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Evening Standard
Evening Standard
James Grimshaw

Best budget whiskies to drink in 2024 to get a great taste for less

Whisky is a serious topic of conversation for those well-versed in its distillation.

The reputation of this spirit precedes itself. Though it belongs to a loose family of distilled drinks that owe their name to the timeless phrase ‘water of life’, whisky is arguably the spirit most deserving of its name.

Where continental European spirits like aquavit and eau de vie have their stake on the name, the very word ‘whisky’ comes from Old Irish and Scottish words for water ‘uisce’ and ‘uisge’ respectively. The vital importance of whisky is compounded by the powerful feelings that surround its name; whisky hailing from north of the border is spelt just so – whisky – which those from Ireland and across the Atlantic respectively attain an additional ‘e’: whiskey.

There is an undeniable tribalism to the nominative nature of whiskies by region, particularly when the term ‘bourbon’ (to simplify criminally, US whiskies, with a street in New Orleans and a region of Kentucky given as potential origins for the name) enters the mix – but these strong feelings mean nothing for the incredible quality of many whiskies produced across the world.

What makes a whisk(e)y?

But what is it, exactly, that makes a good whisk(e)y? It's a subject of oceanic proportions, and naturally, a highly subjective one too. Some objectivity can be found in the distillation process, where tradition tends to beget quality, but ultimately a whiskey is only as good as it tastes.

Certain flavour profiles are indelibly linked to region, allowing you some essential clues into what you’ll be tasting before you crack open a given bottle. The Isle of Islay, for example, is notorious for its smoky, peaty notes (which, incidentally, are whisky’s Marmite-equivalent in terms of whisky-drinkers’ preferences).

The grain used in the mash is a major component of this regional flavour. This is plainest to see across the pond, and between the average profiles of bona fide bourbons and rye whiskies. Bourbon mashes feature corn heavily, lending sweetness and smoothness to the finished product; rye whiskies are much more maximalist in flavour, with heavier spice notes. Concerning Islay, peat formed a vital part of the barley drying process, thus imparting those unmistakable earthy notes early on.

A costly hobby?

Whisky can, unfortunately, become an extremely expensive hobby. Many great whiskies fetch four- or even five-figure sums on account of both their quality and rarity. While the lower end of the cost spectrum is host to its fair share of duds, this does not mean that cheaper whiskies cannot also be good whiskies.

Best budget whisky to buy at a glance

To this end, we’ve picked out some of the best examples of the spirit at the budget end of the spectrum, from household brands that buck the budget trend to smaller distilleries with overlooked entry-level bottles.

It just goes to show, good whisky need not burn a hole in your wallet.

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M&S Distilled 8 Years Aged Blended Scotch Whisky

Best: overall

M&S’ Distilled range is a spirit range designed with cocktails firmly in mind. There are numerous entries here, all produced by leading distillers in the UK especially for M&S, and especially for a budget price-point. But the low prices belie the quality of the spirits themselves – as evidenced by the M&S Distilled 8 Years Aged Blended Scotch.

This whisky is a surprise, and a welcome one at that. There is a great deal of dried and aged fruit to be found on the nose, somehow more reminiscent of brandy than of whisky. There’s apricot, fig and raisin at first sniff, with a spiced edge that conjures a faint image of freshly baked mince pie. This is supported by a slight evocation of rock sugar – at which point this writer gives in completely to the allure of baked goods-as-metaphor, as the whisky becomes a Belgian sugar waffle; jolts of crunchy sweetness sit amongst fluffy dough.

These indulgences are vindicated at first sip, too, with a soft, rounded molasses-sweetness that transmogrifies that mince pie into more of a treacle tart. For all the sweetness going round, it is a nonetheless slight whisky on the tongue. It dries up fast, burns teasingly, and becomes moreish for it.

This is a welcome surprise of a whisky, and one that indeed lends itself to a variety of cocktail recipes on account of its sweetness and subtle complexity.

Buy now £19.00, Ocado

Gordon Graham’s Black Bottle Blended Scotch

Best for: spicy cocktails

Gordon Graham’s Black Bottle is dedicated to bold flavours. There are numerous products in the Black Bottle family, all of which treat whisky blending as a form of brash alchemical process rather than a delicate science – but with maximalist results.

