10 of the Best Bottom Shelf, Cheap Scotches, Blind-Tasted and Ranked

Drink Lists whiskey
10 of the Best Bottom Shelf, Cheap Scotches, Blind-Tasted and Ranked

This list is part of a Paste series of bottom shelf liquor and craft beer style tastings. Click here to view all entries in the series.

Scotch sort of occupies an unusual position in the modern alcohol hierarchy, doesn’t it? For decades, high-end scotch was the most sure sign of “cool” available to screenwriters and set decorators. Need to communicate to the audience that this is a suave, sophisticated gentleman? He’s drinking some neat scotch, or scotch on the rocks. Where would the likes of Mad Men have been without it?

But in the modern mixology and cocktail culture boom, it sometimes feels like scotch has been left behind a bit. Whereas American bourbon (and especially rye) whiskey, rum, tequila, mezcal and gin have all seen surges, scotch hasn’t quite had the same attention, nor has it been reclaimed as a cool hipster drink in your average dive. Perhaps it’s only a matter of time, though, until scotch sees its moment in the sun?

There are, after all, no shortage of classic scotch cocktails such as the Rusty Nail, Rob Roy, Presbyterian or Penicillin. And with all of the new drinks that have been developed with the likes of mezcal in mind, perhaps some could be ported over to the original smoky European liquor: Scotch!

Regardless, no home bar is complete without at least one bottle of “cheap” scotch for mixing purposes. Therein lies the rub—because they need to mature longer, thanks to the fact that scotches traditionally make use of used barrels rather than freshly charred oak, the base price for scotch tends to be higher as a result when compared with American bourbon (see our cheap bourbon tasting here). Thus, it’s all the more important to find the brands that can deliver VALUE for your dollar. We blind tasted 10 of them, and found a clear champion.

Rules and Procedure

— This is a tasting of scotches, with a strict price limit of $25 or less for a 750 ml bottle. Some of the bottles we used in the tasting were merely pints, but every brand on this list was available for $25 or less on Total Wine at the time of purchasing. Please note, the $25 cutoff means certain mid-shelf brands such as Monkey Shoulder or Chivas Regal missed the tasting by a few bucks, as they can’t reliably be had for less than $25. Most of the entrants are members of the Plastic Cap Club, although there was a sole single malt entry as well.

— All scotches were tasted neat, over the course of two days.

— All scotches in this tasting were acquired directly from liquor stores in Georgia.

— Scotches were judged completely blind by how enjoyable they were as individual experiences and given scores of 1-100, which were then averaged. Entries were judged by how much we enjoyed them for whatever reason, not by how well they fit any kind of preconceived style guidelines.

The Rankings: All 10 Scotches, Ranked From Worst to Best

10. Scoresby Very Rare Blended Scotch Whisky
ABV: 40% (80 proof)
Price: $16.99 (for a 1.75L bottle!)

scoresby scotch inset (Custom).jpg

When a bottle of cheap, blended scotch displays its age in months rather than years, that’s rarely a good sign. So it is with “36 months old” Scoresby, which has the audacity to proclaim itself as “very rare,” among other things. The description mentions at one point that it’s made from “light-bodied” whiskies, which is a nice way of saying that it doesn’t taste like much—sweet and slightly grassy, with an odd, almost grapey, medicinal fruit note that seems decidedly on the artificial side. Unsurprisingly, the lack of flavor means that the ethanol is instead highlighted, giving this one a thin, boozy unpleasantness. Several score sheets use some words akin to “watered down,” while another insists upon Scoresby’s “sweaty” aftertaste. The only compliments it received were from those who preferred very mild scotches, but those were few and far between. Certainly, if you’re in the market for cheap blending scotch, you can do a whole lot better than this.

9. Old Smuggler Blended Scotch Whisky
ABV: 40% (80 proof)
Price: $11.99

old smuggler inset (Custom).jpg

With a name like “Old Smuggler,” you’d almost expect for this to be a bottle of rum rather than scotch, would you not? Regardless, this is a cheap, plastic-capped blended scotch that has apparently been around for decades, and it seems like it has its fans—but once again we assure you that you can most definitely do better, even in this rock bottom price range. It shares most of the same pitfalls as the previous Scoresby, being so mild in terms of barrel-derived flavors that you’re left with pure ethanol being one of the major flavor drivers—and that’s never going to be a good thing in cheap scotch. Piney wood and hints of berry fruitiness offset a slightly sugary profile on Old Smuggler, but the harsh booziness and paint thinner-esque nose are major turn-offs. It still apparently has fans out there, but if you’re drinking this on a daily basis … we’re a little concerned about you.

