Sit back, relax and enjoy one of these deliciously malty tipples
Are you looking for the best whisky to buy? Or do you want to know more about how to choose the finest whisky for your budget? We’ve got all the information you need to make an informed decision, whatever your preferences.
Whisky (or, in Ireland, whiskey) has long been a popular tipple in the British Isles and Ireland, with a history dating back to at least the 15th century. Empire and emigration took the spirit worldwide and whisky is now globally popular in three distinct types: peaty, double-distilled Scotch whisky; lighter, triple-distilled Irish whiskey; and the sweeter bourbon-style whiskies produced in the US.
While the drink fell out of popularity for a short while in the late 20th century, whisky has recently overtaken vodka as the UK’s most popular spirit and most local pubs will offer a good selection of malts and blends.
But how do you find the best whisky? We’ve sipped our way through a selection to help you find the whisky (or whiskey) that will best suit you.
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How to choose the best whisky for you
What are the different types of whisky?
Whisky comes in three main types. Single malt whisky is made with malted barley and aged in oak casks, giving it a distinctive aroma and flavour. It’s made entirely with malt from a single distillery, without the addition of other grains. Scotch whisky, in particular, is known for its robust single malts, but this style of whisky is produced worldwide – look in the right places and you’ll find Irish, Japanese and Indian single malts.
Grain whisky is produced using grains other than malted barley – in the US, this is commonly maize or corn, producing the sweeter bourbon-style American whiskies. In Scotland and Ireland, unmalted cereals produce a lighter grain whisky, which can occasionally be found to drink on its own but is most often used in a malt whisky blend.
The most commonly-produced is blended whisky, made from a mix of malt and grain spirits. Since single malt whisky is labour-intensive and expensive to produce, blending with a grain generally results in a cheaper product. The addition of the lighter grain whisky also creates a smoother, less complex flavour that some may prefer, and that can be good for use in cocktails and mixed drinks.
Less commonly found are blended malt whiskies – these are produced using malted barley only, but may combine malts from two or more distilleries. This typically creates a characterful blend that’s more complex than a malt-grain blend and usually cheaper than a single malt.
Single pot whiskey refers to Irish whiskey from a single distillery produced using a blend of malted and unmalted barley (and sometimes other grains), giving a slightly more peppery flavour compared to single malt.
You might encounter single or blended malts in cask strength, which means the whisky is bottled straight from the cask it was matured in without being diluted. Cask-strength whiskies are typically around 60-65% alcohol by volume (compared to around 40% for a typical diluted whisky) and should always be drunk with water.
Which whisky is right for me?
Single or blended malt whisky in the Scotch style has a complex, full-bodied flavour ideal for sophisticated sipping. The flavour notes of a single malt Scotch vary from astringent to almost caramel. A peated malt (made by drying the barley over a peat fire) will have a smoky, almost chewy flavour that can be a bit of an acquired taste.
It’s worth trying a few malts from different locations – if you don’t get on with a peaty Highland malt, perhaps a light Speyside with a touch of sweetness will suit your palate better. It’s wise to add a splash of water to bring out the flavour and aroma of your dram – a process affectionately known as “releasing the serpent”.
If you’re planning to mix your whisky with Coke or ginger ale the lighter, less-smoky flavour of a blended whisky will go much better with your mixer than a fine single malt. There’s nothing wrong with keeping a bottle in the back of your drinks cabinet for guests who prefer their whiskies mixed long.
American-style grain whisky produced using corn has a sweeter, somewhat heavier flavour than either single malt or blended whisky. Bourbon, rye and Tennessee mash are all good party drinks, make excellent long drinks (JD and Coke being the best known), and are the basis of popular cocktails including the Manhattan and Old Fashioned.
How we test whisky
On the surface, testing whisky might seem like a simple case of sipping and swilling but we have a rigorous testing process when selecting our recommended list. We first test each whisky on its own, if you’re considering spending out on a whisky, you want to ensure it’s the best quality before parting with your cash. Here, we also look at specific tasting notes – does it align with the maker’s description? Is there anything interesting going on? We then pair each whisky with a touch of water, as well as its most common mixers to see if any new aromas or flavours are unlocked.
After testing our whisky solo and in a longer drink, we then undertake a cocktail taste-test. While most whisky can be enjoyed neat, we think it’s important to find a selection of tipples that work well mixed, as well as on their own. Once our initial taste-tests are out the way, we look at comparing the whisky quality against similar products within that price range to determine whether our choices are good value for money or worth the splurge.
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The best whisky you can buy in 2023
1. Darkness 8-Year-Old: Best Sherry-cask single malt whisky
Price when reviewed: £50 | Check price at Master of Malt
This mysterious brand is produced at an unnamed distillery somewhere in Speyside and the result is an outrageously drinkable whisky. It may only be an 8 year old single malt whisky at its core, but those eight years have been spent maturing in bourbon barrels and then followed with a further three months in deliberately bijou octave Oloroso sherry casks to imbue as much complexity and flavour as possible.
