A few decades ago, when single malts were few and serious whisky nerds were even fewer, it used to be so simple: You could waltz into a liquor store, scan the small selection of bottles in the Scotch section, pick the fanciest-looking one you could afford, and be done with your holiday booze shopping. Today, however, it can seem like you need a PhD in Scottish terroir and distilling techniques to be able to pick out the right whiskies for the right people. What to do if you don't know your Speyside from your elbow, or if you think "peated malt" might as well be the name of a midfielder on a Scottish soccer team? Well, you read this gift guide, for starters. Here, you'll find single malts that are far enough off the beaten path for the hipsters, but accessible enough for newbies who are just starting to fill up their liquor cabinets. You'll find plenty of styles, from fruity to peaty, and even one that's a tad sulfuric. And you'll find a price range to suit almost every wallet—from downright affordable to crazy-expensive. But no matter what you're spending, you can rest assured that every one of these whiskies will deliver on quality.
These eight selections are, of course, just the tip of the whisky iceberg. Hopefully this list will pique your interest enough to put a little ice in your rocks glass and encourage you to dive in deeper.
$40 and Under: Auchentoshan American Oak
A great gift for the whisky novice—easy to drink, affordable, and sufficiently obscure to make you look like you're quite the single malt expert. Auchentoshan hails from the Scottish Lowlands, a region known for its soft, gentle whiskies. Unlike the vast majority of Scotches, which are distilled twice, it's also one of the only single malts to be triple-distilled, in the style of Irish whiskey. In this case, the extra distillation smooths out some of the rough edges, without sacrificing a lot of flavor.
As the name suggests, it's aged entirely in ex-bourbon American oak barrels, which imparts a hefty dose of vanilla flavor. Bright orange and lemon also pop up, along with just a hint of coconut. The finish is short and sweet, with cloves and cinnamon up front and more citrus as a supporting player. It's not the most challenging single malt, but it's a great everyday dram.
$40–60: Craigellachie 13 Year Old
Craigellachie was, for a long time, one of Scotch whisky's best-kept secrets, having been used almost exclusively in blended whiskies since its introduction in the 1890s. (Dewar's owns the brand and the distillery.) In 2014, however, the brand had its coming-out party with this stand-alone bottling, and it was well worth the wait.
Craigellachie (pronounced "cra-GELL-ah-kee") is one of the only distilleries that cook, or malt, their barley over an oil-fueled fire, rather than peat- or gas-fueled fire or steam. The oil imparts a funky, slightly sulfuric flavor to the whisky, which may sound weird, but it tastes delicious. That funk adds another dimension to what's otherwise a classic Speyside malt, redolent of pears, vanilla, a little candied orange, and the burnt caramel atop a crème brûlée. The sweetness recedes on the finish as a woody dryness sweeps in, leaving just a bit of char on the tongue. It's a great gift for a fan who already has a foot in the single malt door and is looking for something different and distinctive.
$60–80: Bruichladdich "Wee Laddie" Gift Pack
"Brook Laddie," as the brand name is pronounced, is the most iconoclastic of the distilleries on Islay, the region of Scotland known for its peaty, smoky whiskies. Its Octomore whisky is the peatiest ever produced if you go by chemical analysis, and it's not even close. But Bruichladdich also makes unpeated malts, like its Black Art whisky, whose origins are a complete mystery to everyone but the man who blended it. Hell, the distillery even makes gin.
So how do you decide which Laddie to get for your favorite single malt fan? Here's a cheat of sorts—three 200-milliliter bottles (a full-size bottle of booze is 750 milliliters) sold as a set, allowing you to get an idea of Bruichladdich's range. "The Classic Laddie" is its signature dram, a scrumptious unpeated malt that delivers light vanilla, crisp apple, and tart citrus layered atop the sweet nuttiness of barley. It's so smooth and easy to drink, it's easy to forget that it's 100 proof (50% alcohol by volume). Meanwhile, "The Islay Barley" uses barley actually grown on the island—something few other Islay distilleries can claim. The barley really does give a sense of terroir, infusing the whisky with the salty brininess of the Islay coast beneath layers of, oddly enough, tropical fruits, like melon, pineapple, and grapefruit. The warm, gentle finish practically calls out for another sip. And finally, for peat fans, there's "Port Charlotte Heavily Peated," a big whisky that's more than just a campfire in your mouth. Wafting in with the smoke are licorice, honey, red apple, and vanilla. Repeat sips will uncover a dry, peppery spice that registers at mid-palate and lends a nice kick to the finish. Perfect for the budding whisky sophisticate...and the indecisive gift giver.
$80–100: The Macallan Edition No. 2
The Macallan 18 Year Old is a classic whisky, a symbol of sophistication, class, and quality. It's been a go-to holiday gift for ages, which means that if the whisky lover in your life doesn't already have a bottle or two from seasons past, they'll probably receive one from someone else this time around. Instead, give this new, limited-edition beauty a try. It was created by Bob Dalgarno, The Macallan's master whisky-maker, in collaboration with the three Roca brothers (owners and operators of El Celler de Can Roca, the Catalonian restaurant that's twice been hailed as the best in the world on the Diner's Club World's 50 Best Restaurants list). Dalgarno and the brothers each selected ex-sherry casks to finish the whisky based on their size, the type of sherry aged in the casks, and how many times each cask had been used. Each one imparted a different flavor to the final product. The sherry, of course, brings nuts and raisins to the mix, but it's softer and lighter than a typical Macallan, with vanilla, honey, and orange zest rounding out the flavor profile. It's a delicious alternative to the old Macallan standbys, and it's cheaper, too.
