I've always felt intimidated by Scotch. Unlike some other spirits, it has an air of prestige, like you can't belong to the club of true connoisseurs unless you have oodles of cash to dole out on rare bottlings and have a smoking jacket or two hanging in your closet.
Luckily, as a member of the general booze media, I've had the opportunity to explore a ton of Scotch this month, attending portfolio tastings of Speyside-based Balvenie, the new super-exclusive Rare Cask from The Macallan, and the all-star Whisky Extravaganza in Chicago where dozens of brands like Lagavulin, Glenlivet, and Bowmore shared samples of their best products. It's been a delicious, but disheartening experience, as one clear truth has come to light through the process: Scotch really is one of the most expensive drinks out there. With price tags ranging from a payday-reasonable $40 up to the only-in-my-dreams $300, I couldn't help but leave each event wondering how I could ever afford to acquire a great knowledge (let alone collection) of the celebrated Scottish spirit on my own.
Why is Scotch such a hard hit to the wallet? There are a few reasons. First, it's an import, so there are a number of taxes associated with bringing the booze across borders. Second, Scotch is typically aged for longer periods of time than your average American rye or bourbon, so the price on the bottle is also partially compensating for the time it takes to mature in the barrel, the liquid lost to the Angel's Share during that period, the space needed to store casks, etc. While a great American bourbon will rest for two or more years, most Scotch brands don't get blended before three (and most typically five or above), which is a significant difference in cost when it comes to production.
The great news is, it is possible to find great Scotch for a steal, and it will still taste as interesting and complex as some of the more prestigious brands. The whiskies listed below are typically priced at $35 or less for 750mL. As a general rule, most brands that land around this price point are blends instead of single malts, but just because a Scotch is a blend doesn't mean it will taste less delicious. (Not certain on the difference between single malts and blends? You can read more about the distinction here.)
Some of our recommended finds listed below are heavily smoked and rich with malts, while others are lighter with a touch of flirty fruit. (The list is arranged from richest to lightest.) Knowing what kind of profile you prefer will help you choose between the tasty wallet-friendly options below, and with the holiday season rapidly approaching, any of these would make terrific stocking stuffers.
The Black Grouse
The well-known Famous Grouse ($23.99) is a solid value, with moments of warm honey and soft fruit, but its newer counterpart Black Grouse ($29.99) stands out as one of the best overall picks for your money, thanks to its thick malt flavor, full, rich body and pronounced smoke. There's an oaky spice that tingles at the beginning of each sip, with subtle hints of cocoa peeking through a finish that is long and luxurious. Peat-wise, it's not a smoke-bomb like Ardbeg or Laphroaig, but it's the most heavily smoked of the brands listed here, and a great introduction to the smokier side of the Scotch spectrum. Sip with a dash of water to open up the aromatics, or with an ice cube or two if you prefer chilled instead.
Isle of Skye Blended Scotch Whisky 8 Year
Ideal for those looking for a spark of smoke that's not overwhelming but still present, Isle of Skye 8 Year ($28.99) is a nice middle-of-the-road option. Vanilla and oak lead the flavors of the medium-bodied whisky, with a nutty walnut-like saltiness and sweet citrus emerging when you add a few drops of water.
A resounding favorite of the bartending crowd thanks to its versatility in cocktails, Monkey Shoulder ($35) is a great Scotch for mixing with other ingredients. An even blend of single malt whiskies from three reputable distilleries (instead of bulk grain whiskey, which shows up in other blends), the quirky product has a big honey personality that contrasts harmoniously with a gritty malt profile. Pops of orange oil appear when mixed into a smoky Old Fashioned.
Pig's Nose ($32) stands out on the shelves thanks to its bold label design, but the copper-colored liquor also stood out against other brands as a friendly option for those new to Scotch. It's relatively young, clocking in at a tender five years, so it has a somewhat thin body. Peaty smoke also takes a backseat to light cantaloupe-like fruit flavors and crunchy grains. When diluted, its slight edge mellows into a buttery texture, and thanks to its solid balance of smoke and malt, the "smooth as a Pig's Nose" Scotch plays great with other ingredients like vermouth in the Rob Roy cocktail.
Glen Moray Classic
Kind of the curve-ball of the group, the lightly-aged Glen Moray Classic ($22.99) is mellow and bursting with pear and soft creamy malts. It has the lightest body and smoke profile of these bottles, and I found it to be one of the most interesting interpretations of what a Scotch can taste like. It doesn't drip with oak, vanilla, and rich malts like many of its counterparts but instead has delicate perfumey moments with an understated brittle malty backbone. Because it only has wisps of smoke, it plays well with a splash of spice from a mixer like ginger beer, and also tastes delicate and sweet on its own with a touch of water.
Disclosure: All whiskies provided as tasting samples for review consideration.