The Black Bottle Blended Scotch is precisely as described. A blended beverage, and a heady mix of the various flavours you might come to expect from Scottish whiskies. There is something for everyone here, from a light smokiness at the back to a vanilla-spiced sweetness at the front.

The bold commixture of flavours here makes it a difficult beverage to mix with soda, and this writer thinks it a little too sweet to be a full-on sipping. However, this writer has also found that it is an ideal whisky as the base for a whisky sour – a simple but thrilling cocktail that combines whisky with lemon juice, gomme, angostura bitters and egg white.

A strong budget option for the cocktail cupboard!

Buy now £19.25, Tesco

Co-op Irresistible Single Malt Scotch Whisky

Best for: characterful spirit-mixers

The Co-op’s Irresistible range represents a step up from core and budget products, guaranteeing a heightened level of quality without too much-heightened strain on the wallet. The whiskies under this range follow the remit to a tee, taking the quality of other Highland distilleries and sneaking it into bottles two-thirds the price.

The Irresistible Single Malt Scotch Whisky is a young entry-level spirit in this range, which has been briefly matured in oak casks to impart some welcome complexity. This can be found in the nose, where vanilla and oak scents combine with a fairly significant hit of fructose-y sweetness.

The light straw colour it shows in the glass foreshadows its lightness of flavour. Having swerved extensive oak ageing, there are light and easy notes of spice here – predominantly vanilla, as to be expected, but also some touches of star anise. The aftertaste holds pear and apple-skin, but the predominating sensations are of dryness and tightness.

As such, the Irresistible Single Malt Scotch isn’t quite for sipping neat, but is nonetheless a naturally accessible whisky. While uncomplicated in flavour, is a great step up from basic mixer whiskies; consider this for a more characterful alternative that plays well with others.

Buy now £21.00, Co-op

Woodford Reserve Bourbon Whiskey

Best for: bourbon

The Woodford Reserve Distillery has been cranking out fantastic bourbons since 1812, from its Versailles, KY home. The historicity of Woodford Reserve has earned its distillery National Historic Landmark status, and today its whiskies still serve to define the region.

Woodford Reserve is its core bourbon, and a highly accessible one to boot. There are many scents and flavours to be found here, but all exist in harmony with one another. While demerara sweetness dominates the nose, there is spice and complexity provided by the rye that describes nearly a fifth of its grain bill.

This bourbon is initially tight on the tongue, with bright floral and citrus notes predominating. These bright elements melt away quickly though, revealing wood and spice and honey, with a slight hint of menthol tingle to excite the taste buds. The finish is dry but still sweet. This is a great bourbon with a strong and well-deserved reputation, and a good all-rounder to boot.

Buy now £37.00, Amazon

Co-op Irresistible Single Malt Scotch Whisky Aged 12 Years

Best for: an intro to ageing

The Co-op’s Irresistible series is also home to a 12-year-old Scotch, which brings much more to the table as a budget whisky than its youthful sibling. The 12 Year is, naturally, a darker whisky; granted, additional colourings are added to most budget whiskies, making this distinction somewhat immaterial, but the colour change does nonetheless telegraph a development in flavour and character.

There is a hint of date-skin on the nose, alongside candied orange peel; a robust malt-syrup sweetness holds it up, with a touch of nutmeg and those classic vanilla/oak overtones. It is remarkably smooth to drink, with practically no initial sharpness or warmth. It melts away just as smoothly as it begins, too, leaving malt syrup on the tongue next to the lingering bite of the oak in which it was aged. It has practically no right being as mellow as it is, which – along with that smoothness and addictive sticky-sweetness – makes it a highly accessible introduction for the newer whisky drinker.

Buy now £29.00, Co-op

Monkey Shoulder Blended Malt Scotch Whisky

Best for: whisky gingers

Monkey Shoulder is the product of William Grant and Sons, a major distiller responsible for such classic whiskies as Grant’s, Glenfiddich and Tullamore Dew. It stands apart from the branding of its roster-mates, though, aiming itself at a more dynamic audience with its irreverent name (taken from an archaic strain injury picked up by old-school malt men, so explains the bottle).