8. Cluny Blended Scotch Whisky
ABV: 40% (80 proof)
Price: $13.79

cluny scotch inset (Custom).jpg

Everything about this bottle and its plain, unadorned label screams “I am very cheap scotch.” Which makes sense, because it is. Boasting about the number of whiskies in a blend also doesn’t exactly imply supreme quality—30, in this particular case. But whatever, at least they form a sort of interesting, weirdo result. Cluny is considerably more sweet and fruity than the other blended scotches in this bracket, with an unusually tropical, almost banana-like note on the nose and moderate acidity on the palate, which lends it a slightly sour twang. That might sound like a bad thing, but it’s really not in this case, as the sourness helps balance the sweet just a bit. Toffee-like caramelization is present to a degree, giving the sweetness more character than the “sugar syrup” quality present in so many cheap scotches. We won’t lie—Cluny is an odd duck, but it’s better (or at least more interesting) than the dregs at the bottom of this list.

7. Clan MacGregor Scotch Whisky
ABV: 40% (80 proof)
Price: $11.49

clan macgregor inset (Custom).jpg

This is the point where we start getting slightly—that’s “slightly,” mind you—better in terms of overall profile. Clan MacGregor undoubtedly looks like cheap stuff, and just glancing at the label makes you wonder how many cheap blended scotch brands out there probably have similarly tribal-sounding names. Regardless, this one is a bit more palatable than its predecessors, possessing slightly more malty body and hints of pleasant pink peppercorn spiciness. There’s still not a terrible lot to cover up the raw alcohol flavors, and one taster’s sheet still tags its booziness as possessing a “medicinal” quality, but you could probably safely mix this with some ginger ale and be no worse for the wear. Certainly, it comes off as a bit more composed in comparison with the brash likes of Scoresby. Hey look, we’re making progress!

6. Cutty Sark Blended Scotch Whisky
ABV: 40% (80 proof)
Price: $16.99

cutty sark inset (Custom).jpg

What’s that? A label you probably recognize as having actually seen on liquor store shelves in the past? We must be getting into the halfway decent selections, then. And indeed, this is the point where quality takes a leap forward—from here on out, we wouldn’t mind drinking these scotches. Cutty Sark has a profile that will almost seem familiar to lovers of hop-forward American craft beer styles—lemony citrus pops big on the front end, supported by moderately assertive honey sweetness, apple fruitiness and a hint of green resin and peaty earth. Not quite as sweet or as intense in its flavors as some of the others, it drinks pretty easily and inoffensively, although if you were drinking it completely blind you might actually peg it as Irish whiskey rather than scotch, thanks to both its sweetness and relative lack of any smoky notes. In fact, for a liquor style defined in the eyes of many by smoky flavors, smoke ended up being curiously absent from the majority of the blended scotches in this tasting—with a couple major exceptions.

5. Inver House Green Plaid Very Rare Scotch Whisky
ABV: 40% (80 proof)
Price: $16.99 (for a 1.75 L bottle!)

inver house scotch inset (Custom).jpg

If the goal of these tastings is to find the best booze you can buy, in terms of sheer, absolute value, then Inver House is the answer to the question posed by this format. This stuff is DIRT cheap, and far and away surpasses all of the other plastic-capped, ultra-value blended scotches—and has the most hilariously garish label, to boot. It’s not winning any points for presentation—this bottle pretty much looks like rotgut—but inside, you’ll find a surprisingly good blended scotch. Decidedly on the mild side, with a slightly peppery, spicy nose, Inver House’s “Green Plaid” delivers a mild but pleasurable wisp of smokiness and peat on the palate. Lightly earthy flavors of grass, citrus pith and biscuity malt provide ample balance. This feels very much like a “training wheels” sort of scotch, but for the price, it’s an absolute steal. It drinks pretty much effortlessly, and what it lacks in complexity, it makes up for in approachability. This is absolutely what you should keep stocked in a 1.75L bottle for the sole purposes of making scotch-and-sodas or other mixed drinks where the quality of the scotch doesn’t really matter. Yes, Inver House was beaten by the next four entries, but take note—they all cost considerably more. If budget is your #1 concern, this is what you should be seeking out.

4. The Famous Grouse
ABV: 40% (80 proof)
Price: $22.99

famous grouse inset (Custom).jpg

The Famous Grouse has been the top-selling scotch in Scotland for decades, which is a bit like saying it’s the scotch equivalent to Bud Light in the U.S.—cheap-ish, mass-produced, dependable and “good enough,” although not the top of the class. Although it scored fine across all the tasters, this was honestly one of the less memorable brands in contention—it’s mild and approachable, but doesn’t have much in the way of signature flavors. Fresh grass and wildflower honey/floral notes are present, with a slightly “buttery” character that modifies the fruit notes in such a way that one taster described it as “apple butter.” Otherwise on the mild side, there isn’t much earthy peat present here, nor any smoke to speak of. It’s just a very standard, young-ish, mildly malty and well-balanced starter scotch that goes down easy in terms of neat drinking. This is like something you pour three fingers of for yourself halfway through the night, when you’re already slightly buzzed and you want some basic scotch to sip.

