For newcomers to Scotch whisky the process of purchasing enjoyable bottles can be daunting. Nobody likes to spend good money on a bottle of scotch that you just don’t like, which happens occasionally given the differences in taste, flavor, age, pricing, and accessibility across Scotland’s vaunted distilleries.
Learning about quality Scottish whisky need not burn a hole in your wallet. One educational method is joining a whisky subscription service, however this doesn’t appeal to everyone.
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The following list showcases single malt whisky under $50USD with terroir from each of the major Scotch whisky production areas: Speyside, Highlands, Islay, Lowlands, Islands (including the Orkneys, Arran, and Isle of Skye), and Campbeltown.
The rest of the list is populated by blended malt Scotch whiskies. Blended Scotch accounts for around 90 percent of worldwide sales, and for those just starting out in the whisky game is a good jumping off point.
1. Campbeltown: Glen Scotia Double Cask
Glen Scotia is from the venerable Campbeltown area. The distillery is one of just three remaining in the old Scottish whisky heartland. This Double Cask single malt expression is a non-age statement (NAS) that begins maturation in ex bourbon barrels before being finished for up to a year in Pedro Ximenez sherry casks.
The double cask aging creates woody sweetness, and at 46% ABV there’s plenty of burn on the tongue before it settles down warmly. Notes of dried fruit and vanilla work beautifully on the palate, while hints of cinnamon and spice helps lend complexity to the finish amidst the oak and sherry cask traces.
All in all, the Glen Scotia Double Cask is a top-quality affordable single malt Scotch expression. Some purists won’t like the fact there’s no age on the bottle, but for me it matters little.
2. Lowlands: Kingsbarns Dream to Dram
This excellent single malt Scotch whisky from Kingsbarns – who just launched a new expression named after Balcomie Castle – possesses the attributes of a top-drawer Lowlands Scotch whisky.
Dream to Dram is light and rich with dried fruit and the aroma of flowers. Ex bourbon barrel maturation – from revered American rye and bourbon distillery Heaven Hill – adds beautiful oak notes throughout for full crème brulee flavor and a balanced finish.
I’m not surprised this won the World Whisky Award for best Lowlands Single Malt in 2019. It’s a quality cheap Scotch that goes pound for pound with many more expensive competitors.
3. Blended Whisky: The Antiquary 12 Year Old
The Antiquary 12 year blended whisky ranked highly on our list of blended whiskies to try. Itcomes in a distinctive diamond shaped bottle and is produced by the Tomatin distillery.
The Antiquary (a novel by Scots legend Walter Scott) profiles a very high malt to grain ratio of the finest malts from Speyside and Highland distilleries balanced by a large portion of Lowland malt, which adds gentleness to the flavor.
The balanced tasting notes feature fruit peel and malted barley aromas reflecting the Speyside influence in this blend. The palate contains a hint of apples and honey, while the finish is smooth and clean with oak touches. While sometimes hard to get the Antiquary is a fantastic and affordable deluxe blended scotch whisky suited to the Scotch drinker who sips neat or mixed with a few drops of water.
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4. Islay: The Ileach Cask Strength
Islay Scotch whisky is different to those from other regions, with the tastes of sea, smoke, and salt more prevalent. The expressions from this area tend to be built on peated malt.
Generally, it’s an either-or proposition – either you like Islay whisky or you don’t – there’s no region more polarizing to the inexperienced whisky drinker than this killer little Island.
This NAS from an unnamed distillery (likely an established outfit like Ardberg or Lagavulin that on sold some younger barrels) bottled on Islay is interesting for its price point; a rich, peaty expression with strong smoke traces. The cask strength abv of 58% means it’s a powerful dram.
It’s simple. If you like peated malt whisky you’ll enjoy this expression, especially with a little water top open up the peat smoke flavor and char. If you don’t, then maybe try another quality Scottish whisky from elsewhere on this list.
Bonus Islay: Laphroaig 10 Year Old
A more usual ABV strength Islay whisky, this is the type of strong bodied peaty single malt a rookie can enjoy (hopefully).