$100–150: The Balvenie 17 Year Old DoubleWood
The Balvenie and its malt master, David Stewart, are almost synonymous in whisky circles. Stewart has been working with The Balvenie since 1962, before single malt whiskies were even a thing. (Glenfiddich, on which Stewart also worked, was the first non-blended whisky released in the US, back in 1963.)
Today, traditional aging of Scotch whisky in American ex-bourbon oak barrels is often followed by maturing them further, or finishing them, in a barrel that's contained a different spirit, often sherry. But it was Stewart who started the practice, back in the 1980s—he's known as the founding father of double-matured whiskies. His signature malt is the Balvenie DoubleWood, aged 12 years in ex-bourbon barrels and then dunked for a few months in ex-sherry casks.
A few years ago, Stewart decided to release an expression that's spent five years longer in the ex-bourbon barrels, and it makes a huge difference. This is a beauty of a whisky, with The Balvenie's signature sweet vanilla and honeyed flavor made deeper and richer by the extra time in oak. The sherry adds hints of ripe peach and dried fruit. Baking spices and cinnamon are present throughout, and a gentle heat coats the tongue on the long, smooth finish. It's a flawless whisky from a master of the craft. Anyone who knows whisky will be thrilled to get it; anyone who doesn't know it will be thrilled on the first sip.
$150–200: Ledaig 1996
Ledaig hails from the Tobermory Distillery on the Isle of Mull—names that will be unfamiliar to all but the most dyed-in-the-wool whiskyphiles. And that's part of what makes it such a perfect gift for your favorite imbiber. But, aside from its under-the-radar status, it's also a delicious whisky.
Aged for 19 years, part of that time in oloroso sherry casks, this is a peated whisky, but it doesn't resemble the better-known peated Islay malts, like Lagavulin or Laphroaig. Where Islay malts have a somewhat ashy, mineral flavor, the peat in Ledaig '96 manifests itself as crisp, slightly overcooked bacon just out of the pan: meaty and salty, with a little bit of char. The sherry influence isn't pronounced, but it does impart hints of raisin, dried apricot, and hazelnut. It has a long, spicy finish, with more of those crispy bacon notes lingering on the tongue. Sounds like a delicious breakfast, doesn't it? It may well be a good eye-opener, though we recommend consuming it later in the day.
$200–300: The Dalmore King Alexander III
Feeling intimidated about buying a bottle for your favorite single malt know-it-all? Worried you're just going to wind up with the same old, same old? Fear not, because there's no other whisky out there quite like this. Richard Paterson, The Dalmore's master distiller and resident mad scientist, blended King Alexander III from whiskies aged in six different kinds of casks: American ex-bourbon barrels, Cabernet Sauvignon wine barriques, sherry butts, port pipes, Marsala barrels, and Madeira drums (did you know there were so many synonyms for "barrel"?).
Each cask contributes something different to the bottle's flavor profile, but since five out of the six casks used to contain wine, you'd be correct in guessing that this is a fruit-forward whisky. And gloriously so—it coats the mouth with rich, jammy fruits, like plum, apple, blackberry, and apricot, with a supporting cast of wintry spices, like clove and cinnamon. The combination of the spices with the port and Cabernet Sauvignon creates a warming feeling in the chest, reminiscent of what you get from a hot spiced wine, perfect for the long winter ahead. It's a relatively low 80 proof (40% alcohol by volume), while most single malts come in at 86 proof at least. A little more alcohol often enhances the flavors of a whisky, but King Alexander III doesn't need any additional enhancing—this is a big, flavorful, one-of-a-kind malt.
$300 and Up: Ardbeg Twenty One
From our vantage point, in the middle of a long and historic boom for whisky in general and single malts in particular, it's easy to forget how different the situation was a mere 20 years ago. Vodka and light rums ruled the market, totally overshadowing whisky. Scottish distilleries were closing, or operating at a small percentage of capacity. That included Ardbeg, the venerable Islay distillery, which nearly closed several times during the '80s and '90s. Fortunately, the brand got back on its feet toward the end of the millennium, and today it's perhaps the most beloved of all Islay whiskies, with a fiercely loyal fan base known as the Ardbeg Committee.
Ardbeg Twenty One was distilled during the brand's dark ages, in 1993–94, when there was some question about whether it would even continue to exist. Tasting it with the benefit of hindsight makes it clear that Ardbeg's problems had nothing to do with its whisky. Aged entirely in ex-bourbon barrels, this is sensational stuff. It's a little lighter on the peat and smoke than the distillery's current expressions, with a veritable fruit salad underneath—melon, red apple, lime, hints of pineapple and coconut. The long finish is dry, reminiscent of a strong tea. It's beautifully balanced, complex...and expensive, to be sure. But you're not buying just a first-rate whisky; you're buying a bit of single malt history. Which is why both the liquid and its provenance will delight the whisky lover on your gift list.