Cocktail Queries: What Are the Best Single Malt Scotch Whiskies Under $50?

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Cocktail Queries: What Are the Best Single Malt Scotch Whiskies Under $50?

Cocktail Queries is a Paste series that examines and answers basic, common questions that drinkers may have about mixed drinks, cocktails and spirits. Check out every entry in the series to date.

We’ve already published a handful of overarching pieces on the concept of “value” as it exists in the spirits world. There’s our guide to the best bourbon for less than $30, for instance, or a similar piece on the best bourbon under $60. We determined the best values in rye whiskey today, as well as the best values in aged rum. There’s one more obvious place to go, and it’s a tough one—the best values in single malt scotch whisky, a category notorious for its inflated price tags in the U.S. In this post, we’ll do our best to help you find the best bang for your buck, when it comes to single malt scotch whisky.

A few things to note:

— This post is focusing exclusively on single malt scotch whisky, which means malt whisky from Scotland that comes from a single distillery. That means no blends of whiskies from multiple distilleries—even popular, all-malt brands such as Monkey Shoulder, which is a fine pick in general but not what we’re discussing here. For more information on single malt vs. single grain scotch whiskies, check out our guide here.

— You should expect to see a few non-age-stated (NAS) single malts on this list, because in 2021 dollars, even the flagship age-stated malts of many scotch distilleries now cost more than $50. You’re not going to find much of The Macallan here, in other words. So too is it difficult to work many wine barrel-finished (sherry, port, etc.) spirits into this list, because these extra maturation steps also tend to make the resulting malts more expensive. Most of them will have to wait until we compile a list of the best malts under $100.

So let’s go ahead and answer the question: What are the best pure single malt scotches for less than $50? I’ll arrange these in approximate order of price. You may also want to check out our guide to the classic scotch whisky regions, and the types of malts they tend to produce.


Speyburn 10 Year Old

Region: Speyside
ABV: 40% (80 proof)
Price: $35

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Speyburn has long represented one of the best and most underrated values in Speyside malt whisky, and it’s impressive how they’ve managed to keep their SRPs down over the years, even as so many other brands have seen their price tags balloon. This brand in particular may have saved a few bucks by reducing its proof point from 43% ABV (86 proof) a few years ago, but when it remains a mere $35 on the shelf, that can easily be forgiven.

Speyburn 10 is an easygoing, accessible malt that has a few unique things going for it. For one, it’s aged in both used bourbon and partially in ex sherry casks, making this an unusually affordable way to get some sherry cask aging into the mix, although it is on the subtle side. Another odd aspect, especially for a Speyside malt, is that there’s even a bit of smoke presence to the profile here, which isn’t as typical of the region.

Overall, Speyburn 10 delivers a light and fruity profile with notes of apple and orange, with soft and sweet malt on the palate, some of the grassy/herbaceous quality typical of Speyside, and faint wisps of smoke. You’d be hard pressed to find a better quality single malt in this price bracket.


Glen Moray Elgin Classic Sherry Cask Finish

Region: Speyside
ABV: 40% (80 proof)
Price: $35

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Glen Moray feels like one of those distilleries where anyone with a background in scotch would acknowledge they make quality whisky, and yet whisky geeks just don’t get very excited about those brands. That, and perhaps some lackluster branding, make for another great value selection—one of the cheapest ways to get a legitimate sherry cask single malt experience that is reminiscent of far more expensive malts.

The Classic, or Elgin Classic, is Glen Moray’s series of NAS malts, a segment that has understandably grown in its viability as the price of scotch whisky has climbed. The standard Classic is a fine NAS single malt, but the series really shines in the Sherry Cask Finish, which receives additional maturation in oloroso sherry casks. Note: This isn’t the years of additional maturation/aging you’ll get from many sherry centric distilleries, but that kind of bottle will cost you quite a bit more.

This one delivers the sherry flavors you’re looking for on a budget, however: Dried red fruits, toffee, cinnamon sugar, dark chocolate and the richness that sherried malt fans appreciate. It manages to compare favorably to considerably more expensive whiskies, which is the name of the game here.


Tomatin 12 Year Old

Region: Highland
ABV: 43% (86 proof)
Price: $35-40

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Tomatin produces a lot of whisky that ends up in blends from many distilleries, but their own single malts have also long been a sneaky set of high-value whiskies. Like the Speyburn, this one is also aged in a combination of used bourbon and Spanish ex-sherry casks—a common practice in both Speyside and Highlands malt whisky—making this another unusually high-value way to sample a sherry-inflected single malt, although this is by no means a “sherry bomb” in terms of its flavor profile.

