The results are in from the annual Ultimate Spirit Challenge and scotch lovers are going to want to take note. There are actually two single malts that tied for the top score amongst the whisky category, each amassing an impressive 98 out of 100 from a team of judges, which includes some of the most respected palates in the industry. We will reveal these winners below.
But first a quick word on why this particular contest matters so much…USC is now in its 14th year, and this time around the annual competition had to sort through a record stack of submissions, including entries from more than 50 spirit-producing nations. It was held from late May and into early June in-person at a designated “evaluation center” in Westchester County, New York.
“Aside from being the largest USC ever, this year’s Challenge was likewise the most global, with an impressive array of quality distillates from places as far away from New York as China, Australia, India, Kazakhstan, and Chile,” says F. Paul Pacult, judging director. “Virtually all categories saw healthy gains, most notably gin, ready-to-drink cocktails, mezcal, rum, tequila, vodka, and all whiskey and brandy categories.”
Now, onto the best scotches. The first 98 score was recorded by Highland Park 21—a 46% ABV single malt produced upon the windswept Orkney Islands, at the northern edge of Scotland. Fans of the category will already be quite familiar with the distillery; it enjoys rather robust distribution in the United States as part of the same Edrington family of products which includes The Macallan. The house style is a favorite amongst connoisseurs because it tends to flex just the slightest burl of smoke around dark fruit sweetness plumbed from sherry barrel aging.
In the case of its 21-year-old expression—which you can readily find on shelves for $375 a bottle—the judges at USC had the following to say, by way of tasting notes:
“This aged beauty of a dram greets with layered bouquet of citrus-laced iodine, cherry-studded malt, beachside campfire coals, and buttery French pastry. The spectrum of flavors arrive in complete harmony on the palate and finish with a touch of baking cocoa and black tea.”
Nothing wrong with any of that. But as accessible as the Highland Park 21 may be, it shares its high marks with a scotch that’s even more attainable. The second 98 point score belongs to Mortlach 16 Years Old. Bottled at an exacting proof of 86.8, this Speyside gem sits on shelves at a relative bargain of $115 per unit.
Celebrating its 200th anniversary, the distillery has been dubbed the “Beast of Dufftown.” The nickname is on account of its full-flavored malts, which result from a unique distillation process. In addition to relatively rare worm tub condensers—which already give off a fattier distillate—here you’ll also find the odd arrangement of 3 wash stills and 3 spirits stills, all in different shapes and sizes, and each working independently of one another. Three separate types of liquid are ultimately blended together for what Mortlach markets as a 2.81-time distillation.
And here’s what the folks at USC found so especially poignant about the brand’s 16 year offering:
“Dark aromas of stewed figs, brown butter, molasses, and gingerbread lead into a soft and complex dram that exudes sappy fruit of maple-poached quince, grilled orange, dates, and roasted pecans. A long, nutty finish will please lovers of Sherry cask-finished malt.”
Below are a handful of other standouts from USC across other scotch subcategories. As you can see, none of them matched the 98 point mark, but they came pretty darn close:
Blended: Dewar’s 18 Years Old – 97 points
Blended Malt: Johnnie Walker Green Label – 96 points
Independent Merchant: The Scotch Malt Whisky Society Cask No. 78.58 Baking Easter Treats 9 Years Old – 97 points
Single Malt-Highland: Aberfeldy Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Cask Finish 15 Years Old – 96 points
Single Malt-Islay: Bowmore 18 Years Old – 97 points