The sherry influence isn’t quite as intense as with some whiskies we’ve tasted, but the result is impossible to dislike. There’s a rich, vibrant surge of flavour bursting with sherry, spice, orange peel and amaretto, all underpinned with a gentle sweetness which results in a whisky that’s dangerously drinkable. For the money, it’s one of our favourites – and a stunning dram to boot.
Key details – ABV: 47.8%; Bottle size: 70cl; Country of origin: Scotland
2. Penderyn Welsh Malt Whisky 70cl: Best Welsh whisky
Price when reviewed: £40 | Check price at Amazon
Yes, you read that right: Welsh whisky (“wisgi”) is a real thing, and a tasty one too. The wisgi tradition was reinvigorated in Wales in the early 2000s, and is now growing in popularity outside of its homeland. This warm, light whisky with notes of vanilla is Penderyn’s most popular single malt, while other offerings from the distillery include a jammy portwood-finished malt and the peatier Celt.
Key details – ABV: 46%; Bottle size: 70cl; Country of origin: Wales
3. Naked Grouse Scotch Whisky: Best blended malt
Price when reviewed: £26 | Check price at Amazon
A no-nonsense blended malt from the makers of The Famous Grouse, this is a smooth but robust all-malt whisky matured in sherry casks. Rich, heavier than a grain/malt blend and with a slightly sweet aftertaste, Naked Grouse comes in a clean and unfussy bottle that we find rather attractive. At £19, it’s also great value.
Key details – ABV: 40%; Bottle size: 70cl; Country of origin: Scotland
4. Auchentoshan Three Wood Single Malt Scotch: Best value single-malt Scotch
Price when reviewed: £45 | Check price at Amazon
An exceptionally smooth-drinking triple-distilled Lowland Scotch, Auchentoshan Three Wood is matured in bourbon, Oloroso and Pedro Ximenez casks to bring a mellow, fruity flavour that’s worth savouring. Rich and very slightly sweet, with no peaty smoke, this is possibly the nearest fine whisky comes to the taste of Christmas pudding in a bottle. If more astringent malts have left you thinking you don’t like Scotch whisky, give this one a try before you give up.
Key details – ABV: 43%; Bottle size: 70cl; Country of origin: Scotland
5. Tomatin Cask-Strength: Best cask-strength whisky
Price when reviewed: £57 | Check price at Amazon
A smooth, single malt matured in bourbon and sherry casks for extra layers of flavour, this softer offering from the award-winning Tomatin distillery in the Scottish Highlands has undertones of caramel and vanilla. It’s an excellent choice for relaxed sipping after dinner or by the fire on a chilly winter’s evening. A robust 57.5% ABV out of the bottle, this overproof whisky should be diluted with water before sipping.
Key details – ABV: 57.5%; Bottle size: 70cl; Country of origin: Scotland
6. Paul John Classic Select Cask: Best luxury single malt
Price when reviewed: £73 | Check price at Master of Malt
This single-malt, Indian whisky produced and bottled by Paul John Distilleries in Goa, offers a deliciously punchy, malt-forward tipple with bags of character. Aged for eight years in ex-bourbon casks and bottled at cask strength without chill filtration, you can expect a bourbon-esq sweetness on the nose, with lots of honey, syrup and light fruits. This follows through on tasting, where you’ll also find barley and a syrupy, almost tropical sweetness. This single malt is a classic for a reason and if you’ve never experienced Indian whisky before, it’s a truly exceptional place to start – providing you’re willing to splash out a little.
Key details – ABV: 55.2%; Bottle size: 70cl; Country of origin: India
7. Green Spot Irish Pot Single Still Whiskey: Best Irish whiskey
Price when reviewed: £47 | Check price at Amazon
A warm, long-drinking single-pot whiskey, smooth with creamy vanilla notes. Made with a blend of malted and unmalted barley, Green Spot was, until recently, only available at its distiller’s Dublin store, and production is still limited to 12,000 bottles a year. So if you have expat Irish friends you’d like to impress, a bottle of the lesser-spotted Green Spot should make them very happy indeed.
Key details – ABV: 40%; Bottle size: 70cl; Country of origin: Ireland
8. Bulleit Bourbon Frontier Whiskey 45%: Best bourbon for whisky drinkers
Price when reviewed: £24 | Check price at Amazon
A Kentucky-style bourbon in a bottle that yells “rugged pioneer cowboys”, Bulleit delivers a potent kick to the senses with its peppery rye flavour and that cheeky extra 5% ABV. Rich and spicy with a fruity, cinnamon aftertaste, Bulleit drinks well straight from the hip flask and mixes very well in cocktails. It’s a rugged, punchy whisky that’ll put hair on your chest – whether you want it there or not.
Key details – ABV: 45%; Bottle size: 70cl; Country of origin: US