Tomatin 12 is rather pretty balanced, with a fresher, more floral/heather/pine aroma than you might expect in most sherried malts, but more of the expected richness on the palate. Here, you’ll likely get fruit notes of apple or spiced pear, along with creamy caramel and glazed donut. This is another extremely high-value option, in terms of what you’re getting for the money—it even has an extra bit of proof, which is always nice to see.


Loch Lomond 12 Year Old

Region: Highland
ABV: 46% (92 proof)
Price: $35-40

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Loch Lomond is another distillery where I don’t know quite how they’ve managed to keep prices down—their NAS malt can likely be found for around $25 in the U.S.—but if they had more name recognition, they’d probably be able to charge $50 or more for a 12-year malt like this flagship, especially considering that it has some extra heft at 92 proof.

The standard Loch Lomond 12 Year is created from a blend of multiple bourbon barrel types—reused, first-fill and re-charred oak—which aims to give it more of an oaky complexity than simply maturing in a single type of white oak bourbon barrel. It’s a good representation of how Highland malts classically differ from say, Speyside ones—richer, fruitier, and with an unmistakable contribution from peated malt, albeit not nearly as much peat/smoke as you’ll find in most Islay malts. Highland malts like this one sit very pleasantly inbetween.

Loch Lomond 12 Year features quite nice notes of orchard fruit, vanilla bean and baking spice, leading to a finish that turns drier and more overtly smoky. An excellent fusion of styles, at a solid price point.


Glenmorangie The Original

Region: Highland
ABV: 43% (86 proof)
Price: $40

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A classic of the genre, and the number-one selling single malt in Scotland, Glenmorangie’s The Original is quite likely one of the first great, classic malts you’ll encounter as you begin to explore the category. This is the sort of whisky that has converted countless drinkers over the decades, especially those who are under the mistaken assumption that all scotch whisky is intensely peaty or smoky. Glenmorangie The Original makes an ideal entry point to drinkers who prefer gentler, sweeter, fruitier flavors that are just as much a part of scotch as peat or smoke.

The Original is a pleasantly rich dram, with lively flavors of peach and orange citrus, complemented by plenty of vanilla in a way that evokes creamsicle frozen treats. You’ll also pick up some floral impressions, and perhaps some buttery malt, but the signatures here are its gentle sugars and fruitier notes. Easy to drink, easy to love; an enduring classic. We’re probably lucky that this can still be had for under $50 in the U.S.


Jura 10 Year Old

Region: The Islands
ABV: 40% (80 proof)
Price: $40

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Island malts can often be on the pricey side, but the Jura lineup (which was reimagined and consolidated a few years ago) offers some solid values. The Islands are hard to nail down stylistically simply because they comprise a wide array of distilleries that produce many different types of malt, but Jura’s product could be called a classic example nonetheless, given that it’s a well-balanced offering that combines several styles of whisky maturation.

Jura 10 Year Old is made from both unpeated and peated malt whiskies, aged in used bourbon casks and then finished with a second maturation in oloroso sherry butts. That’s a recipe for complexity despite a modest age statement, and Jura 10 delivers all the expected highlights in terms of its flavor profile: dark and dried fruits, blending with toasted malt, cereal notes, cocoa and baking spice (especially anise), complemented by the salinity and maritime qualities you sort of expect from the island heritage. It’s all topped off by subtle earthiness and smoke, making Jura 10 Year Old a particularly well-rounded dram.


The Arran Malt Barrel Reserve

Region: The Islands
ABV: 43% (86 proof)
Price: $45

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Speaking of the Islands, The Arran Malt’s flagship 10-year-old is one of my favorite single malts in its age range, but unfortunately it tends to be priced a bit above $50. That leaves us with Barrel Reserve, The Arran Malt’s NAS offering, which has a quite similar profile. This is a younger malt, matured entirely in bourbon casks and bottled at a respectable 86 proof.

The alluring thing about Barrel Reserve, and Arran’s malt whiskies by extension, is their lovely fruit flavors. This is an exceptionally citrusy whisky, with bright notes of orange and lemon that are positively “juicy,” complemented by plenty of vanilla, green apple and subtle milk chocolate. It incorporates some of the salinity of the islands but eschews the smoke, offering a malt that is primarily creamy in texture and sweet/fruity in its approach. It’s also appreciable as an NAS malt that isn’t compelled to use ingredients to artificially enhance its color—instead, it’s just presented naturally, at a pale gold that is quite attractive and works with its light, citrusy profile. We’d love to see more NAS malts that take such a simple and uncluttered approach.