This 10 year old peated whisky is full of smoke, iodine, and sea salt. You’ll be confronted by the briney flavor from the outset – it’s apparently the only single malt Scotch Laphroaig Master Blender John Campbell recommends you take with water.
I like peat smoke, but many don’t. Make sure you work past the first swallow and keep an open mind, because an appreciation for Islay peated whisky will hold you in good stead.
5. Speyside: Cardhu Gold Reserve
Another non-age statement single malt (which comes up regularly in the cheap Scotch section, understandably) I’d heartily recommend this Scotch for novices. Cardhu lacks the cachet of Speyside favorites the Macallan or Glenfarclas, but lacks the steep price as well.
There’s a nice aroma of spice and stone fruit, while on the palate it stays quite fresh and allows the toasted oak from the hand-picked casks make a statement then flow into a lovely mellow finish. The quintessential easy drinking single malt scotch whisky, if you’re starting your adventure, I recommend this expression to kick off with.
6. The Islands: Arran 10 Year Old
This Arran 10 year old is another single malt that works with richness and less peated malt, coming from the only distillery on the Isle of Arran. Aged in bourbon casks there’s a great balance of sweet vanilla notes with citrus and just enough heat at 46% ABV to create complexity in the flavor profile.
The Arran’s natural color and non chill filtered style is also an appealing trait. If you like a malty whisky this is a quality version, while the Arran’s Robert Burns blended whisky is also a good expression to get stuck into.
Bonus Islands: Talisker 10 Year Old
Talisker is the only distillery found on the Isle of Skye, producing numerous quality drams at a range of prices. It’s owned by liquor giant Diageo. This Talisker 10 year old is a lovely expression, full of peat and iodine but with a sweeter taste than you’d think, especially in comparison to some introductory Islay whiskies.
There’s traces of pears and apples that meld nicely with peat smoke and brine, and the finish delivers a peppery hit and sweet red fruit from aging in bourbon casks.
7. Highlands: Glenmorangie Lasanta 12 Year Old
Pedro Ximenez and Oloroso sherry casks have my eternal admiration, because so many whiskies are aged in these barrels, adding subtle flavors and aromas to each offering of malted barley.
The Lasanta is rich and creamy for a single malt, with beautiful aged dried fruit on the nose and palate, with little flecks of honey and dark chocolate in there as well. The Glanmorangie Lasanta is certainly a nice Highlands whisky to open and breathe before drinking neat after dinner.
8. Compass Box Great King Street
Compass Box are an excellent independent bottler that showcase why blended Scotch whisky is such a prominent seller. This offering is a tasty blended Scotch of Lowland grain melded with predominantly Highland and Islay malt.
The Great King Street offers a tremendous infusion of peat; however, the sherry cask and American Oak aging adds a subtle sweetness to its flavors as well to give it a well-rounded blend. Compass Box have also released a Limited-Edition Magic Cask expression that I wouldn’t mind getting a taste of (although it’s well outside of this article’s budget).
9. The Famous Grouse Smoky Black
The last two brands on this list need little introduction. If you’ve bought a Scotch whisky at a pub or club somewhere about the world, you’ve likely had one of their classics either neat or in a mixer. They’re popular for a reason, well priced and suitable to a range of palates…
The Famous Grouse Smoky Black is interesting, adding smoke and peat to their classic whisky for Limited Edition bottle.
It’s a good way for Famous Grouse to lock in on some of the flavors that new whisky drinkers are experimenting with and tastes great too. Of course, if that doesn’t work, you can go back to the original blended Scotch whisky.
10. Johnnie Walker Gold Label Reserve
Johnnie Walker sells because it’s good, no frills blended whisky. It doesn’t try to be too fancy, just does a good job with few weaknesses in flavor or drinkability and is there when you need it.
I don’t think you can have a list of best scotch under 50 without a Johnnie Walker bottle on it, and if you can get a quality blend like Gold Label Reserve inside that mark, it just makes things even better. This may not be the most exciting bottle on the list, but it won’t let you down either.