3. Johnnie Walker Red Label Blended Scotch Whisky
ABV: 40% (80 proof)
Price: $18.99

Johnnie walker red inset (Custom).jpg

As I stated above, we were genuinely surprised by the lack of overt smokiness/peatiness present in a lot of the cheaper blended scotches, but that just made this particular flavor characteristic stand out more when it did show up. And hoo boy, does it show up in Red Label—maybe a little bit too much, if we’re being honest. This is a bombastic mixing scotch, but not one you’d ever call balanced. It is, however, very flavorful, and very “scotchy,” both of which earn it points. You’re not going to think this is anything other than scotch, that’s for sure. Slightly vegetal, burnt and savory on the nose—like a BBQ with a bunch of different things on the grill—this one opens up with peppery spice and some apple fruitiness on the palate that give it a bit of dimension beyond the smoke. Tasters who rated it highly appreciated the intensity of its smoky bouquet, while those who were a bit more reserved felt like the smoke overpowered any nuance. Still, this is the kind of scotch that will definitely make its presence felt as a mixer—it’s going to shine through strongly in any standard mixed drink, which is probably what you want.

Note: Out of curiosity, and because we happened to have a tiny sample bottle of Johnnie Walker Black in the Paste office as well, we tasted the two side-by-side after revealing that day’s whiskies. The difference was shockingly apparent—the intensity of the smoke in Johnnie Walker Red gets smoothed out and much more perfectly integrated into the overall presentation in the bottle of Black, and the entire profile greatly benefits from 12 years of aging. At an MSRP of roughly $35, it’s one of the clearest indications of what kind of quality an additional $15 will buy you at the liquor store.

2. Dewar’s “White Label” Blended Scotch Whisky
ABV: 40% (80 proof)
Price: $19.99

dewars white label inset (Custom).jpg

In the battle of the smokier blended scotches, we have to give the nod to Dewar’s. This classic White Label, along with the Red Label that preceded it, were in a separate category from the rest of the cheap scotches in this tasting by virtue of their smokiness, but Dewar’s presents its flavors with just a little bit more sophistication and nuance than the blunt edge of the youngest Johnnie Walker. Big smoke is present on the nose, and a bacon-like savoriness, but it stops short of omnipresence. On the palate, a pleasant honey sweetness dukes it out with the smoke and earthy, musty flavors of peat-smoked malt. Slightly hot, with a long-lasting aftertaste of malt, honey and char, it’s certainly not lacking in character, and would probably make for a good companion with a couple cubes of ice. When compared to some of the plastic-capped bottles that come in at half its price, what you’re paying for here is a greater assertiveness of flavor and more distinct “scotchyness” that comes along with the increased presence of peat and smoke. If those things are something you value, it’s a strong incentive to drop an extra $10.

1. Lismore Single Malt
ABV: 40% (80 proof)
Price: $24.99

lismore scotch inset (Custom).jpg

The most expensive scotch in this bottom-shelf tasting also happens to be the only single malt of the bunch, which isn’t terribly surprising. What is surprising is that this so-called “bastard” or mystery malt—the distillery is unknown, but is rumored to be Glenrothes or Glenfarclas—can apparently be had in some places for $20 or less, which represents a serious value. Even at $25, pushing the very tip-top of our allowed price range, it stands out from the pack in all the right ways.

The first thing one can’t help but notice is textural, rather than flavor—this scotch benefits heavily from being all-malt rather than a blend of malt and grain whiskies, which gives it a thicker (but also velvety smooth) texture in comparison with the cheaper blends. The nose is more distinctly oak-forward than others, with traces of tartness, honeyed sweetness and just a touch of peat. This being a Speyside single malt, which are typically described as “light and grassy,” Lismore does not possess the prominent peat/smoke characteristics we saw in Johnnie Walker Red or Dewar’s—rather, it’s a much more balanced dram that combines subtle earthiness with delicious notes of honeycomb, green apple, toasted bread and baking spices.

I don’t doubt that to seasoned single malt scotch drinkers, Lismore would likely seem “thin” or “basic,” but in this field of bottom-shelf bottles under the $25 price point, it drinks like royalty. Certainly this can compete with many other single malts that are found at $10-20 above its price range, which makes it a steal. As far as we’re concerned, this is the best, most balanced scotch you can get for less than $25. And if you can get it for less than $20? Buy a case.

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.

Share Tweet Submit Pin