV: 40%
Average Price: $42

Creamy and Accessible: Bunnahabhain 8 Year Old The MacPhail’s

Best Scotch Under 100 Bunnahabhain 8 Year Old

Verdict: Like the bourbon brand Jefferson’s, Gordon & MacPhail doesn’t produce the juice inside this bottle, but they are skilled at selecting and blending the barrels they gain through partnerships with distilleries throughout Scotland. This bottle contains 8-year-old Bunnahabhain, and serves as a balance to the heavily peated Scotch usually produced on Islay. This one is creamy, soft and smooth, with lemon on the nose, light fruit and a buttery finish.

Region: Islay
ABV: 43%
Average Price: $48

Best Scotch Under $75

Best Peaty Scotch for Price: Ledaig 10 Year

Best Scotch Under 100 Ledaig 10 year gear-patrol

Verdict: Ledaig 10 Year comes from the Tobermory distillery, which was once named the Ledaig distillery. As opposed to the Tobermory single malt, the more popular Scotch they produce, the Ledaig is more heavily peated and made in smaller batches. By far the harshest of the cheaper offering on this list, the Scotch opens strong with peat, then moves to pepper and leather at the finish.

Region: Isle of Mull
ABV: 46.3%
Average Price: $55

Best Scotch to Drink Around a Campfire: Laphroaig Quarter Cask

Best Scotch Under 100 Laphroaig 10 year Quarter Cask gear-patrol

Verdict: Distillers at Laphroaig took their Scotch, known as one of the peatiest, smokiest you can buy, and matured it in a smaller “quarter cask”, increasing the liquid’s exposure to the wood. This allows the rough, peaty edges to smooth down and more complex flavors to come through. It still tastes like a campfire in the middle of a peat bog, but now with hints of butterscotch and vanilla. Drink this and everyone at the bar will know what you ordered.

Region: Islay
ABV: 48%
Average Price: $55

Best Scotch to Pair with Food: Caol Ila 12

Best Scotch Under 100 Caol Ila 12 year gear-patrol

Verdict: Without realizing it, you’ve probably drank Caol Ila before as part of Johnnie Walker’s blends. Its pale yellow color tips off its lightness and, like a white wine, it pairs well with salmon. There’s more smoke on the nose than in the glass, with strong flavors of lemon that go down clean but come back and hang around during the finish.

Region: Islay
ABV: 43%
Average Price: $60

Best Rum-Cask Scotch: The Balvenie Caribbean Cask

Best Scotch Under 100 Balvenie Carribean Cask gear-patrol

Verdict: We’ve tasted The Balvenie’s Single Barrel before, but this Scotch is a year younger and matured in rum casks instead of sherry. The rum barrels impart the easy mouthfeel of aged rum, with the peat hidden in cherry and brown sugar and hints of apple that linger for a finish unlike any Scotch on this list. Another fantastic Scotch from one of our favorite distilleries.

Region: Speyside
ABV: 43%
Average Price: $73

Best Scotch Under $100

Best Cask-Strength Scotch: Aberlour A’bunadh

Best Scotch Under 100 Aberlour Abunadh gear-patrol

Verdict: These stocky, wax-sealed bottles sport no age statements. They hold a hand-selected blend of Aberlour Scotch matured in Spanish oak Oloroso sherry butts and bottled without chill filtration or dilution. Our bottle from batch 49 (A’bunadh is released in limited-run batches) clocks in at over 120 proof — but the sherry smooths the alcohol of this deep rose-colored Scotch for vanilla and citrus on the nose, with peat and ginger spice up front that gives ways to green apple and a long, warm finish.

Region: Speyside
ABV: 60.8%
Average Price: $84

Best Islay Scotch: Lagavulin 16 Year

Best Scotch Under 100 Lagavulin 16 year gear-patrol

Verdict: It’s hard to say anything bad about this Scotch. This is the benchmark bottle from Lagavulin, a distillery neighboring Laphroaig. While Laphroaig packs more smoke, Lagavulin keeps the peat in check and presents a balanced, dry Scotch that’s sharp, with toffee on the nose and light sweetness on the palate that gives way to leather and campfire.

Region: Islay
ABV: 43%
Average Price: $77

Best Glenlivet Expression: The Glenlivet Nadurra Oloroso

Best Scotch Under 100 Glenlivet Nadurra 16-year gear-patrol

Verdict: Scotch whiskies from The Glenlivet are among the best-selling single malts in America, so there’s no doubt you’ve seen them hanging out behind the bar or on the shelf. The Nadurra, meaning “natural” in Gaelic, is similar to the Aberlour A’bunadh in that it’s a small-batch offering with no chill filtration, matured in sherry casks and bottled at cask strength. Compared to the A’bunadh, the Nadurra reveals more of its alcohol content and a more conservative showing of sweet caramel and fruit flavors.

Region: Speyside
ABV: 60.3%
Average Price: $77

Best 15-Year Scotch: Glendronach 15 Year Revival

Best Scotch Under 100 GlenDronach 15 Year Old Revival gear-patrol

Verdict: On the nose are toffee, vanilla and pine. Sipping it brings peat and fennel first, which melts into molasses, citrus and peach. There’s no strong burn: just peat and green apple. A sweet balancing act of sherry and smoke.

Region: Highlands
ABV: 46%
Average Price: $85

Best Scotch Under $50

Best Scotch Under $75

Best Scotch Under $100

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