Drawing up a list of ‘the best’ Scotch whiskies is a bit like being asked for your Desert Island Discs: too many to choose from, too many reasons to pick one over another – plus the chosen whiskies change all the time, depending on mood and occasion.
One of the joys of exploring the rich and diverse world of Scotch whisky is finding new favourites, rediscovering forgotten joys and reassessing the merits of names you might have previously overlooked.
There are no rules to constructing your own top 10 (or, in this case, top eight). It so happens that this list includes a couple of blends and a grain whisky alongside five single malts, and the price range is fairly broad. About half of the whiskies here would also – arguably – be considered classics by many among the whisky-drinking population.
But none of that is by design – ask me again next month and you’ll probably get an entirely different list.
Best scotch whisky: Eight to try
Cheekily named after a whirlpool that sits between Jura and Scarba – not Islay – this is a rich, meatily spicy whisky with lots of juicy dark fruits and dark chocolate to supplement Ardbeg’s trademark briny smoke. I know a lot of people prefer the distillery’s Uigeadail bottling, but this expression has always hit the spot for me. Alc 57.1%
Ballantine’s 17 Year Old
Blendophobes who can only drink single malts should try this, and think again. A superlative evocation of the art of blending – even after seeing its strength cut from 43% – combining fleshy fruit and an unctuously creamy, vanilla-accented and honeyed palate. Silky, smooth and utterly seductive. Alc 40%
Carsebridge 48 Year Old
Aged grain whisky can be a little sweet and one-dimensional, with the cask overshadowing the distillate. So when this single grain from closed Carsebridge emerged among Diageo’s Special Releases in 2018, it was mind-blowing (and, admittedly, mind-blowingly expensive). Richly vinous, crème de cassis, old polished wood and slightly dusty tannins from the cask. Glorious. Alc 43.2%
Glenfarclas 15 Year Old
You could pick pretty much any Glenfarclas distillery bottling here, such is the consistently superb quality of the distillery’s output – and its excellent value for money. Hugely characterful distillate and Sherry oak make for rich flavours of Demerara sugar, raisin fudge, cinnamon and nutmeg, all backed up by hints of smoke and butterscotch. Alc 46%
Glenmorangie Astar (2017 release)
Many whisky drinkers know Glenmorangie for its ‘finished’ whiskies, but none would work without the distillery’s superlative distillate, with those tall stills giving a perfumed, floral/fruity character that links all of its output. Astar – revived in 2017 after a five-year hiatus – shows all of this alongside a beguiling strand of hot buttered toast and honey from bespoke casks sourced from the Ozark mountains. Alc 52.5%
Johnnie Walker Blue Label Ghost & Rare Glenury Royal
This series aims to highlight the ‘ghost’ or closed distilleries that play such a vital role in the makeup of Johnnie Walker’s Blue Label blend, in this case focusing on the rich fruitiness of Glenury Royal, which closed in 1985. Shy at first, it hits explosively hedonistic form on the palate, adding vanilla, heather honey and dried fruits to Glenury’s expressive style. Alc 43.8%
Longmorn 23 Year Old (Secret Speyside Collection)
Fans of Longmorn revel in the Speyside distillery’s seductive fruitiness, and rarely has it found better expression than here, in a 23-year-old bottling that’s part of owner Chivas Bros’ Secret Speyside Collection. Indulgent peach folded into Chantilly cream with a pinch of ginger and a wonderfully velvety texture. Luxuriant. Alc 48%
Talisker 18 Year Old
Some think this the best single malt whisky on the planet and, with its combination of richness, balance and distinctive character, few would deny that it’s a modern classic. There’s ripe fruit – plum, orange zest – a pleasing fudge character and, running all the way through, pepper, fiery spice and a lip-smacking salinity. Alc 45.8%