Glenlivet 12 Year Old

Region: Speyside
ABV: 40% (80 proof)
Price: $45-50

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There was a time, only a few years ago, when old reliable Glenlivet 12 could have been included in a list of the best single malts under $25 or $30, but things have clearly changed since then. Glenlivet, in fact, has introduced its own range of NAS malts to explore a lower price point, but the flagship Glenlivet Founder’s Reserve is often found at only $5 or $10 cheaper than this classic, so it really feels like you might as well go with the whisky that made the distillery famous in the first place.

To many, this malt is the essence of your basic Speyside single malt, but it holds up nicely today and still plays an introductory role for many, thanks to its accessibility, friendly flavors and lower proof point. Like many Speyside malts, it is devoid of peat and smoke, instead offering alluring fruit notes of stone fruit, citrus and especially pineapple, along with cakey confectionary sweetness, vanilla and cream. There’s some fresher, greener, grassy characteristics as well, but the show is mostly driven by fruitier notes. A classic easy drinker, Glenlivet 12 Year will surely keep converting drinkers to scotch for years to come.


Old Pulteney 12 Year

Region: Highland
ABV: 40% (80 proof)
Price: $45-50

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Perennially overlooked by the casual drinker, Old Pulteney is perhaps more a brand for the seasoned scotch drinker, who are more likely to appreciate its maritime qualities in particular—that “sea air” feels like something prized by whisky drinkers in the know, rather than ones just exploring the category for the first time.

This isn’t to say that Old Pulteney 12 Year is somehow difficult to approach, but it offers a different suite of flavors from some of the other roundly “sweet and fruity” drams on the list. Here, you get some of that honeycomb sweetness, and citrus, but it’s supplemented by a decent amount of drier oak, and earthy white pepper. Then there’s the unmistakably salty, briny notes of sea air that really make it stand out, contributing to a profile that is bright, crisp and flinty rather than primarily unctuous and rich. It’s an excellent change of pace, and a good example of a more “coastal” Highland malt.


Talisker Storm

Region: The Islands
ABV: 45.8% (91.6 proof)
Price: $50

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I rather like the tact with which Talisker tackles the idea of making an NAS malt. They have a classic, well-regarded 10-year-old flagship, but their approach to making a less expensive NAS malt isn’t just to produce a smaller, weaker version of that flagship. Instead, they amp up the intensity of Talisker Storm to deliver the biggest and most bombastic malt they can fit in this bottle, allowing its intensity to be its calling card, and simultaneously allowing the 10 Year to stand out for its greater subtlety in comparison. That’s a sensible way of doing things in my opinion, allowing both the NAS malt and the age-stated flagship to have their own niche.

This one is a barn-burner in the flavor department, putting out intensely peaty, smoky, fruity and spicy notes all at once, amplified by a somewhat higher proof point. Citrus and banana fruitiness rapidly gives way to brine and thick, pervasive wood smoke on the palate, with plenty of black pepper and chiles giving it a consistent, smoldering burn. Bold and punchy, this is not an NAS malt that anyone will accuse of seeming watered down or calculated to appeal to the broadest of demographics. This one is unruly, in a good way.


Laphroaig 10 Year

Region: Islay
ABV:
Price: $50

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And finally, such a list couldn’t really be complete without at least one classic Islay peat bomb on it, could it? And there’s probably no whisky on Earth that has introduced more drinkers to that concept than Laphroaig 10, which can still be had for just under $50, thankfully. The essence of Islay single malts, this is almost invariably a “love it or hate it” experience. Either you’ll find the intense earthiness/peatiness/maritime/wood smoke character to be beguiling, or you’ll likely find it to be completely overwhelming. It’s worth noting, however, that one’s appreciation of this flavor does have a way of increasing with time—when I first got into scotch, I wouldn’t have wanted to go into the same room as an open bottle of Laphroaig 10, as my palate is particularly sensitive to smoke. Over time, however, I increasingly find myself wanting to revisit it—a story that is likely common among whisky geeks.

A true peat bomb, Laphroaig 10 brings thunderous notes of salt, seaweed, wood smoke and medicinal tones into play, supported by other notes such as licorice spice, vanilla, green oakiness and savory dried herbs and meat. These are big, bracing flavors for sure, and ones that really only open up on repeated sips. There is indeed sweetness in the profile, which can be lost on first-time drinkers who are mesmerized by the amount of smoke and peat, but it helps to smooth out those intense flavors.

This is the sort of single malt that any whisky drinker needs to have at least one bottle of on hand at any given time—something for the peat lovers in the house. We should also note that these intensely smoky single malts can also be excellent cocktail ingredients, as they can be used in small quantities to add smoky complexity to a drink.


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

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