Monkey Shoulder is a blended Speyside Scotch, with a malt-forward profile befitting its name. The nose is as sweet as a bourbon, despite this whisky being distinctly North-of-the-border; there’s honey and molasses, as well as a hint of citrus zest (think grapefruit spritzed over an Old Fashioned).

The flavour profile is initially quite rounded, with vanilla and oak in the foreground. In short order, though, spicy notes warm the lips and tongue. It has a brief finish, but leaves sweetness behind. It is an absurdly easy sipper, but much better served when mixed with something sharp. This reviewer would go as far as saying it’s the perfect candidate for a whisky ginger.

Buy now £29.95, The Whisky Exchange

Taste the Difference Speyside Single Malt Scotch Whisky

Best for: your first time drinking neat

Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference range is another in-house powerhouse of budget items of premium quality. Amongst the hundreds of no-brand products under its umbrella, there are spirits – two of which are whiskies, and good whiskies to boot.

The Taste the Difference Speyside Single Malt Scotch is exactly as its name suggests: a blended Speyside single malt, matured briefly before bottling. It aims for rounded flavours, with those classic oak and honey notes easily found on the nose. There’s a touch of pome fruit, too, giving this whisky an apple-tartness that’s accentuated by subtle spices.

The Speyside sips mightily sweet, with practically no kick whatsoever. It is another vanilla-sugar scotch, with honeyed notes besides – but the finish takes a turn for the brighter, and even achieves floral heights. This is a simple whisky with a light and unobtrusive flavour profile, and a great start for people new to drinking whiskies neat. It would also mix well with most mixers.

Buy now £24.00, Sainsbury’s

Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey

Best for: getting exactly what you’re paying for

Jack Daniel’s is a whiskey that needs no introduction at all. It is most people’s first whiskey, it is most bars’ house whiskey and it is likely one of the most affordable name-brand whiskeys on the supermarket shelves. It is not a whiskey that needs selling to you in any way either, really; it is exactly what it is, and does exactly what it says on the tin.

Jack Daniels is a Tennessee whiskey of quintessential character and flavour, bringing vanilla and oak with a certain raspy familiarity. Its colour and character come from the time it spends in purpose-built fresh oak barrels, while the distillery’s use of charcoal filters – the ‘Lincoln County Process’ is said to mellow the whiskey and remove any undesirable vegetal notes.

Jack Daniel’s is not an earth-shattering product (a statement for which this reviewer might receive a deserved degree of vitriol), especially against smaller-batch bourbons that pack a great deal of complexity into their product.

However, it is the whiskey to mix with cola, to the point which ‘Jack and coke’ is how many customers order ‘any whisky with any cola drink’ at any given venue. It is a cultural cornerstone, and an affordable one too; get this to get exactly what you’re paying for.

Buy now £27.25, Tesco

Taste the Difference Highland Single Malt Scotch Whisky

Best for: accessible character

Taste the Difference’s second whisky entrant appears in the form of the Highland Single Malt Scotch, a companion piece to the Speyside. This time, though, the whisky seeks to blend for quintessential flavours of Scotland’s more northerly reaches – though it should be noted that, generally speaking, there is little dividing the two regions in terms of flavour profile.

This whisky, though, selects for more robust and spicy characteristics than its Speyside counterpart. For starters, the nose is a little sharper. There’s rich, fruity pudding to be found at the back, while the front carries familiar oaky sensibilities.

It is also brighter, flavour-wise, than the Speyside. There’s more spice here, and even a touch of mint at the top end. The finish is short but sweet, and that minty sensation compounds quickly too. Successive sips reveal citrus and chocolate one after the other, complementing the subtle raisin and fig notes in the mid-range. This is a bolder and more characterful budget whisky, particularly for drinking neat or with water.

Buy now £24.00, Sainsbury’s


Good, cheap whiskies can be hard to come by. Thankfully, there is a glut here from which to choose. We're taken by the rich, balanced flavour of Deanston Virgin Oak Whisky taken neat; it is an enjoyable sipper and much cheaper than other comparable whiskies of a similar nature.

However, by all accounts the M&S Distilled 8 Years Aged Blended Scotch Whisky must take the top spot. It is a quality all-rounder that can be enjoyed in spirit mixers and alone, despite its design as a cocktail companion – and at a frankly unbelievable price point.

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